November 19, 2012


By Maile Meloy
~4900 words

In a retelling of the myth of Persephone, a mother comes to terms with the separation agreement that gives her half-year custody of her thirteen-year-old daughter.

The story begins in late summer, as the eponymous main character delivers her daughter Perry (whose real name is Elizabeth) to her ex-husband Hank. Demeter has chosen this schedule specifically to avoid "giving [Perry] up in the dead of winter"; in the summer the hand-off is marginally bearable "with a little pharmaceutical help." And indeed, after a brief breakdown in the car outside Hank's house, Demeter manages to drag herself back home and then off to the municipal pool, where a thunderstorm and a bit of horseplay with a lighthearted crowd of teenagers succeed in lifting her spirits.

The humanity of the main character is one of the story's strengths. While clearly attached to her daughter, Demeter also allows herself to admit that
if she had a time machine she would go back and erase the conception. Then there wouldn't be this agony, there wouldn't be the black times. She would have found other sources of love, and she wouldn't have this gnawing emptiness. One tiny erasure and everything would be different.
We also learn that, in the 1970s, Demeter had an affair with Hank's business partner Duncan "as a matter of course. It was just an extension of her ordinary love." When Duncan died unexpectedly on a scuba-diving trip with Hank, Demeter imagined first that Hank had murdered him and then that he had killed himself out of guilt. Near the end of the story, at the municipal pool, she is overcome with emotion by an encounter with Duncan's teenage daughter.

Demeter's humanity is also an irony of sorts, since she is clearly portrayed as a modern-day equivalent of the Greek goddess of the harvest. This, I believe, is the story's weakness. While clever, the correspondences are too heavy-handed, even down to the names (though we are told that naming Elizabeth Persephone "would have been unfair," she still ends up with a suspiciously similar nickname). The problem is that the most glaring parallels set up an expectation of one-to-one correspondence with the myth, which ultimately has a shackling effect on the interpretation. Is Hank Hades? If so, why is his house on a hill rather than underground? Is Perry's consumption of red meat and sugar in Hank's company supposed to allude to the mythical pomegranate seeds? Or is it simply a contrast to Demeter's goddess-of-grain vegetarianism? Etc.

The broader question is: what does the story gain through these mythological parallels other than a kind of sophomoric elitism (clever author encodes story with clever classical references to be decoded by clever readers)? Wouldn't it be preferable to sow the parallels on a deeper, structural level, borrowing from the myth's inherent drama rather than its superficial contours?

In short, the rich characterization of "Demeter" is marred by the story's self-conscious classicism.


Reader poll: I found "Demeter" to be ___.

1 comment:

  1. I don't like New Yorker stories because they have meaning, yet I can never figure out what the meaning is. It makes me feel really inadequate so I was happy to see that for once nobody else can figure out this story, either.