In Greek mythology, Zeus’ daughter Helen was so beautiful that her abduction by the Trojan prince, Paris, started a war between Troy and Sparta. The myth of Helen of Troy is the subject of H.D.’s poem, “Helen.” When analyzed via the concepts of gender studies, “Helen” illustrates several ideas central to this division of literary criticism: the woman’s role as an object in the unfolding of a story, the lack of a female voice, a fear of female sexuality, and the resulting punishment and hatred of women.
“Helen” is crafted in such a way as to point out that, although the myth cites Helen as the motivating force for the Trojan War, she is not an active participant. The action is left entirely to the male characters. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey notes the presence of “an active/passive heterosexual division of labor” in another mode of storytelling: modern film (1449).
She points out that this “split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of advancing the story, making things happen” (1449). Whereas the male character fills an active role in narrative, the female character is important only through the action that her presence induces, Budd Boetticher observes:
What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance. (qtd. In Mulvey 1448)
In “Helen”, H.D. emphasizes Helen’s lack of action with her passive portrayal of Helen’s beauty. She describes “the still eyes in the white face,” the word “still” implying passivity almost to the point of an absence of life (H.D.). Likewise, “the wan face when she smiles” implies a deathly paleness (H.D.). H.D.’s choices of words indicate that Helen actually has so little part in the myth that she might not even be there at all.
H.D.’s portrayal of Helen illustrates another concern of gender studies: the lack of female voice in literature. In his essay, “Gender Studies and Queer Theory,” David Richter discusses the reaction of feminist critics to “the way women have been seen as an Other by men, spoken about and spoken for, but never allowed to speak themselves” (1433). “Helen” emphasizes this oversight by merely skimming the surface of Helen’s identity. Much of the poem focuses on her outward appearance, hinting only once of anything deeper, when she is described as growing
wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills. (H.D.)
Nothing more is said of Helen’s thoughts or feelings, nothing to indicate personality. Helen’s voice is notably absent, the only intimation of Helen’s point of view coming from a very distant observer.
Gender studies also observes in literature a fear of female sexuality. As Hélène Cixous observes, “We’ve been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty” (1461). Some theorists, such as Laura Mulvey, believe that this fear of female sexuality occurs because women have become a symbol of castration: “her lack of a penis impl[ies] a threat of castration and hence unpleasure” (1450). The fear of Helen’s sexuality is clear in H.D.’s poem, which emphasizes Greece’s hatred of Helen through repetition at the beginning of each stanza: “All Greece hates”, and “All Greece reviles” (H.D.). The third stanza connects this hatred with Helen’s beauty:
Greece sees unmoved,
God’s daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees. (H.D.)
Because Helen’s beauty instigated a war, Greece hates her out of fear for the power of her sexuality. The poem then amends that Greece “could love indeed the maid, only if she were laid” (H.D.). The word “laid” contains sexual connotations, and seems to indicate that Greece hates Helen precisely because they cannot control her sexuality. The final line transforms the sexual image of “laid” into a reference of death: “white ash amid funereal cypresses” (H.D.).
This final ultimatum indicates the impossibility of suppressing Helen’s sexuality except through her death. As Luce Irigaray points out, “Mythology long ago assigned this role to [woman] in which she is allowed a certain social power as long as she is reduced, with her own complicity, to sexual impotence” (1470). Despite Greece’s wishes, however, the power Helen’s beauty wields has not yet been contained, either through sexual domination or death. Therefore, Greece hates her not just for fear of her sexuality, but also for its inability to control her power.
Through the reduction of women to passive roles, the confiscation of their voice, and fear of their sexual power, literature turns to the punishment and hatred of women. Mulvey explains that to deal with their fear of female sexuality, men must undermine women’s sexual power; one way this is done is through “preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object” (1450). Greece wishes to punish Helen, either through her being “laid” and therefore dominating and weakening the power of her sexuality, or through her being “laid,/white ash amid funereal cypresses,” her sexuality laid to rest along with her body (H.D.).
Notably, H.D. makes no differentiation between the men and the women alike: “All Greece” hates Helen (emphasis added). Cixous addresses this phenomenon of women hating women: “Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insidiously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs” (1455). The women of Greece have evidently learned to fear and hate Helen’s sexuality as well. Through this combination of hatred and punishment, H.D. illustrates yet another critique of gender studies.
H.D.’s poem “Helen” illustrates the concerns of the gender studies movement in literary criticism. As Cixous urges,
Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement. (1454)
Through putting “herself into the text,” H.D. also manages to emphasize several issues focused on by gender studies: the passive female role in narrative, both in action and in voice, the fear of female sexual power, and the resulting punishment and hatred of women.
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and
Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin’s, 1998. 1454-1466.
H.D. “Helen.” http://www.cichone.com/jlc/hd/hd3.html
Irigaray, Luce. “This Sex Which Is Not One.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and
Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin’s, 1998. 1467-1471.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Critical Tradition: Classic
Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston:
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. 1445-1453.
Richter, David H., ed. “Gender Studies and Queer Theory.” The Critical
Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin’s, 1998. 1431-1444.