Gender Dynamics in Malouf’s Ransom
David Malouf’s Ransom explores the power dynamic between men and women, and despite the obvious role of men in the text, women, too, are significant as they have influence over man’s presence on earth. Traditional gender roles, as defined by the expectations of a patriarchal Ancient Greek society in which the novel is set, often force women to take a passive, secondary role to men who occupy positions of power such as the king or the warrior. However, an alternate reading of the text challenges the black and white portrayal of the two genders, suggesting that females have a strong presence as the caregivers and protectors of men. The presence of women at the beginning and end of life acknowledges the significance of maternal creation as well as rites of passage that men in the text can neither understand nor emulate. Furthermore, it is the goddesses in the novel that instil the idea to ransom in Priam and evoke a softness in Achilles (which gives way to a truce between the male protagonists), thus highlighting that it is through the females that the transformations of the Trojan king and the Greek warrior occur. It is in this way that the female characters in Ransom are shown to have power and influence in their own right and play an integral role in their society.
Malouf suggests that women in Ransom give sanctuary to male protagonists, whose insecurities and grief diminish at the comfort they are able to seek in their female counterparts. Priam’s diffidence and isolation in the overly ceremonial royal sphere is softened in the presence of his wife, Hecuba, who serves as his sole companion with whom he is able to speak and reflect freely. Their shared journey, in which both have aged – Priam fondly notes his wife’s ‘veined hands’ which ‘like his own’ is ‘mottled… with liver-colored spots’ – and (despite their antiquity) their portrayal as children highlights the innocence and ‘tenderness’ of their relationship and suggests that both are heavily dependent on each other. Thus, in declaring that ‘nothing… is hidden’ from Hecuba, the king displays his utmost trust for the wife he considers most fondly, and despite being a ‘ceremonial figurehead’, Priam is able to satiate his need to be understood by someone in her presence. In being the confidant of the king’s personal desires Hecuba shares her husband’s burden of being king, and her understanding and final acceptance of his wishes gives Priam confidence in his plan, thus rendering her role as quintessential. Furthermore, Somax’s grief over the demise of his sons are eased by the presence of his female relations, who are the last living connections he has to them. The anecdotes of Somax’s sons are told in a “lively manner” and are “so full of emotion”, implying the tender love which underpins the relationship between the carter and his children. Whilst reflecting on his grief, Somax asserts his sons are “tied [to him] this way”, symbolically pointing to his heart, suggesting that they are at the crux of his being. Thus, in proclaiming that ‘all [he has] left to [him] now is the daughter-in-law and… [his] granddaughter’, Malouf suggests that they are the last connection to Somax’s sons, and by extension, his sense of being.
Similarly, in exploring birth and death, which are significant events to the Ancient Greeks, Malouf identifies females as both givers of life and safeguards of the soul when journeying to the afterlife, thus rendering their roles quintessential in the life cycle of men. Hecuba’s raw anguish and rage towards the ‘noble Achilles’ is a testament towards the strength of motherhood. Her declaration that it is ‘her flesh being tumbled on the stones’ is a reminder that it is the women who give birth to the warriors and the kings of the novel, suggesting that despite their secondary role throughout the war, the war itself is being fought by sons who have been ‘[yielded]…up to the world’ by their mothers. Moreover, Hecuba’s detailed recollections of her sons and Priam’s dispirited reaction to the ‘women’s talk’ suggest that the children were primarily raised under their mother’s affections, whilst their relationship with their father was merely ‘formal and symbolic’. Thus, it is highlighted that women, as mothers, are a significant part of society given their role in bringing children into the world. As reflected in Ransom, the Ancient Greeks laid heavy emphasis on respecting the dead, thus rendering burial rites of utmost importance. Achilles reflects on Hector’s ‘last commerce with the world’; that the ‘humble but necessary’ rituals are ‘women’s work’. Despite the work being ‘common’, he acknowledges it is ‘not for the eyes of men’, and the strength of the ‘women’s presence’ indicates that the ethereal nature of crossing to the afterlife is completed under their guidance. In remembering the ‘smell of dried herbs cut with lye’, the warrior realizes that ‘this is the first world [man comes] into… and the last pace [man passes] through’, highlighting that the life of man begins and ends in ‘the hands of women’. In this way, Malouf suggests that it is the females who control the entrances and exits of a one’s existence, and thus their roles take precedence over the male protagonists, given that they are the gateways to life and death.
