The Faces of Psyche
By Sophia Woo
The conception of gender is heavily influenced by the societal and cultural approaches to the term at a particular place and time. The Cambridge Dictionary defines gender as the socially constructed way of behaving and the expectations for certain groups of people in society, namely, men and women (Cambridge University Press, 2023). It thus follows that as time progresses the nature of gender expectation changes.
To investigate such a pattern, this paper will focus on the portrayal of female characters in mythology and literature, specifically in the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The analysis will be of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses written in the second century A.D., Mary Tighe’s poem “Psyche” first printed in 1805, and C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces published in 1956. The following will be used as points of comparison between these versions of the myth: how the character is interpreted in the context of the story, the character’s agency, and how the character interacts with gender–in particular, the character’s relations to the social mores of her time and to male characters.
The objective of this analysis is to explore and define the development of the lead female character and of the “feminine” in these works, revealing a pattern of greater complexity and agency as these female characters play larger and more significant roles in their stories.
Psyche is the heroine of the tale of Cupid and Psyche, which is told within the main story of the Metamorphoses. The story’s focus upon Psyche as a heroine is unusual for a myth of the time. However, the key difference between her and heroes of other myths is that Psyche’s end goal and heroic task is marriage to a male character (Katz 1976, 113). In examinations of social themes and gender in the tale, critics interpret Psyche as the main vehicle to exemplify traditional social behavior, marriage rituals, and family values in the myth.
Essentially, the tale is an “exemplum” for the importance of correct marriages and marriage rituals (Haskins 2014, 265). Psyche runs into hardship when she acts out of line in the traditional sense, and the conclusion of the tale and of Psyche’s difficulties comes only when she reaches the status of the “perfect” marriage, clouded by neither deceit nor apprehension. Indeed, the folk tales which likely inspired Apuleius’s version of the tale of Psyche and Cupid, approximately 140 tales from six geographic regions of Europe and Asia, are linked to each other by the theme of “trial before marriage” (Katz 1976, 113).
Psyche herself is an unusual hero in another respect: she does not seem to have much agency or power within her own tale. Psyche is characterized as a passive and innocent girl who simply allows events to happen to her rather than acting. For example, in her relationship with Cupid, Psyche plays a submissive role, as was socially expected at the time (Schalo 2020, 26). The Latin of the original text of the Metamorphoses places Psyche primarily as the grammatical direct object in her interactions with Cupid after the first night of marriage (Schalo 2020, 27). The couple’s power dynamic is punctuated by the readers’ awareness that Psyche is a mortal and Cupid an immortal god. The relationship between Cupid and Psyche thus reads as that between an instructor and a child. For example, when Cupid warns Psyche about the potential danger of meeting her sisters, Psyche falls into a tantrum: “she spent the whole day in wretched tears and breast-beating, howling over and over that she was now as good as dead” (Apuleius 2011, 5.5). Cupid accepts this in a way that suggests greater wisdom: “Just remember my stern admonition when, too late, regret sets in” (Apuleius 2011, 5.6). Psyche’s characterization neatly fits the gender expectations for character in women of the time, cementing her as the figure that will eventually become the perfect woman in a “correct” marriage.
Psyche’s decisions and actions have ultimately been made for her rather than by her (Schalo 2020, 26). An important section to examine, and the primary hero’s path that Psyche takes in the myth, is Psyche’s undertaking of the four impossible tasks set by Aphrodite to “test” if the girl is worthy of Cupid. Psyche plays a minimal role in the first three tasks: ants sort out the pile of grain for her, a reed tells her the trick to gathering golden wool from vicious sheep, and Jupiter’s eagle collects water for her. Even in her journey into the Underworld for the fourth task, obtaining a box of beauty from Persephone, a tower gives her detailed instructions on how to navigate the Underworld. The agency Psyche does seem to have only occurs in specific circumstances where another force is present to help her.
Additionally, Psyche neither learns nor undergoes character development in the tale, staying naive and self-centered (Haskins 2014, 265). Throughout the entire story, Psyche is motivated by self interest: she demands to see her sisters because of her loneliness and wishes for her family to “authenticate” her new life and marriage, putting it above her duty as well as her husband’s welfare and wishes (Haskins 2014, 253).
Apuleius’s Psyche and Cupid features a female protagonist who does not aim to change or supersede traditional gender roles of the time. The notion of correct gender roles and marriage rituals drives the plot; thus, Psyche’s development as a character and heroine is neglected.
Mary Tighe’s “Psyche”
Mary Tighe’s version of the myth, a six-canto poem titled “Psyche,” is, like Apuleius’s, influenced by the social norms and expectations for gender at the time. However, Tighe crafts social norms to be more of a constraint to the characters and the story itself, rather than foregrounding them as the core aspect of the tale.
