A short review for a short story!
How can Madeline Miller pack such a punch in a story that’s basically 20 pages long? I do not understand how she had the ability to make Galatea as powerful as it is. I have seen calls for this short story to be turned into a full length novel, but I think it works as it is.
This story is a retelling of the Pygmalion myth, which hasn’t aged well. The basic premise is that Pygmalion finds flaws with every woman that he’s come across, and, because he’s a sculptor, he decides to carve the “perfect” woman out of stone. He falls so in love with what he’s created that he prays for the sculpture to come to life. One day, Aphrodite grants his wish. The statue, named Galatea, thereafter marries Pygmalion, and the story is about their marriage.
There’s a lot to process here.
People apparently used to think it was a sweet story, but Pygmalion’s actions have me running for the hills. I’ll list the facts. This guy fell in love (but really lust) with a statue because he was too much of a creep to attract any other woman in town. He hated human women so much that he could only stand to be with one that he created from clay. He only wanted to be near a woman if it meant that she perfectly pleased him.
Galatea is a fitting heroine for a story this short.
Galatea is hilariously abrupt and succinct. She gives the story much needed humor. She’s a statue brought to life by the goddess Aphrodite, so it’s not like she had a lifetime to learn tact.
Galatea exposes Pygmalion for what he is, which is a man who needs complete control over a woman, who only wants a woman whose goal in life is subservience. Really, I think Aphrodite in all of her infinite chaos decided to breathe life into Galatea in order to punish Pygmalion. She knew that, despite his prayers, he didn’t actually want a living woman, just a piece of clay who could move and obey.
He ends up with Galatea, who has a strong personality and a mind of her own, and over the course of a decade, the two slowly drive each other to the brink, until one day, when the tension between them explodes.
This story is ultimately about control.
Pygmalion wasn’t interested in other women because he couldn’t control them the way he could control a marble statue. And he only prayed for the marble statue to come to life because he wanted to have sex with it.
Pygmalion tries to stifle Galatea by keeping her trapped with her nurses and doctors who tell her that she’s sick, but this can only go on for so long. Galatea is too strong to ever let Pygmalion have the last word. Galatea uses Pygmalion’s disgusting self-obsession against him, and pretends to be into him in order to get what she wants.
The ending didn’t make me weepy the way that the ending of The Song of Achilles or Circe did, but I still felt some grief. Like all of Miller’s writing, I came away from Galatea feeling like I had loved and lost and had wounds that needed to heal.
I recommend this story!