Moreover, the goddesses in the text introduce the notion of ‘something new’ which facilitates the reshaping of the male protagonists and personify the archetypal feminine qualities which combat the rigidity of man. After being in ‘ceremonial stillness’ for days after Hector’s death, it is the goddess, Iris, which makes a ‘dangerous suggestion’ to Priam which impels him to take action. The immortal woman’s words which ‘[continued] to drop directly into [Priam’s] thoughts’ had cleared his mind from reticence thus allowing him to transcend his kingship in a search for ‘something new’. In this way, Iris had not only implanted the idea which restored Hector’s body in its rightful place, but moreover, by sending Priam on the journey to the Greek Camp, the goddess catalyzed his transformation from a mere king to a ‘man [and] father’, who, through his change, had returned triumphant. Thus, the king’s journey had stemmed from the idea of a woman, highlighting the significance of female roles in the events of the text. Moreover, it is the qualities of Achilles’ immortal mother, Thetis, which softened her son and allowed the formation of a bond between the two previously antagonistic men. A juxtaposition between the fluidity of Thetis’ element and the earthly element of man is made which starkly highlights the violent nature of the ‘rough world of men’ in which the Greek warrior falls victim to a dangerous thirst for vengeance. When shifting into his mother’s element, Achilles is under ‘her shimmering influence’ and the ‘suspension of his hard, manly qualities’ allows the warrior to consider Priam without his overpowering adversity. Achilles envisions Priam as his father due to the feminine qualities he is possessed with, and thus in feeling ‘tenderly vulnerable’, the ‘warrior in him… is subdued’. In this way, Thetis’ influence enables the Greek protagonist to transcend the fixity of his role, and in connecting with Priam, Achilles has found his ‘something new’, resulting in their amity taking precedence over their enmity.
Despite the ancient society being driven by male hegemony, Malouf asserts that the role of women in Ransom underpins the functioning of society as one’s life begins and ends in their hands. In this way, it is suggested that their duty, as guardians of life, transcends the rigid expectations imposed on women. Furthermore, it is suggested that females not only provide security for the male protagonists, but significantly, they are able to influence the events of the text, highlighting that similar to men, the female characters fulfill substantial roles.
Ransom: Investigating Human Mortality
Ransom explores the fundamental nature of death and how, as an inexorable fate, it can define man. Set in the context of war, Malouf’s novel highlights that death is not only physical, but is also spiritual and further, how the death of one can have an impact on the life of another. In light of this, Priam’s dream to escape the confines of his kingly role and to experience ‘something new’ given his eventual demise underscores how man is separate from the gods as we understand the value in life. Ultimately, however, the finality of death arouses the need within man to exercise control over their own lives, challenging the fixity of mortality through stories and storytelling. Malouf also suggests through Priam and Achilles’ interactions at the Greek Camp that men can connect through their common fate, enabling them to transcend conventional roles and enmity, ultimately allowing themselves to be liberated. In this way, though mortality is man’s eventual destiny, it spurs man’s journey throughout life in the search for existential meaning before meeting death.
The harsh reality of warfare and the losses sustained by protagonists underscores how one’s death can impact on another’s life and thus, in the process of grieving, one can also lose their own humanity. When Achilles first meets Patroclus, he feels as though ‘his world has shifted to a new centre’ and that he has found his ‘soul mate’ highlighting the former’s deep connection with the latter as though his life is shaped around Patroclus. Malouf suggests that when a significant person dies, one’s whole agenda can be redefined in hopes of expelling grief; for Achilles, the death of Patroclus causes him to shed the fluidity of his identity and develop an insatiable bloodlust that surpasses his and the Greek’s standards of humanity. Avenging his brother becomes the sole purpose Achilles now lives for, overriding his commitments as a leader and as a Greek fighting in the war. Consequently, the warrior’s hatred is underpinned by his inability to sympathize with another, reflected in his only considering Hector as the ‘implacable enemy’, rather than a man like himself. Thus with the desecration of Hector’s body, Malouf suggests that the warrior loses his humanity, symbolized by the death of Hector in Achilles armour. In this way, the text asserts that death is not only physical, but spiritual demise, in the form of shedding one’s humanity, also exists. This is further reflected in Hecuba’s brutal desire for revenge in which she claims she would ‘rip [Achilles’] heart out and eat it raw’. In only seeing Achilles as a ‘jackal’, the Trojan queen loses her empathy, dehumanizing her enemy to achieve her ends and express her grief in the only way she knows possible, violently. Thus, losses sustained in the war are compounded by the fact that human mortality extends to one’s soul.
