We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Sophocles _Electra_ on the Metro Stage: A Woman-Centered Rereading of Bloom's _Anxiety of Influence_ Using Atwood's poetry on Susanna Moodie · 27 April 05

Dear Fanny,

As is so common with people, I learn what I think and have more insights into life by writing.

This morning on WWTTA (WomenWritersThroughtheAges) I was trying to explain how Margaret Atwood’s cycle of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, relate to Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush and Life in the Clearings and I suddenly realized how 1) male-centered and inadequate Bloom’s famous account of men poets’ relationship to one another when it comes to women poets’s relationship to one another; and, through this, 2) why Sophocles’s Electra is such a cruel disturbing play for a woman (who is awaketo her feelings and links the play she is watching to her life) to watch.

Atwood’s poem cycle rewrites and fills in what she feels Susanna Moodie couldn’t see or censored from her account of her life in the bush. There does seem to be a Harold Bloom element going on: Atwood wants to reshape her source, redo, triumph over Moodie. Atwood wrote this cycle of poems, a TV script, and then blackened Moodie forever by distorting Moodie’s response to Grace Marks in Atwood’s BookerPrize winning historical novel, Alias Grace.

Atwood presents Moodie as despising Marks since (it’s implied) that naturally Moodie is a puritanical bigot who sees Marks as a low-class uppity slut; in fact Moodie is frightened and awed by Marks’s madness: one poem shows Moodie identifying with Marks through the use of a gothic setting. Atwood ignores all this. Atwood badmouths women implicitly; Alias Grace depends on this stereotypical apprehension of Moodie with whom Atwood in her prologue and epoligue begins and ends.

Atwood misreads out of anger because Moodie is your typical 19th century woman who censors her real thoughts about her husband, prides herself in her caste, and is supportive of the hierarchies of her era. In the introduction to her poem cycle, Atwood says Moodie’s account is inadequate: fair enough.

But much more is going on here because Atwood does not replace Moodie. Moodie is always there. Her lines are quoted at the beginning of many of the chapters of Alias Grace. Moodie never vanishes; she is ever feeding Atwood her texts.

Harold Bloom’s theory is the son-poet means to overcome the father by destroying the father-poet, replacing him, ridiculing him too, scapegoating.

Let’s take Beatrice Didier and Nancy Miller’s idea there is such a thing as "écriture-femme" seriously and ask, well, is this true of Atwood’s approach or is there something different here?

My answer: It’s utterly different.


Because Atwood’s not trying to destroy Moodie’s book as Atwood’s books make no sense without Moodie’s.

The poets Bloom studies do not write poems which come out of a pool of art made by the father-poet. They write poems which need no direct line to the original ones: you have to know the original ones to see the connection and reflect a bit.

So Atwood is writing a mother-daughter sequence where she works more like a translator. A translator is a critic who reworks an original out of love for it as well as out of a desire to re-enact, bring up to date, and put the work before a new public. Some translators critique the original too: put into it their own (in effect) reworking critique.

As you know, Fanny, I am a translator-poet too.

Amaro Lagrimar

Secret Sacred Woods

Women love to translate. This tendency is usually attributed to their fear of coming out from behind a mask. They are seen as weak and not original enough. Original is a word which has been redefined since stories were owned by copyright so a new text is not original when it uses elements from the old. Thus translations disappear before the unaware gulled readers’ eyes where the reader wants to believe he or she is reading the famous author.

A woman’s competition with her older predecessor works in the translating way. This is what Atwood is doing. Someone famous or with connections needs to write a book providing a woman’s counterpart to Bloom’s. I can think of many other women who wrote in this mother-daughter way, sometimes through men’s texts.

Sequels are a kind of mother-daughter, only (I’d say) when they
are aimed at a cult they are often debased commodities meant to sell. But they are mother-daughter enactments in the way I’m trying to suggest.

Ah, I’m suddenly seeing why a play I saw the other night was so painful, uncomfortable: it was Sophocles’s Electra. It showed a mother and daughter locked into intense hatred because the daughter could only obsess over her "devotion" to her father and loathed the mother who had been betrayed by the father. What a cruel patriarchal play.

We could see Maura McGinn as Clytemnestra only as this superskinny (the actress was superskinny) sexy bitch dressed to the sexy nines trying to keep her present husband and throwing her daughter away. We could see Jennifer Mendenhall as Electra as a yet more superskinny (both central actresses must diet continuously) obsessed badly-dressed (like a boy) insane hag.

How sick these women characters are. Poisoned. How terrifying that all the women in the audience just sat there and no one, not a soul, seemed to see why or protest the absence of any sense of the causes of what was happening in front of us on that stage.


Posted by: Ellen

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