Helen In Egypt

Who was Helen of Troy before she was taken by Paris and her husband launched a bloody, epic war? Who did Helen become after the war, when she was reviled for being an adulterer and sending thousands of innocent men to their deaths? Unsatisfied with the way Helen of Troy has been depicted throughout history, American poet Hilda Doolittle, writing as H. D. (1886-1961), wrote the modern epic Helen in Egypt (1961) to tell Helen's story. A feminist interpretation that puts Helen at the forefront of the story, Helen in Egypt explores themes like isolation, gender divisions, and personal identity.

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Table of contents

    Helen In Egypt by Hilda Doolittle

    Helen in Egypt was written by Hilda Doolittle in the 1950s, but the book wasn't published until 1961. It was her last work and considered by many to be her most successful. Doolittle's book is a feminist reinterpretation of the classical Greek epic of Helen of Troy. Using her understanding of philosophy and psychoanalysis, Doolittle reimagines the life of one of the most hated women in Greek mythology.

    Helen in Egypt is a complex book that combines poetry with prose and sometimes reads like a drama. It is broken up into three parts, each containing several books and each of those containing several free-verse poems. Each section is introduced by a paragraph of prose, which sets the scene and the action.

    Doolittle wrote Helen in Egypt after World War II. The two world wars drastically affected both her public and private life. Doolittle had just started making a name for herself in the literary world before World War I began and British culture became overshadowed by violence, fear, and death.

    Helen in Egypt, Military plane in sky, StudySmarter
    Fig. 1 - Doolittle's presentation of the Trojan War in Helen in Egypt was largely influenced by World War I and II.

    By the time the war was over, Doolittle's husband, who had enlisted, was virtually a stranger. The two separated. Doolittle's mental condition deteriorated at the end of World War I, following the loss of her husband, death of her father and brother, and stillbirth of her first child. When she almost died giving birth in 1919, she experienced what she called "War Phobia"—even the threat of war caused her great emotional distress and reminded her of her mental and physical collapse during World War I.

    The outbreak of World War II resulted in a creative explosion for Doolittle as she produced much of her best work in the 1940s and 50s. Her denunciation of war in Helen in Egypt was largely influenced by her own personal experiences.

    Helen of Troy Overview

    In classic Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was known as "the face that launched a thousand ships." The daughter of Zeus and the Spartan queen Leda, Helen was the most beautiful woman on earth. In her youth, Helen was kidnapped by Theseus and rescued by her brothers. She was so sought after that her adoptive father feared men would fight one another for her hand. Eventually, all of the suitors swore to honor whoever Helen chose and defend their marriage if need be.

    Helen married King Menelaus of Sparta. When the Trojan prince, Paris, traveled to Sparta under the guise of a diplomatic mission, Helen fled to Troy with him. Accounts vary if Helen was forced or left of her own free will, but Menelaus launched the Trojan War in retaliation.

    The biggest discrepancy in the story of Helen of Troy is the one that Doolittle uses as her inspiration for her book. According to three authors, Helen never went to Troy. Instead, Zeus had her sent to Egypt in order to keep her safe. According to these accounts, Helen waited in Egypt for ten years until Menelaus returned after the war to bring her home.

    The Trojan War pitted the people of Troy against the early Greeks. Agamemnon, Menelaus's brother, rallied the Greek kings and convinced them to honor their oath to uphold Helen's marriage. Agamemnon gathered the Greek forces, including the legendary hero Achilles, to defend his brother's marriage. After a fruitless ten-year siege, the Greek hero Odysseus came up with the idea to sack and pillage Troy from the inside by hiding soldiers in a wooden horse. After destroying the city, Menelaus took Helen back home to Sparta.

    Helen in Egypt, Trojan horse, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Greeks famously won the Trojan war and retrieved Helen by hiding soldiers inside the Trojan horse.

    Helen In Egypt Summary

    Helen In Egypt is comprised of three sections: "Pallinode," "Leuké," and "Eidolon."


    The first section of the book begins with Helen praying in a temple in Egypt. She reads the sacred hieroglyphs, hoping for some enlightenment and understanding of what happened in Troy and why she is in Egypt. She struggles to remember what happened during the war and is convinced of her own innocence. Although the gods do not answer her, Helen inadvertently summons the hero Achilles.

    Achilles fought in the Trojan War with the Greeks and was killed by Paris, Helen's lover. Why might Doolittle have chosen Achilles to be with Helen in Egypt?

    Achilles is gravely wounded from the injury to his heel, and it is unclear whether he is actually there or if Helen is encountering his spirit. Realizing who Helen is, Achilles attempts to strangle her. Helen calls out to Thetis, Achilles's mother and the goddess of the sea. At the sound of his mother's name, Achilles reverts back to the feminine love he was forced to repress for the violent masculinity of war. His hatred of Helen turns into love.

    Helen in Egypt, Wounded Achilles statue, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Helen's life is forever changed when Achilles appears in Egypt with her.


    In Leuké, Helen is brought to confront the memories of her past. She remembers her young, carefree love with Paris on the island of Leuké. Even with the promise of Paris, Helen is unwilling to give up her newfound relationship with Achilles. Confused about her understanding of love and herself, she visits her first love, Theseus. He helps Helen work through her memories and redefine her relationship with herself.


    In the final section of the book, Helen is back in Egypt with Achilles. She realizes that Paris is not the savior she used to believe he was, nor is Achilles the villain. She finally can remedy the divisions between her Trojan, Egyptian, and Greek identities. Helen is able to embrace her own sense of self and determine her own fate instead of letting men choose for her. She and Achilles have a child and Helen is finally at peace with her past, present, and future.

