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.

Leave a Comment