Despite the looming nature of death, the text explores through Priam’s dream that man’s inevitable end is what makes them appreciate the value of life. The Trojan king asserts that in the context of war his own demise is imminent and in fulfilling his kingly role he has lived in a ‘stillness’ that has left him dissatisfied with his own life. Thus in thinking of ‘something new’ and ‘unprecedented’ Priam bravely embraces chance, despite aging traditions that condemn this ‘blasphemous’ idea, reflecting on man’s deep desire to discover the true meaning of life before they must face their ultimate fate, death. Though the king’s journey to the Greek camp has a significant purpose (to recover his son’s body), in a personal sense, it also is an opportunity for Priam to discover himself and the hidden values in life. Thus, in experiencing the taste of homemade pikelets, sitting his feet in a cooling water and interacting with the small fish in the pond, the king discovers that ‘what was new could also be pleasurable’, and though they were not new he had previously taken no notice of them. In this way, the simplicity of these things reinforced that they could not be found in Priam’s ‘royal sphere’ and thus, in appreciating them, he has in a way relinquished the hold he has had on the ‘real man inside’ which was previously suppressed to fulfil his role. Through this Malouf asserts that the reality that man will one day face his death spurs him on to appreciate life and to discover its secrets and by extension, discover himself. Consequently, death and the opportunity to value the lives we had is what separates man from the gods, who are immortal.
The desire to be remembered is preserved in the retelling of a story, challenging the fixity of mortality and thus casting men into metaphoric permanency. The text suggests that storytelling through the oral tradition from storytellers such as Somax, and even the reconstruction of an old legend by authors such as Malouf himself renders men immortal as their actions, which ‘follow them in the form of a story’ is being retold. A character’s perpetuity is reinforced by Somax’s anecdotes of his lost ones, which is told in such vivid detail that his memory appears ‘present and raw’, laying emphasis on a storyteller’s ability to figuratively resurrect those who have passed on, allowing them to metaphorically supersede their death. Thus, despite the ironical label of being ‘stealer[s]… of other men’s lives’, Malouf argues that storytellers are the guardians who protect and preserve tales, which ultimately renders the men of these tales in a state of perpetuity. In light of this, Priam’s assertion that ‘this story will stand as proof of what I am’ reiterates man’s desire to not be forgotten, and thus, a story has the power to transcend this impeding mortality. In retelling the narrative of his childhood, the king restores his former identity and his ability to reimagine the ‘stench’ he associates with ‘old man Podarces’ suggests that a story is powerful enough to compel the senses and appears so real that ‘at any moment’ Priam is able to envision his alter ego. In this way, Podarces’ ‘ghostly’ life is envisaged, leaving him unchallenged by the passing of time, thus fulfilling Priam’s need to have a wholesome identity in acknowledging his past self.
The interaction between the Trojan king and the Greek warrior underscores how man’s common fate in mortality is powerful enough to challenge their traditional enmity. In appealing to Achilles ‘man to man’ and as ‘one poor mortal to another’, Priam challenges the notion that they must always consider each other in terms of winning and losing, and instead ‘should have pity for one another’s losses’ in light of their inescapable fate that is death. In doing so, the Trojan king challenges age-old conventions that define them by their roles and their titles as leaders of opposing forces, and instead builds a connection between the man who killed his son, taking part in something ‘unprecedented’ that allows Achilles to ‘break free of obligation’. In this way Malouf suggests that though death limits man’s ability to live, it can paradoxically liberate them from the confines of their roles, underscoring death’s dual purpose in not only bring the end to man, but also fuelling their ability to live. The resulting 11 days truce, so that the protagonists can recover and grieve for their lost ones, is a disruption in the linear path of the story, highlighting that man’s eventual demise can challenge the fixity of history. Thus the inexorable destruction of Troy is juxtaposed with the possibility of ‘something new’ and the intrusion of the latter on the former emphasizes that though man’s death is their end, the reality that this is their ultimate fate can postpone this impending reality. By connecting as mortals, the protagonists display their fleeting control over their own lives in spite of a deterministic universe in which they live.
