Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing by Margaret Atwood

Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing is an engaging poem by Margaret Atwood that engages with the themes of objectification, empowerment and the idea of agency. Women have been objectified for centuries, a problem that has become aggravated in recent decades as women’s roles and rights have evolved and transformed. As Margaret Atwood demonstrates in her 1996 poem “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing”, objectification extends far beyond women being devalued by men’s desires. In the poem, Atwood appropriates Helen of Troy’s voice, an otherwise voiceless icon. Helen of Troy is an exotic dancer and a fairly unpleasant woman in Atwood’s story.

Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing | Summary and Analysis

There is a rekindled interest in women from antique myths, both in terms of understanding more about their ideas and views that may have been overlooked until now and in terms of reconsidering the roles those women have traditionally played in classical literature. Helen is regarded as one of the archetypal female figures in antiquity. Being regarded as the cause of the Trojan War somehow makes her a candidate for feminist consideration. In this context, Atwood uses Helen to convey an important message: objectification is a recurring power struggle with no winner. The poem consists of three irregular stanzas and is written in free verse. The poem is an allegorical representation of the objectification of women. Atwood deals with the theme of objectification, gender inequality and lust.

Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing | Analysis, Lines 1-19

The world is full of women

Who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself

if they had the chance. Quit dancing.

Get some self-respect

and a day job.

Right. And minimum wage,

and varicose veins, just standing

in one place for eight hours

behind a glass counter

bundled up to the neck, instead of

naked as a meat sandwich.

Selling gloves, or something.

Instead of what I do sell.

You have to have talent

to peddle a thing so nebulous

and without material form.

Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way

you cut it, but I’ve a choice

of how, and I’ll take the money.

The first stanza of “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing” establishes the juncture at which the objectification cycle begins. Helen of Troy is placed in a position where only her body can be seen. The first stanza is significant because it makes it clear that Helen is more than just a helpless victim; she chooses this line of work. The poet uses a simile to project Helen as an object to lust over.

“naked as a meat sandwich” (line 11)

The poem begins with the fundamental idea of women despising other women who might ask her to deal with the potential pitfalls of a day job. The idea that bar dancers has no dignity and is unrespectable is also reflected here. Atwood uses the image of an unhappy but respectable woman just because she has a day job.

and varicose veins, just standing

 in one place for eight hours

 behind a glass counter

 bundled up to the neck (lines 7-10)

To earn as much as men in this world, she must do a job that men will not do. The poet also mentions wage disparities between men and women. She sells her body as a beautiful thing to look at, to want but never get.   She trades dances, and her clients buy fantasies that are never attained and are only used as lures.

Mythological Helen was never given a voice, but Atwood has explored the effect of long-term exposure to this type of attention on a young woman, creating a bitter, dishonest personality for her. Helen, in Atwood’s poem, recognizes her power over men and chooses to exploit their frailty. Helen, who is counter-dancing, knows that she will be objectified no matter what she does, so she seizes control by objectifying herself first. For one of the most objectified women of all time, Margaret Atwood inverts the roles of object and beholder.

Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing | Analysis, Lines 20-64

I do give value.

Like preachers, I sell vision,

like perfume ads, desire

or its facsimile. Like jokes

or war, it’s all in the timing.

I sell men back their worse suspicions:

that everything’s for sale,

and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see

a chain-saw murder just before it happens,

when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple

are still connected.

Such hatred leaps in them,

my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary

hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads

and upturned eyes, imploring

but ready to snap at my ankles,

I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge

to step on ants. I keep the beat,

and dance for them because

they can’t. The music smells like foxes,

crisp as heated metal

searing the nostrils

or humid as August, hazy and languorous

as a looted city the day after,

when all the rape’s been done

already, and the killing,

and the survivors wander around

looking for garbage

to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.

Speaking of which, it’s the smiling

tires me out the most.

This, and the pretence

that I can’t hear them.

And I can’t, because I’m after all

a foreigner to them.      

The speech here is all warty gutturals,

obvious as a slab of ham,

but I come from the province of the gods

where meanings are lilting and oblique.

I don’t let on to everyone,

but lean close, and I’ll whisper:

My mother was raped by a holy swan.

You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.

That’s what we tell all the husbands.

