A short story I recently read

‘Arachne’, by Nina MacLaughlin

Available here.

Less than a 15-minute read.


Thinking about adaptations and ‘writing back’… 

This story is an adaptation of the myth of Minerva (Roman Goddess of poetry, medicine, wisdom, strategic warfare, commerce, weaving, and the crafts) and her interactions with a mortal named Arachne. In the myth, Minerva punishes Arachne for challenging the Gods, by turning her into a spider. This adaptation is told from the point of view of Arachne, the human victim in the myth. As in the myth, which corresponds with the Greek Tragedy genre, hubris is the cause of Arachne’s downfall; people tell her she’s an incredible weaver, and she knows it, so agrees to compete against Minerva. 

The Greek and Roman myths are all about conflict between the Gods, and with the humans – whenever the humans tried to challenge the Gods, in many cases simply for wanting autonomy, they were put back in their place in creative and brutal ways. So, these myths are perfect for ‘writing back’, and making a social/political comment on, or protest about, our modern societies, which is what this story does. In this story, the theme of poverty as oppression is explored, as Arachne points out that the benefit of being rich is not just money, but the ‘options’ wealth affords; however, this system keeps the poor from being able to move out of poverty. The word ‘options’ is repeated five times just in that short section, while ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are contrasted. The metaphor of a ‘big white wall’ is used to describe the moment when the limited options run out, which results in the ‘end’ of a person; use of the colour white here implies to me that these options are linked to race, indicative of the institutional racism prevalent in the West. 

The ‘white walls’ that Arachne’s peers hit could all be read as metaphors for the modern-day situations faced by so many impoverished people of the US (where the author is from): we see some of Arachne’s peers go to prison or be ‘killed by the police’; one ‘kept drinking from this one well we knew had the poisons, but she drank anyway’ – this might suggest drug use, or the consequences of environmental disaster or lack of environmental care; Gloria dies because she can’t afford medical treatment; Sylvia, unable to continue her struggles, commits suicide. 

The story is a mixture of modern and ancient elements. For example, Arachne is a weaver, taught by her father to use a loom, but the names of her peers suggest a modern setting, and a melting pot of ethnic backgrounds (Eagle, Paulo, Kevin, Gloria). The story uses a combination of mild street slang, and language hinting at the ancient provenance of the myth, e.g. ‘on the block, from the village’. 

I love how this story ends; it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to Minerva. The original myths existed to warn humans (especially women) not to challenge the status quo, but in ‘writing back’ to the myth, MacLaughlin challenges the ideas that the weak can’t win their battles with those in power, and that the balance of power can’t shift.

I’m a fan of adaptations, especially fairy tales and myths, so reading and analysing this short story has made me think about the possibilities available to me as the basis for my own social/political protest writing.

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