From philosophy to psychotherapy: retelling the story in Jeanette Winterson's Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles (2005)

Hobden, Fiona (2016). From philosophy to psychotherapy: retelling the story in Jeanette Winterson's Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles (2005). New Voices in Classical Reception Studies(11) pp. 16–31.

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Abstract

Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeanette Winterson retells the ancient Greek myth of Heracles’ encounter with Atlas, when the hero arrives to fetch apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. As one of the first stories published in the Canongate series ‘The Myths’, it shares a commitment to the notion of myth as ‘universal and timeless’, offering ‘narratives that remind us of what it means to be human’. However, Winterson’s ‘Cover Version’ (as the author calls it) challenges this conventional frame of thinking. By focalizing the myth through Atlas and Heracles and making their encounter a stimulus towards self-reflection for both protagonists, Weight presents a philosophical meditation on Fate and Freedom and the limits of self-determination - a universal conundrum of human existence. However, the story features a third character, a first person voice that replays experiences familiar from Winterson’s personal mythology and who shares the predicament of Atlas and Heracles. All three characters are bound by and seek release from their circumstances and nature. ‘To tell the story again’, a refrain that captures the authorial first person’s desire for transformation and Winterson’s creation of a new myth for Atlas and Heracles, is to engage in a form of psychotherapy. In this, Atlas and Heracles represent a new archetype that derives from within the author and accords with her individual psychoses. The myth retold in Weight is highly personal. Through a playfully post-modern reception, characterized by intense engagement with ancient literary forms, multiple voices and a disrupted narrative, Winterson negotiates what it means for a myth to be ‘universal’ and ‘timeless’, and claims value for her own mythic truths.

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