Katharine Beutner’s first novel, Alcestis
, takes a minor character from Greek mythology and expands her story in ways that complicate her traditional representation as an ideal “good wife” who sacrifices herself in order to save her beloved husband. Published in 2010, the novel is divided into two parts. The first offers a rich backstory for Alcestis that combines historical fiction with magical realism
, trying to answer the question of why Alcestis would sacrifice herself in her husband’s place. The second part is a more poetic, less realistic take on Alcestis’s adventures in the underworld domain of the goddess Persephone – a part written with freewheeling experimentalism that rubs many readers the wrong way.
In the original legend of Alcestis and her husband, King Admetus, which was made into a tragedy by Euripides, when the King is about to be taken to the underworld by Hermes, Alcestis volunteers to die in his stead and is actively mourned by her loving husband and children. Moved by her sacrifice, the gods send Heracles to rescue her from the underworld after three days. She lives out the rest of her life in love and happiness.
In Beutner’s version, we first meet Alcestis as a young woman growing up in Mycenae around 1400 BC. In this legendary time, the gods mingle freely with humans. Alcestis is the youngest of a trio of granddaughters of Poseidon, who seduced/raped their grandmother Tyro long ago. Because her mother died during her birth and her father is a cruel and vicious man who hates not having any sons, Alcestis grows up intensely close to her sisters – especially Hippothoe. However, Hippothoe dies when her lungs stop working, and Alcestis finds herself deep in grief at the same time as she reaches the age for marriage.
She marries Admetus, the king of Pherae, whose unwavering courtship at first seems doomed but succeeds when he receives help from the god Apollo. So pure and maidenly that she is almost naïve, Alcestis thinks nothing of her husband’s unusual closeness to Apollo. However, when nothing happens on her wedding night, and Admetus refuses to consummate the marriage for a year, Alcestis slowly comes to realize that their marriage is simply a ruse. Admetus is actually in love with Apollo, with whom he has a sexual relationship.
When suddenly the Fates decree that King Admetus’s life must end, the depressed Alcestis chooses to die instead of him. She hopes to go to the underworld to reunite with Hippothoe.
At this point, the novel changes to a different style, with nonsensical and over-descriptive passages. Alcestis finds the underworld to be almost completely devoid of light, which lines up with ancient Greek beliefs about the connections between light and life. As she roams around this desolate landscape trying to find her sister, Alcestis also starts playing a kind of cat-and-mouse game with the goddess Persephone.
Persephone is intent on seducing Alcestis, who responds at first by running away, but quickly reciprocates Persephone’s very intense feelings. Readers wonder whether the depth of their connection can really have occurred within the three days that Alcestis spends dead.
Alcestis finds her grandmother, Tyro, and asks her about how Poseidon seduced her, and why their offspring – Alcestis’s terrible father, Pelias – was so emotionally damaged. Tyro tells her that Poseidon tricked her into sleeping with him by disguising himself as Enipeus, the river god she loved. The deception forever altered Tyro’s feelings about Pelias. Finally, Alcestis also finds Hippothoe – but the reunion is tragic. Hippothoe has drunk the waters of the River Lethe, which have brought complete forgetfulness, so Hippothoe has no memories of her sister.
Eventually, the other gods protest that the powerful love between Persephone and Alcestis should not be allowed to continue, and send Heracles to retrieve the mortal woman to bring her back to life. Alcestis protests that she would prefer to stay with Persephone, but she doesn’t have a choice. Heracles brings her back to Admetus, and she is doomed to spend the rest of her life trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who makes her bitter and unhappy. The book ends on this dark note, with Alcestis having nothing to look forward to but eventually dying again. Even this seeming spark of eventual hope is dashed when Alcestis realizes that as a shade in the underworld she won’t be able to recover her youth or beauty – which most likely means she will no longer be appealing to Persephone either.