The literary motif of the hero rising to the occasion is a time-honored and well-known one. Often, the hero starts out as totally ineffectual and unable to deal with the conflict the story presents, but, by the end of the story, he gains the tools, internally or externally, needed to resolve the issue. However, heroines are unfortunately less commonly portrayed in classical works. They are usually initially weak and are shown as subjects of or subjugated to men.
In fact, the issues a heroine has to deal with are often directly related to men and issues stemming from the male-female dynamic. Just as most heroes’ conflicts stem from maidens and an inability to woo them, many heroines’ conflicts deal with the opposite situation – trying to get away from a bad wooer. However, some protagonists can conquer the patriarchal scenario they are faced with – which is often an “indirect” conflict in addition to the conflict stated more obviously. Both Euripides’ Helen and Frances Burney’s Evelina feature protagonists who are trapped by men, but both of these women succeed despite their circumstances and manage to get away from their patriarchal prisons.
The theme of a patriarchal culture whose dominance is reinforced is most evident in Helen. While the men are fighting on either on Helen’s behalf or against Helen, and so in a sense she is the most powerful of all of Greece and Troy, she neither asks for nor wants this bloodshed. At the beginning of the drama, she is mistaken for someone else – an outside male perspective (Teucros) mistakes her for her false double, created by Hera (pages 120, 121). This double of Helen’s was unfaithful to her husband Menelaos and slept with Paris (King of Troy) instead.
This is essentially what the Trojan War is about – not only bloodshed and dominance, but perceptions of a woman, which in addition are all the result of a misunderstanding, but one that is made more dangerous (for Helen and in general) because it is supported by masculine power and violence. Helen laments the misunderstanding terribly, and invokes the help of the all-female chorus to guide her: “O, how wretched I am in my sorrows!...Dear women, what is this fate of mine…” (lines 240, 255). At first, the women essentially tell her to accept her plight (line 254), but then they advise her to ask Theonoe about Menelaos’ whereabouts.
Thus, Helen engages the aid of a fellow female to escape her captor. However, Euripides does not have any of the characters directly address this opposition in the gender dynamic, except for some very slight hints: “We women should share in each other’s sufferings” (line 329). After speaking with Theonoe and finding her husband, she must devise a plot so that the both of them can escape the grasp of her overlord Theoclymenos. Using cunning and wit to trick Theoclymenos may appear to be deceptive; she is operating outside usual or “lawful” channels to free herself, in a sense. However, she is essentially given no choice but to use trickery, because otherwise she and her husband will die. Theoclymenos is enslaving her, and so by manipulating him, she is actually doing a heroic deed (and saving Menelaos). She is also representing an oppressed group (female) triumphing over a dominant group (male), who is, in this case, misusing their power.
However, Euripides, while praising Helen’s resourcefulness, never outright says anything about feminine prowess or the idea of a female saving a male; perhaps the originality (for the Ancient Greeks) was meant to be obvious, but, interestingly, Euripides does not hammer this motif into the reader’s head. In this way, Euripides’ approach is very similar to Frances Burney’s in writing Evelina, which likewise couches feminist themes and gender dialectic in its pages, but less than a reader might expect for a proto-Jane-Austen novel. Although there are of course other examples of the main character, Evelina, being wronged by men, and thus Evelina can be compared to Helen in terms of her resourcefulness in these situations, and succeeding despite a man trying to stop her. For example, Sir Clement is always trying to win Evelina’s affections, and being too forward about it, but Evelina always stands up for herself and ends up being able to rebuke Sir Clement as she wishes, despite his tricks and protestations. For example, when he finally confesses his love and tries to make her stay with him, the following conversation happens: Evelina asks Sir Clement if he objects to a woman using the “unbounded license of her tongue,” and Clement answers, “Yes, my sweet reproacher, in a woman, I do; in a woman, I think it intolerable…” Evelina, angered by this and also by Clement’s continued vying for his affections even after she has made her disinterest clear several times, says “I entreat you never again to address me in a language so flighty, and so unwelcome” (Burney 343 – 344).
Interestingly, in Evelina, then, it is Sir Clement who performs the tricks (such as writing Evelina a forged letter) in an attempt to win her over, and it is Evelina who acts without having to deceive or use alternative channels. Instead, she is straightforward and tells Sir Clement exactly how things stand. It is intriguing that, although Helen and Evelina take different approaches (by necessity), both of these are effective, and both women triumph over the aggressive patriarchal force. Of course, this is not to say that all of the men in these works are portrayed negatively; Menelaos in Helen and Lord Orville in Evelina are perfect examples of ideal gentlemen.
Rather than demonizing men, then, what Euripides and Burney seem to be doing is proving, firstly, that heroines can prevail just as much as heroes, and secondly, that a man often ends up being the heroine’s problem, just as a woman often ends up being a hero’s problem. However, the dynamic is still the same either way – pursuing man, fleeing woman. Helen is being chased by Theoclymenos and Evelina by Sir Clement, and because the perspective is the heroine’s, one gets a glimpse into the oppressiveness of being pursued when one does not reciprocate these feelings.
Interestingly, in Theoclymenos’ original rejection of the idea, he dismisses Helen for exhibiting a feminine trait: “you…mourn him excessively” (line 1397). He is rebuking her for a show of emotion, and yet, since the show is patently false, this is actually quite a feminist move on Euripides’ part – to have a man insulting a woman for being feminine, and then to have the truth, in which she is empowered and able to manipulate, laid bare. In contrast, Evelina has Sir Clement angry at Evelina for a lack of emotion. He is extremely “agitated” due to his feelings for her that go unmet and believes that she should feel some sort of emotion too because a member of her sex should be sympathetic and emotional (Burney 327). Thus, one sees Theoclymenos demanding one type of emotionality from a woman, and Sir Clement demanding the opposite type – according to what is most convenient for them. The reason this is important to point out is to establish how their control, pursuit, etc. in trying to confine these women (a stretch for Sir Clement, as his behavior is not so domineering) can be mental or metaphorical, not just literal and physical. (With examples of physical control being: Sir Clement grabbing Evelina’s arm to try and detain her, or Theoclymenos imprisoning Helen.)
They both prevail against this control, though. Helen flees Egypt with her real husband, Menelaos, in tow, while Evelina is married to Lord Orville, her true love, and goes to live with him. Interestingly enough, another way in which the two works parallel one another is the antagonist’s changed reaction at the end. Theoclymenos realizes the error of his ways and decides not to kill his sister for her involvement in the plot. Sir Clement, upon realizing that Evelina will truly never love him, concedes defeat. Another final parallel between Burney’s novel and Euripides’ play is the fact that both Helen and Evelina end up with a man, as a significant part and parcel of their happy endings. Rather than denoting some kind of ceding to a patriarchal form, however, these works seem to be instances of heroines fighting for their men, just as heroes so often fight to win maidens. Theoclymenos and Sir Clement have failed in their tyrannical ways of winning heroines over. The heroines have shown that it instead takes self-determination, intelligence, and kindness as part of “winning” the men they themselves wanted and taking back their power.
Burney, Frances, and Edward A. Bloom. Evelina or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into
the World. 2nd ed. USA: Oxford University Press, 2008. Edition: 2. Print.
Euripides, and James Morwood. Medea ; Hippolytus ; Electra ; Helen. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.