Ultimately, human mortality defines humankind because it is humanity’s natural fate; still, it is also a reason to be spurred on to self-discovery. The fact that death is spiritual and well as physical underscores mortality’s heavy presence and fundamental role in the lives of man. Ransom, through its characters and its narrative, adroitly calls attention to such truths of our existence.
Relationships in Ransom
The love of a father for a son is the strongest human bond in Ransom. Do you agree?
In Ransom, David Malouf explores the nature of relationships, suggesting that it is the bond between humans that underpins quintessential events and transformations in the text. It is the paternal instincts of Somax which prompts Priam into introspection, and their commonality in fatherhood allows them to overcome their vast differences and become companions. Similarly, in appealing to paternity, the king is able to appease Achilles by arousing the ardent love the latter feels for his father and son, and thus, the amity of the two protagonists takes precedence over their previous enmity, resulting in the temporary truce between the Greeks and Trojans. Despite the obvious strength of the father-son bond, the love between Hecuba and her husband, which has outlasted the test of time, gives sanctuary to a flinching king who regardless of his diffidence in the royal sphere, is able to divulge his ‘secrets’ freely to his wife, highlighting the comfort he is able to seek in this secure relationship. Moreover, the companionship between Achilles and Patroclus extends beyond brotherhood, and thus the death of his ‘soul mate’ causes the formidable warrior to expel his grief in ways that are beyond human, suggesting that Patroclus’ demise has caused Achilles to lose a part of his soul, underscoring the fixity of their relationship. Thus, Malouf suggests that a father’s love for a son is not the strongest human bond, but that various types of relationships have distinct strengths.
The humble carter’s amity for his sons and the genuine grief he expresses upon their demise highlights the strength of the father-son bond; moreover, it triggers the self-examination of the king, and their fatherhood seals their unification. The anecdotes of Somax’s sons are told in a “lively manner” and are “so full of emotion”, implying the tender love which underpins the relationship between the carter and his children. His reflection on one child as he “broods” on the “song [his son] used to sing” and even “his cursing”, highlights Somax’s keen recollections are a testament to the depth of his love as he is able to identify each child as an individual with distinct mannerisms. Whilst reflecting on his grief, Somax asserts his sons are “tied [to him] this way”, symbolically pointing to his heart, and it is in this way that Malouf suggests his sons are the crux of his being, underscoring the sheer strength of the father-son bond. Moreover, Somax’s positive insights into his family life impels the king’s introspection into his dealings with fatherhood. The fondness of Somax’s memories prompts a “curiosity” in Priam which he has never encountered in the overly formal “royal sphere”. Upon discussing “blessed… sons” and the profound grief that causes the carter to “break into a sweat… at the memory of it”, an appeal to fatherhood establishes a connection between the two protagonists, and forces Priam to consider the adequacy of his grief for Hector’s death, and by extension, his role as a father. The self-reflection reveals the king’s relationship with his children as merely “formal and symbolic” prompting a feeling of regret that he did not “twine his sons” into his “affections”. It is thus through Somax’s appeal to paternity that the king has a newfound responsibility as a father which spurs him to restore his son’s body in its rightful place.
