Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad was first published in 2005 as part of the Cannongate Myth Series which commissioned authors to retell a myth in ‘a contemporary and memorable way.’  In an introduction to the project, myths are defined as ‘universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives – they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.’ In the fractured, multiple narratives of The Penelopiad, Atwood collapses, what she perceives to be the culturally constructed gendered tension between written and oral texts.  Here, Penelope and her twelve hanged maids are constructed as female authors who, in their alternate myths, present wildly different accounts of female lived experience in ancient Greece. These, in turn, are allowed to play out with the canonical version of patriarchal myth represented in the source text of The Odyssey. Atwood’s construction of female authorship enacts a transformation and manipulation of The Odyssey that contests the myth of The Penelopiad’s commission and the gendered hierarchy of the cultural text itself. Myths are presented as narratives that are especially open to manipulation and the imposition of new and often ideologically motivated meanings and values that are not ‘timeless’ and ‘universal’ but contingent on the new socio-historical context into which they are transposed.

In contrast, Ursula le Guin’s Lavinia, does not deconstruct the gendered tensions she perceives as present in her source text from the outset, rather she utilises this perceived tension to produce an over-reading of The Aeneid. Here, Lavinia is constructed as a frustrated female author who feels trapped by the limitations of her representation in a patriarchally dominant text. Through the use of temporally fractured narratives and slippages of focalization, Le Guin transforms Lavinia into a female storytelling figure that is an equal to her male creator and is shown to surpass, contest and transgress the confines of her patriarchal construction as a silent caricature of femininity.  Le Guin utilizes the myth of Lavinia to represent the canonical text, and its interpretation, as a product of chance survivals and accidents of history.  In doing so she suggests that it is the value that we place on the process of canonisation itself that should be questioned.

In this paper I will compare these two techniques of narrative fracture and their function in the transformation of classical myth. I will argue that both authors use techniques of narrative fracture to contest the ‘universal’ cultural values placed on canonical texts in an attempt to bring the representation of female characters to equal status with their male counterparts within the texts in question.

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