I’ve known this phrase for so long and had never really thought about what it meant. I didn’t realise that the theme of the sexually slighted woman was so ancient. Medea’s speech predates the famous words of Congreve, saying “wronged in her marriage bed, no creature has a mind more murderous (265-266).” The speech in its entirety seems a remarkably feminist, contemporary voice.
“since we have learnt nothing of such matters at home, we need prophetic powers to tell us specifically what sort of husband we have to deal with. And if we manage this well and our husband lives with us and we bear the yoke of marriage lightly, then life is enviable. But if not, death would be welcome (239-244.)”
Poor Dolly in Tolstoy’s (much, much later) Anna Karenina echoes this speech when she says to Anna “With the education Mama gave me, I was not merely naïve , but silly! I knew nothing..You will hardly believe it, but up to now I thought I was the only woman he had ever known” (67).
Dolly’s pain is so real and almost palpable. Describing how she sacrificed her looks, life and youth for Stiva, she adds “They (Stiva and his lover, the children’s governess) probably talked about me, or worse still, avoided the subject” (69). Tolstoy seems to know so well that sickmaking feeling. I felt truly humiliated for Dolly when I read that sentence.
Which brings me to my rumination. How did Euripides and Tolstoy both know this feeling so well? It appears as a gendered theme in both texts. Again, is it a biological fact? Men exercise breeding vitality right into old age. And I know this is going to an an oh-so-obvious lowbrow observation, but I can’t help feeling sad for Demi, our favourite nouveau-Cleopatra. Her suffering is sure to be reduced to a ‘fallen cougar’ story. Even though written by men, I am glad for the sensitivity that Tolstoy and Euripides exhibit in the describing of gendered pain.
Euripides. 2008. Medea and other plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Tolstoy, Leo. 1877. Anna Karenina. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.