Consequently, Priam’s epiphany on the importance of filial relationships allows him to appeal to Achilles as a father and thus, despite their hostility, they are able to declare a ceasefire to mourn for their losses. An appeal is made from “man to man” and “as a father” by the king to assert that the two foes share common interests. Priam’s evocation of Achilles’ son which “touched a sore spot” enables the king to challenge the notion that adversaries must always respond to each other in terms of winning and losing, as he declares that they “should have pity for one another’s losses”. Despite the nine year separation, Achilles is still able to clearly remember Neoptolemus’ characteristics, fondly recalling his “flamy” hair and the “saddle of freckles” that crosses his nose, highlighting the warriors’ fervent love for his own. It is thus the reminder of his son which catalyses the transformation of the warrior, allowing “something in him to be freed” and thus the two protagonists’ connection as fathers, at least temporarily, takes precedence over their enmity. The text suggests that Achilles, who has been “half-blind with rage”, is assuaged by Priam’s appeal, and thus, that “a father’s soft affections” has the power to overcome a previously unrelenting thirst for revenge. The king is therefore Achilles’ “something new”, and their unification through their mutual roles as fathers allows the Greek to step outside of his role as a warrior and grieve appropriately.
Conversely, Achilles’ relationship with his comrade, Patroclus, is so profound that the latter’s passing causes the former to act in such a way that is inhumane, thus highlighting that his extreme remorse is testament to their deep connection. The instant connect between the two and the fact that “the world…[reassembles] itself around a new centre” when the two first meet highlights that they have a spiritual connection, as though one has completed the other. In the presence of Patroclus, Achilles’ true self “[leaps] forth and [declares] itself”, and in this way, their intense pairing both strengthens and leaves Achilles vulnerable as his happiness and identity are intimately intertwined with that of his adoptive brother. Thus, upon the demise of Patroclus, Achilles is possessed by manic behaviour as he as he “[rocks] back and forth in anguish” and “[pours]… dust over his head” when in mourning for his “soul mate”. Their connection proves dangerously strong as Achilles’ sense of grief has not diminished and thus provokes him to kill Hector and inhumanely mangle his body.
The various relationships that are present in Ransom and the fact that each of them have distinct strengths suggests that no one bond takes precedence over others. Perhaps the text challenges readers to accept that each relationship is different, but despite their varying natures, all bonds have the power to influence the sequence of events that take place.
New Thoughts and New Deeds
Malouf highlights the need for new concepts and deeds to challenge the traditional expectations that limit protagonists of the text, suggesting that it is the assertion of these previously unheard of notions that inspire their positive metamorphoses and their liberty. Set in Ancient Greek times, Ransom emphasizes that the convention roles man a defined within are not only limiting but ultimately cause the loss of one’s humanity. Consequently, Priam’s envisioning of ‘something new’ underscores that ideas which defy tradition are able to inspire actions previously unheard of in the search for one’s ability to assert their free will and similarly, the new experiences he witnesses throughout his journey allows him to transcend the customary ways of thinking, thus catalyzing his transformation into a man from a king. Moreover, the text highlights through the interactions of Priam and Achilles that one’s assertion of something new in turn liberates another as it can inspire their envisioning of new thoughts and actions. In this way, Malouf suggests that transformation requires transgressing the conventional norms which is achieved through ideas and feats that challenge these impending expectations.
Limited by the narrow context of their roles, the protagonists are left feeling impotent by old ways of thinking. Achilles was born to become the warrior, and in fulfilling his role, he has lost his ability to express his emotions in a humane way. Confined in the ‘rough world of men’, Achilles loses the fluidity of his identity which tempers the ‘earth heaviness’ of harsher emotions, and despite his assertions of vengeance, he remains woefully a ‘dead man feeling nothing’, highlighting that he is trapped by the expectations of being a man and a warrior. Symbolically, the death of Patroclus and Hector in Achilles’ armour suggests that the brutality of war has resulted in his own spiritual demise, and thus, he transgresses the standards of the Greeks and his own standards by desecrating Hector’s body as he ‘forgets his duty… [And is] overcome with the need for revenge’. In this way, Malouf suggests that the expectations defined by being a warrior has caused Achilles to engage in barbaric acts of revenge which see his humanity being ultimately lost. Moreover, the losses sustained in the war highlights that Priam, too, is virtually dead. Priam’s choices are restricted by his kingly role in which he must stand in ‘ceremonial stillness’, and is seen as a representation of Troy, a ‘living map’, rather than a man. Despite understanding the importance of his role, the old protagonist emphasizes that he has suppressed the ‘real man inside’ in order to fulfill his role, and thus, with his actions always determined by role and expectations, he has forgotten what it is to be a man.