Tighe puts greater emphasis on equality in marriage and reciprocated sexual passion; Psyche’s placement in the retelling is as a complement and equal to Cupid. In the original tale, Cupid had his eye on Psyche before she herself had any passion for him. Additionally, even then, Cupid’s attraction to Psyche is never explicitly stated until Psyche betrays his trust and he leaves her (May 2021, 95). In contrast, Tighe adds Cupid’s point of view to the tale, explicitly showing his passion for Psyche from the start. The passion is also reciprocated at once: Psyche falls in love with Cupid, although she neither sees him nor is aware of his presence, because Cupid’s “drops of joy” fell upon her. Both the male and the female are depicted as sensual objects in the poem, and the roles of “gazer” and “gazed upon” are muddled between the pair (Linkin 1996, 65). Cupid also never falls out of love with Psyche, even after her betrayal of trust, and Psyche is reassured of this fact and also that a reunion is possible (May 2021, 95). Thus, Tighe eliminates the idea of either Psyche or Cupid being solely an object of desire, and rather depicts both as a part of a passionate bond.
Psyche is also portrayed in this narrative as a stronger heroine with greater agency than in Apuleius’s tale. Regine May highlights a few details that Tighe changed from the original tale that creates such an effect. First, Psyche leaves the palace by her own initiative rather than begging Cupid to allow her sisters to visit, thus presenting her as a more actively engaged character (2021, 94). Psyche additionally never contemplates suicide and instead immediately seeks ways to go about her quest to reunite with Cupid, in contrast to Apuleius’s tale, in which the heroine has three failed suicide attempts (94). A major change that Tighe makes to the story is completely changing the tasks Psyche must complete, a change that further strengthens her as a heroine. As opposed to Apuelius’s myth, which has Psyche completing four domestically-related tasks with heavy help from outside forces, Tighe’s sees Psyche undertake an allegorical journey on which she faces entities such as Vanity and Ambition. Through the tasks, the poem further develops the moral and emotional aspects of Cupid and Psyche’s relationship. It is important to note that in Tighe’s rendition, a disguised Cupid accompanies Psyche in her tasks; the distant god-to-mortal relationship in Apuleius’s version is effectively reversed as the pair embark on their shared journey of love and become closer equals. The difference in the tasks points to a general difference in the core values of the tales: Apuleius portrays a traditional marriage, while Tighe portrays the allegorical journey and evolution of love.
However, despite the difference between Tighe’s and Apuelius’s renditions, Psyche is not yet fully the hero of her own story. Her knight companion, who is Cupid in disguise, oftentimes fights for Psyche, and the final task is ultimately done by their attendant, Constance, on Cupid’s command (May 2021, 106). In addition, the tale concludes with Cupid and Psyche’s reintegration into a social community, the community of the gods, and the cultural norms are reestablished as Psyche is once again written as subject to Cupid’s gaze (Linkin 1996, 71).
Tighe, as an upper-class Romantic female poet, is still ultimately restricted by gender and social norms of her time and class. The restrictions can be seen, for example, within Tighe’s restrained inclusions of female sexuality. She tackles the problem by inserting ambiguity in the language, leaving any idea of the erotic up to the minds of the readers. The description of the wedding night of Cupid and Psyche is diminished to a blush and a “tear of trembling ecstasy” (Tighe 1811, 1:463). Tighe hides subtexts of gender equality, sexuality, and her more radical ideas under layers of allegory and metaphor, thus progressing “Psyche” beyond social norms while circumventing critical eyes.
“Psyche” is an attempt at female empowerment within a social frame that did not allow much push against its gender norms (Linkin 1996, 72). Tighe both acknowledges and aims to surpass the traditional dynamic in a relationship, refocusing the tale as a journey with the ultimate goal of a sound love rather than a proper marriage.
C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces
C. S. Lewis reshapes gender in the myth of Cupid and Psyche by deconstructing and reconstructing it in Till We Have Faces through Orual, the sister of Psyche and Lewis’s chosen narrator of the tale. Gender is a central idea to this version of the myth as it is in the other versions; however, what sets this retelling apart is that Lewis ultimately disregards the importance of gender within the story at the end.
In addition to having an entirely different character as the center of the story, Till We Have Faces presents a heroine who does not have a singular defining role in the story; rather, she embodies multiple interwoven identities with varying relationships with social structures and gender. Orual is a woman fighting with her identity in a society that does not accept female strength, and de-genders herself in order to gain power. She is an ugly girl who feels that she has been dealt an injustice and grapples with the inequality of nature (Arnell 2002, 26). She is an “everyman” figure who treks through a journey of religious revelation; from writing her grievances to the gods to seeking self-knowledge and accepting the divine, her character goes through an evolution completely separate from notions of gender (Huttar 2009, 43). Her complexity indeed stems from the fact that “Till We Have Faces is not allegory, but a realistic modern novel written according to the expectations of the first half of the twentieth century” (Shumway 2013, 93).
