8 Novels That Reexamine Literature from the Margins, by Katharine Duckett

Today we are joined by the author Katharine Duckett, who discusses novels that reimagine landmark works of literature from the prospective of the marginalized voices at their margins. Her debut novella, Miranda in Milan—a revisionary continuation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—is out March 26, 2019.

Across literature, men’s voices predominate. It can still be hard for women and nonbinary authors to secure adequate shelf space for their stories, and the imbalance only worsens as you look back through the centuries of the written word. Characters sharing these identities are often reduced to deferential background players or stereotypical harpies, never given full inner lives of their own.

In my new book Miranda in Milan, I strive to expand the interiority of a Shakespearean heroine whose motivations and emotions are completely eclipsed by those of her father, and drew inspiration from the rich history of adaptations of classic works that center marginalized voices.

Here are more compelling literary works that reimagine the experiences of women who were silenced, sidelined, or slandered in their original appearances in the canon.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salemby Maryse Condé
Tituba was a real historical figure and one who is given a featured role in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but we learn little of her history or her reasons for testifying in the Salem witch trials. Condé’s deeply detailed novel, originally written in French, complicates and lends depth to Tituba’s trajectory, imagining her as a biracial woman whose religious and cultural identity is grounded in West African tradition. While the historical record indicates that Tituba was likely a Native woman from South America, Angela Y. Davis notes in her foreword to the English translation that Condé’s sharp, smart take on Tituba is just as valid as any other narrative, as historians have largely ignored this influential figure. “Should a Native American Tituba be recreated, in scholarly or fictional terms, this would be true to the spirit of Condé’s Tituba…Tituba’s revenge consists in reminding us all that the doors to our suppressed cultural histories are still ajar.”

Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin: Le Guin’s novel brings to life Lavinia, the second and last wife of Aeneas, in a lyrical and lucid take on the world of The Aeneid. While her presence in Virgil’s epic is a crucial one—her marriage to Aeneas is prophecy, and a key part of the future founding of Rome—Lavinia never speaks a word, and we have no insight into how she views her husband or the bloody battle he wages for her hand. Le Guin employs the metatextual device of granting Lavinia visions of Virgil, who recently completed his epic poem and now lies ailing on a traveling ship, regretting that he didn’t give this insightful and intelligent young woman a greater role in his great work.

Mary Reilly, by Valerie Martin
In this narrative that runs parallel to the events of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Reilly is a dutiful servant in the household of the kind and mild Henry Jekyll. She develops an unusually close relationship with the master of the house, and as his behavior becomes more erratic and inexplicable (a development that coincides with the sudden appearance of his unsavory assistant, Edward Hyde), Mary reflects on her own father’s dualistic nature, his transformations driven by drink and his treatment of Mary almost as reprehensible as some of the acts in London that she begins to get wind of, dark crimes that may involve Edward Hyde himself.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
A classic of this genre, Rhys’ feminist and anti-colonial response to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre gives us the full story of the “madwoman in the attic.” Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress born in Jamaica whose early life is marked by tragedy, and whose fortunes worsen when she is married off to Mr Rochester (unnamed in the book) as her mind begins to break down. Born in Dominica, Rhys brings firsthand knowledge of the ravages of the colonial system to bear in her text, and highlights the oppression of women and people of color under the white supremacist patriarchy of the mid-1800s.

Indigo, by Marina Warner
Another Tempest-based story, Warner’s novel gives us the voice of a character who is never able to speak in the book at all. Warner modernizes the story of Sycorax, the witch on the enchanted island who dies before the story of The Tempest ever starts, and envisions her as an indigo maker living in the Caribbean whose techniques are eventually appropriated by the British. The novel spans centuries, moving from the colonial to the post-colonial era and radically rethinking the characters of Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel.

The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley
Grendel’s mother is a shadowy and oft-debated figure in Beowulf, with translations of her role in the poem vacillating between demon, lady, and warrior. Headley firmly chooses “warrior,” transporting the characters of the epic to the privileged sphere of the suburbs and transforming the story into a struggle that deals largely with class and privilege. Grendel’s mother becomes a fierce defender of her unusual son, whose nature makes him an outcast from society, and battles the Beowulf character (recast as a cop and former soldier) for her child’s very right to exist.

Circe, by Madeleine Miller
Circe is an antagonist of The Odyssey, a predatory woman who transforms Odysseus’s crew into swine when they have the misfortune of visiting her island and turns a romantic rival into a monster with the use of poison. But Miller gives us a more nuanced view of the daughter of Helios, making her into both a believable woman and a being whose concerns and views on the nature of her story extend beyond the mortal world. Miller, who also gave Achilles and Patroclus a love story in her first book, The Song of Achilles, infuses Circe with mythological allusions and inventive twists on the old gods and demigods of Greece.

The Cassandra, by Sharma Shields
This recently published novel transports the saga of Cassandra, disbelieved prophetess of Troy, to a World War II setting. Mildred Groves is a young woman with the ability to see the future, a gift that becomes complicated when she goes to work at the Hanford Research Center (an actual nuclear production complex, now decommissioned) early on in the war’s unfolding. Hanford exists to aid the war effort by manufacturing the processed plutonium that will eventually end up in the first atomic bombs, and only Mildred can see what will become of humanity if the project succeeds. Plagued by nightmares, Mildred becomes desperate to change the future, taking actions she hopes can alter the course of time.

All of these stories lend a new perspective to old tales, and I’d love to see more intersectional engagements with classic stories as well. As long as we keep reviving and retelling these narratives, it’s important to challenge their assumptions and deconstruct their norms, and every new adaptation is a starting point for fresh reimaginings. Let me know about some of your other favorite takes on literary women in the comments!

Originally from East Tennessee, Katharine Duckett has lived in Massachusetts, Turkey, and Kazakhstan, and currently resides in Brooklyn. She is a graduate of Hampshire College and Viable Paradise, and in addition to writing and working in publishing, she taught English with the Peace Corps after college and is a lifelong performer who has collaborated with Daniel Flores Dance in New York City to create multimedia theater pieces based on her fiction. Miranda in Milan is available March 26.

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