Galatea by Madeline Miller

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Madeline Miller’s Galatea is a re-telling of the Greek myth in which the king Pygmalion has fallen in love with a statue he made with his own hands.  In answer to his prayers, the goddess Aphrodite brought the statue Galatea to life and she and Pygmalion married.  Subsequently, they have a daughter Paphos [or Paphus as it spelled in mythology].

The expectation of Pygmalion toward Galatea is that she will obey and please him, and be humble.  But, as Pygmalion soon discovers, being human means that one has a mind and desires of one’s own.  In response to her quest for independence, Pygmalion has Galatea admitted to a hospital where she is subdued and controlled by drugs.  But she is still expected to be sexually available to Pygmalion whenever he visits her – and she is obliged to arrange herself to appear to be the statue she once was.  It is a sad story of obsession, misogyny, and abuse.

Madeline Miller has retold the story through the prism of 21st century attitudes and values.  As the author states in her Afterword, to see any ‘happy ending’ to the story, the reader has to accept the assumptions that ‘the only good woman is one who has no self beyond pleasing a man, … the elevation of male fantasy over female reality’ [54].  While these assumptions may still have some currency in the community, there are constantly and appropriately being challenged and overturned by those who are more advanced in their thinking.

The author’s Galatea has no intention of continuing her role in Pygmalion’s sexual fantasy where she lies inert until he awakens her with caresses.  With subterfuge, Galatea breaks away from her room and runs to her house where her daughter Paphos sleeps and escapes with her.  But, as in many Greek myths, the story’s conclusion is a tragic one.

Although Galatea is a short story – only 49 pages in a pocket-sized book – it is a powerful one.  Madeline Miller has crafted a tale of implied misogyny which will resonate with many people – men and women both.  As the author states, Galatea’s ‘voice came to [her] late one night in a lightning bolt’ [55].  It was a voice that demanded to be heard and demands to be read.  For all its brevity, it is indeed a powerful and well-written story as would be expected from the author of The Song of Achilles.

Madeline Miller is the author of Circe and The Song of Achilles; the latter won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012.  She holds an MA in Classics from Brown University and has taught Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school student for over a decade.   Each of her three books have been inspired by Greek mythology.

Galatea

[2022]

by Madeline Miller

Bloomsbury Publishing

ISBN 978 152665 206 5

$9.99; 56pp

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