First, Orual is significantly more powerful and active than Psyche in other versions. Lewis’s heroine finds power and agency by presenting masculine traits. A significant example is when Orual threatens Psyche in order to force Psyche to look upon her unknown husband, stabbing her own arm and forcing her sister to take an oath. This action, as interpreted by Suzanne Shumway, is a metaphorical castration of her femininity to assert masculine authority (2013, 100). Orual, in this moment, has firmly rejected passivity and weakness as was previously expected by her as a woman in Glome–the fictional setting of the novel–and has used violence and brute force to claim her desires, as is expected of men. In another significant turning point of the novel, Orual threatens Bardia the guard to force him to let her visit Psyche; by acting in a masculine way–brazenly attacking Bardia with a sword–Orual displays significant agency, as through her actions she is eventually taken to see Psyche. Orual also becomes stronger physically as she takes up sword training with Bardia, a masculine choice as Glome’s society shuns women from fighting. Orual displays her strength and power by challenging Prince Argan for the throne, courageously asking, “Were you only flattering when you said I was a better swordsman than Argan?” when Bardia hesitates on letting her fight (Lewis 1956, 197).
Orual’s “masculinity” is highlighted in her relationships with male characters in the story. There are two significant male characters, the Fox and Bardia, neither of whom do play a large role in the story when compared to Cupid in the other retellings or to Orual herself. Both are her mentors who eventually become subject to Orual’s authority. For example, although Bardia plays the (albeit atypical) love interest for Orual, Orual is the authoritative figure in the relationship, from using him to seek out Psyche in several cases to commanding him to fight in wars and battles under her rule. It is later revealed by Bardia’s wife, Ansit, that Orual has been working him to death: “Your queenship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life” (Lewis 1956, 264). Orual is the aggressive and authoritative character typically reserved for a male character.
It follows, therefore, that Orual struggles with gender: she struggles with her ideas of femininity and masculinity, as she does not believe that she can be truly a woman because of her appearance, nor a man because of the cultural environment of Glome. Orual therefore concludes her best option is to have no gender. Orual’s solution to her conflict is to degender herself, taking great care in hiding her appearance with a veil, with only one person ever seeing her face after she starts wearing it. Degendering initially comes with benefits for Orual as queen, since her ambiguity gives her a political and professional advantage through a mix of admiration, fear, and wonder from her subjects (Shumway 2013, 99).
Ultimately, however, Lewis renounces gender and Orual’s conflicts as unimportant at the end of the novel. Orual’s lengthy pains to fit into preconceived gender roles merely highlight the futility of such an undertaking. First, neither gender can be considered lesser than the other. even in an unequal society: in the scene where Orual argues with Ansit and boasts about a great scar she received in battle, she asks, “Where are your scars?”, to which Ansit responds, “Where a woman’s are when she has borne eight children” (Lewis 1956, 265). Additionally, at the end of the novel, Lewis asserts that identity is not and cannot be based entirely upon gender, because identity is forever in a state of flux: Orual herself physically experiences an intertwining of her identity to Batta’s, to Ungit’s, to Psyche’s, and to the gods’, and thus a complete removal of gender (Shumway 2013, 103). Lewis indeed goes as far as to renounce the importance of identity entirely in the face of the gods (Shumway 2013, 103).
A clear pattern stretches between the three retellings of the myth highlighted in this paper in regard to the female character’s placement in the story, which ties into the myth’s intended portrayal of gender roles in each version. First, Psyche is interpreted in the story to be the agent of conveying the necessity of women’s conventional role in marriage. In the next version, Psyche is departing from a conventional marriage by becoming an equal to her lover rather than subordinate to him, while simultaneously finding her own individuality within the marriage. In the most recent, Orual takes the place of Psyche as the heroine, and her story and character ultimately reject all traditional ideas of gender and its importance in identity.
Another pattern thus follows: the heroine sees greater degrees of agency over the retellings. This trend is evident when examining the change found within the tasks or “trial” the heroine undertakes. The original portrays Psyche as a character who cannot carry out the events of her story without external help, and nearly all of her tasks are done for her. Tighe’s Psyche participates in a journey quite different from the original’s tasks with characterization that points to greater autonomy and agency, but still faces limitations to them. Lewis’s Orual has the greatest autonomy and agency in the tale, shouldering the weight of Psyche’s tasks remotely and commanding Glome as queen.
By analyzing patterns in myths over time, a form of storytelling that is easily moldable to different purposes and viewpoints, larger patterns of social and cultural attitudes emerge. The female character in the myth of Cupid and Psyche has indeed seen major changes and many faces to accommodate for these changing attitudes since the first appearance of the myth in Apuleius’s tale.
Sophia Woo is a senior at Edgemont Jr./Sr. High School.
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