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.
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