In light of the damaging ramifications of traditional views, Malouf asserts that it is the thinking outside current limitations which give the protagonists the opportunity to be liberated. Priam’s choice to ransom himself facilitates the opportunity to step outside convention and open oneself up to ‘something new’ as he describes it as something unprecedented, something that has ‘never before been… though of’. Despite being ‘bewildered’ by the notion of chance, the king is ‘strangely excited’ by this thought as it is new; traditionally, is it accepted that it is the gods who determine one’s fate, and the ability to assert one’s own agency is unimaginable. Consequently, he feels almost ‘defiant’ in that there is the possibility for the choice to step outside of his kingly role, to do ‘what any man might do’, feeling a ‘freedom’ in his subversive thoughts. Thus, Ransom suggests that in thinking something new, one can challenge the deterministic world by transgressing the limits placed on them by a role. Furthermore, a new perspective on life is presented to the king through Somax’s experiences, suggesting that one can understand himself more deeply through the agency of another. The carter’s stories allow Priam to reflect on his life and develop an understanding of what is means to be human outside the symbolic façade that is his royal life. Through ‘imagination’ Priam is able to connect to the ordinary facets of life by forming common bonds and experiences with Somax’s anecdotes. Consequently, a new understanding through these stories prompts self-examination and assists Priam to develop a more nuanced appreciation of life and human relationships through the juxtaposition of Somax’s expression of loss and grief with his own ‘formal and symbolic’ relationship with his children. In this way, Malouf highlights that new ways of thinking can be developed from the influence of another, and can ultimately prompt one’s introspection to reveal a transformed self.
Similar to new thoughts inspiring new deeds, it is demonstrated that previously unknown experiences can impel one to develop a new way of thinking. Priam through being subjected to the world outside his role learns to appreciate the beauty in the ordinary and common things which rekindle his humanity. Initially, the king, in the presence of Somax is ‘like a child’, and is unaccustomed to the surroundings outside the royal sphere. Despite being ‘bewildered’ by the simple occurrences in daily life, he soon finds out that ‘what [is] new could also be pleasurable’, and these small pleasures, such as dipping his feet in the stream or enjoying griddle cakes, provide new sensations which prompt reflection. Priam begins to see himself as a normal ‘old man’, whom even the fish did not ‘take much account of’ when he dipped his feet into the lake. Consequently, Ransom demonstrates that feats which defy tradition, such as Priam ransoming himself as a common man rather than a king, propel a fresh perspective on one’s life in which their humanity surpasses their limiting roles. In experiencing ‘something new’, the Trojan is left feeling ‘easy with himself’ and ‘comfortably restored’, thus highlighting the ability to be renewed by unprecedented deeds.
Furthermore, it is these unprecedented actions performed by one individual that catalyze the transformation of the other. Achilles, who according to Priam is looking for ‘the chance to break free from the obligation of being always the hero’, requires the appearance of ‘something new’ to quench his undying thirst for vengeance. Rather than approaching the warrior as an adversary, the king appeals to Achilles ‘as a father’ and as ‘one poor mortal to another’, highlighting that Priam is building a connection between the traditional foes rather than challenging him. . Priam’s evocation of Achilles’ son which ‘touched a sore spot’ enables the king to challenge the notion that rivals must always respond to each other in terms of winning and losing, as he declares that they ‘should have pity for one another’s losses’. Despite the nine year separation, Achilles is still able to clearly remember Neoptolemus’ characteristics, fondly recalling his ‘flamy’ hair and the ‘saddle of freckles’ that crosses his nose, highlighting the warriors’ fervent love for his son and thus, he is able to shed the ‘earth heaviness’ of his role. It is thus the reminder of his son which catalyses the transformation of the warrior, allowing for ‘something in him to be freed’ and thus the two protagonists’ connection as fathers, at least temporarily, takes precedence over their enmity. Achilles’ transformation is not into a different character but rather a restoration of his true self since his capacity for empathetic understanding has been deepened by Priam’s assertion of free will which is mutinous against traditional conventions. The resulting eleven days truce highlights the impact of new ways of thinking and behaving, in that the challenging of tradition is ultimately an assertion of free will, suggesting that man can have control over his own agency.