There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Helen of Troy, a character notable for being both a pawn and a prize, has contempt for those who regard her. This section of the poem exemplifies the cyclical nature of objectification. Love is sold in small increments. The men witness the denigration of love, desire, and attraction carried out on their behalf. It’s unsettling because they asked for it and got it, but getting it is wrong, according to what they’ve been taught. Men see that when lust is sold, even idealism crumbles in the face of money. They despise her because they despise themselves for loving everything she represents. Their contempt for her is simply a reflection of their self-disgust. She recognizes their desire to seize, control, and conquer her. She thus uses her body as her weapon.

The poet uses synecdoche to figuratively dehumanize the audience. Referring to the men as “rows of heads and upturned eyes” (line 33) implies that they aren’t worth more than the sum of their parts, which is how society perceives her. Her use of the phrase “ready to snap at my ankles” (line 35) connects the men to dogs, after referring to herself as “naked as a meat sandwich” (line 11) previously.

Atwood uses a simile to describe the attention-grabbing atmosphere during Helen’s dance performance. The environment afterwards is humid and hazy.

The music smells like foxes,

 crisp as heated metal


or humid as August, hazy and languorous

as a looted city the day after, (lines 39-43)


Atwood also uses the image of a desolate, downtrodden city where people are looking for garbage to describe the somber mood :

as a looted city the day after,

 when all the rape’s been done

 already, and the killing,

 and the survivors wander around

 looking for garbage      

 to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.(lines 43-48)

The men regard her as something to be devoured, whereas she regards them as salivating dogs. She talks about her mother being raped by a holy swan which is an allusion to Zeus in Greek mythology.

My mother was raped by a holy swan. (line 61)

This passage also refers to her divine affiliations, earthquakes, and floods being explained by mythology in Ancient Greece. She claims that she understands natural disasters, as well as the desire to crush ants which is the mortal equivalent of God’s power to destroy, because both are manifestations of power asserted through destruction. Men’s gazes on her arouse the desire to impose her dominance through ruination. The rest of the second stanza continues in this brutal and wrecked vein, comparing her workplace to the aftermath of political violence. Power, objectification, and sex are intimately connected in the poem, just as they were in Helen’s mythological life, though Helen has the dominant position in this rendition.

Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing | Analysis, Lines 65-83

Not that anyone here

but you would understand.

The rest of them would like to watch me

and feel nothing. Reduce me to components

as in a clock factory or abattoir.

Crush out the mystery.

Wall me up alive

in my own body.

They’d like to see through me,

but nothing is more opaque

than absolute transparency.

Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!

Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,

I hover six inches in the air

in my blazing swan-egg of light.

You think I’m not a goddess?

Try me.                

This is a torch song.

Touch me and you’ll burn.

Helen’s self-absorption is explored in the poem’s third stanza. Helen returns the topic to herself after describing global catastrophe as if she is of global importance, comparable to war or terrorism. She overtly begins equating herself to her viewers, and her descriptions are openly hostile. Her sense of entitlement is palpable. Men prefer to see her as an object rather than a person.   Their desperate attempt to ignore her reveals how gravely they want her and how well aware they are of their emotions for her. She is transparent because she has nothing to hide. Because the men are unable to face the truth of their desires, they shut her out. The men in Helen’s life have elevated her while completely dismissing her thoughts and opinions. This treatment, rather than crushing her self-esteem, allows her self-esteem to thrive while her trust and respect for men depreciate. Her mendacity is revealed near the end of the poem when she openly admits to using feigned honesty to disguise her true self. The reader gains a sense of truthfulness in her words for the first time in the poem’s final four lines, and the feeling she is genuinely experiencing is anger. Helen of Troy is powerful, and she is aware of it, even going so far as to conclude the poem with a warning. She uses her discontent to spur her passion and thus gain control over her life, but she is passionless and disempowered without objectification. Helen believes she has the power to destroy anyone who crosses her, but she also lives in a constant state of distrust, with anger being the only emotion she can openly express. This is the direct result of years of abuse and objectification at the hands of every man she has ever known.

“Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing” is a powerful poem about the perils of objectification and how it can both construct and decimate a person. Atwood uses Helen of Troy, a mystical character, to show that, rather than spawning insecurity and decay, objectification is a form of control that can work in both ways and can even harden its subject in destructive ways.


Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing | About the Author

Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939. She is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, educator, and activist. Since 1961, she has published 18 poetry collections, 18 novels, 11 nonfiction works, nine collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, and two graphic novels, as well as a number of small press editions of poetry and fiction. Her books have been adapted in a variety of ways for film and television. Themes in Atwood’s work include gender and identity, religion and myth, the power of language, climate change, and “power politics.” Her poems are frequently based on myths and fairy tales.




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