Reimagining Virgil

A famous feminist scholar turns to fiction

Carol Gilligan, the highly regarded feminist psychologist, relates none of the mythology from Virgil’s Aeneid to the reader in her first work of fiction, Kyra (Random House, $25), but her entire novel is grounded in it.

The Aeneid, written in the first century B.C.E., tells the story of Aeneas, the Trojan hero, who flees Troy with his father and son after it falls. He is a widower, his wife lost during his escape. Carthage’s Queen Dido, the victim of Cupid’s arrow, falls for the nearly shipwrecked adventurer when he arrives on her shore seeing refuge. She is a widow who swore off love after her brother killed her husband, but the madness of her new love is all-consuming, and when Aeneas eventually departs to fulfill his destiny elsewhere, Dido kills herself. Later, Aeneas must descend into the underworld, where he encounters Dido, now a shade.

In Gilligan’s novel, all the parallels are there: Kyra, a widow, is a survivor of the Turkish-Greek violence in Cyprus, and Andreas is a widower who fled Communist Hungary. Beyond their archetypes, Kyra is, more importantly, an architect, and Andreas an opera director. There is no Cupid’s arrow to transform Kyra in an instant; instead it takes the better part of a year for Kyra and Andreas — she designing the sets for his production of Tosca, he living in the experimental community she is building — to breach the walls they erected around themselves after their early personal tragedies.

Gilligan’s real magic takes over when she moves beyond Virgil’s epic altogether to imagine how her thoughtful, intelligent, independent Dido would fare after Aeneas’s departure. For Andreas does, inexplicably, leave Kyra to return to his unfinished work in Hungary, and Kyra does, in a way, attempt to take her own life. But where Virgil followed Aeneas, Gilligan unsurprisingly follows Kyra, who survives and must make sense of her past. The second half of her story focuses on her growing connection to Greta, her therapist — an intense, complicated relationship only Gilligan could write, steeped in the primal sensibilities of women and the structures they impose on themselves and their loved ones.

This is a sensual, contemplative novel, but one that very nearly elevates the music over the words, and art over life. As much as Kyra and Andreas emerge as very real, passionate, conflicted people, they themselves are almost overcome by the world of ideas they inhabit. They lose their sense of what is real because they intentionally, in thrall not only to their wounds but also to their education, choose to live their professional interests over their personal lives. Where the novel is least convincing is where Andreas and Kyra and Greta follow their ideas rather than their hearts. Here one senses the tension between Gilligan the academic and Gilligan the novelist underlying the struggles of her characters.

By the end of the novel, though, Gilligan masterfully picks up the narrative of Virgil, and triumphs over it. The novel’s moving conclusion is all the more remarkable when one realizes that for as much as men and women have failed to understand each other for millennia, our cynical age does permit some miracles that our more heroic past could not.

Tammy Hepps is a software developer in  New York.