    Helen In Egypt Collection: Themes

    The main themes in Helen In Egypt are isolation caused by gender divisions and the reclamation of personal identity and the self.

    Isolation Caused by Gender Divisions

    At the beginning of the book, Achilles and Helen are emotionally separated from one another because of strict gender divisions. One of Achilles's first instincts upon seeing Helen is to strangle her. As a great Greek hero, his entire identity rests on his ability to fight and overpower other men. Achilles has been programmed to lean into his "masculinity" and propensity for violence. Instead of listening to Helen or empathizing with her pain, Achilles immediately turns to violence, brutality, and other forms of toxic masculinity.

    It isn't until Helen calls to Achilles' mother that he is able to let go of the violence he has been taught to prioritize. At the mention of Thetis, Achilles is reminded of her love, care, and femininity. He thinks back to how he was forced to repress his own femininity and connection to his mother when he was forced to embrace his role in the Trojan War:

    He forgot his mother

    when the heroes mocked

    at the half-god hidden in Scyros"

    (Eidolon VI.3).

    Achilles always thought he was strong for separating himself from feminine qualities of gentleness, empathy, and love. But Helen's femininity in Egypt shows him how isolated the gender divisions have made him.

    Helen, too, realizes that her assumptions about masculinity and Achilles were wrong and have kept her emotionally isolated from him. When she is with Paris in Leuké, he reminds her they once swore to defy Achilles together, that he was their enemy and they hated him because he was brutal. Helen ultimately rejects the idea that Achilles's masculinity is completely bad, rethinking her assumptions and previous worldview.

    Reclamation of Personal Identity and the Self

    The climax of the book is not when Helen has a child or chooses Achilles, but rather when she successfully redefines her personal identity. Since she arrived in Egypt, she struggled with her contrasting identities. She saw herself as completely separate from Helen of Troy and was unable to come to terms with her identity.

    Helen in Egypt, Egyptian hieroglyphs, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Helen searches for answers about her identity in sacred hieroglyphs.

    In the final section of the book, Helen realizes that her identity has always been her own to shape. She discovers there isn't actually a dichotomy between Helen of Troy and Helen of Egypt. She encompasses both of them, as well as the infinitely other identities that she could choose to become. By the end of Helen in Egypt, Helen has redefined her identity from being an adulterer, the cause of a war, and one of the most reviled women in Greece into a healed woman who can become whoever she wishes.

    Helen In Egypt Analysis

    Helen in Egypt is a feminist retelling of the classic Greek epic of Helen of Troy in many ways. Doolittle takes one of the most passive, reviled, and misunderstood women in Greek mythology and transforms her into an active, dynamic, conscious heroine.

    One of the most obvious ways that Doolittle made Helen in Egypt into a feminist work is by putting a woman at the center of the story. In many classic myths, and in Helen's story especially, women are passive objects to be used, fought over, and collected by men. Consider Helen's original story: Paris took her, Menelaus killed for her, and then Menelaus brought her back to Sparta. She is completely passive and is never given the opportunity to make choices for herself. The kings behave as though she is a precious object instead of a person.

    But in Egypt, Helen is clearly a free-thinking, active individual, even if she is uncertain and confused. She actively seeks out the hieroglyphs so she can find answers and attempts to find meaning for herself. Instead of submitting to Achilles when she finds him, Helen combats him emotionally, reminding him of his mother and the parts of him that he has been forced to repress. Far from being passive, she ultimately changes him into a more realized person while also attempting to find herself.

    Helen's journey doesn't stop until she accomplishes what she sets out to do at the beginning of the book. She encounters ex-lovers and old patterns, which tempt her and would be very easy to fall back into, but she rejects familiarity and comfort for self-growth. At the end of the novel, it is Helen who saves herself. She reclaims her identity, rewires how she thinks about gender, and takes control of her own fate. Helen is a feminist figure who refuses to submit to the patriarchy and encourages others not to as well.

    Helen in Egypt - Key takeaways

    • Helen in Egypt was written by Hilda Doolittle (H.D.).
    • The book was published in 1961, but it was written in the 1950s and was deeply influenced by the world wars.
    • Helen in Egypt is a retelling of the Greek myth of Helen of Troy and her role in the Trojan War.
    • The main themes are the isolation caused by gender divisions and the reclamation of one's own identity.
    • Helen in Egypt is a feminist book that encourages women to define their identity for themselves instead of letting the patriarchy decide who they should be for them.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Helen In Egypt

    Why was Helen in Egypt? 

    At Zeus's request, Hermes hid Helen in Egypt so she could avoid the violence of the Trojan War. 

    What does Helen in Egypt focus on?

    Helen in Egypt focuses on telling the story of Helen of Troy from her perspective. Instead of being the evil woman who started the Trojan War, the men fight to satisfy their own arrogance, and Helen isn't even there. 

    Is Helen in Egypt a book or a poem? 

    Helen in Egypt is a book-length poem that toys with writing conventions. It is mostly comprised of poetry, but it includes many introductions written in prose to set the scene for individual poems.

    When was Helen In Egypt written? 

    Helen In Egypt was written in the 1950s.

    What are the themes of Helen in Egypt

    The main theme are isolation caused by gender divisions and the reclamation of personal identity and the self. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: some accounts claim Helen never went to Troy

    Who is the central character in Helen in Egypt? 

    Who does Helen inadvertently summon? 


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