Ransom

by

David Malouf

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Ransom: Part 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As the sun rises, a man—Achilles—stands on the shore looking out over the sea, hoping to hear his mother’s voice. Although he came from the sea and still feels its pull, Achilles is also bound to the earth as a warrior, farmer, and mortal human.
In Greek mythology, Achilles is a demigod, born from a human father (Peleus) and a divine mother: the sea goddess Thetis. Malouf gives Achilles's parentage deeper meaning, however, by using water in general as a symbol of the spiritual realm. Earth, by contrast, represents the physical world—especially the human body. Achilles's dual nature (human and divine) thus corresponds to a duality present in all humans.
Themes
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Achilles recalls that as a young child, he could easily summon his mother to him, and even become “eel-like” himself. She told him, however, that this would not always be the case, and sure enough, he woke up one day to find that his human side had taken hold, and that he was subject to pain, loss, and death. Losing easy access to his mother's world also meant entering a world of narrative, "where a man's acts follow him wherever he goes in the form of a story."
Although Malouf suggests that all humans have both a physical and a spiritual side, Ransom also strongly associates human nature with an awareness of mortality. In this passage, "entering the rough world of men" means becoming fully vulnerable to death. Interestingly, it also means becoming the subject of a story, implying a link between mortality, human nature, and narrative. This passage, then, helps set the stage for Achilles's meeting with Priam, where the common bond of mortality (expressed through Priam's story) allows both men to become more fully human.
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Back in the present, Achilles feels as if he is looking across time as he surveys the sea, and thinks about how he and the rest of the Greek army has been camped on the beaches of Troy for nine years now. The tedium of this does not sit well with Achilles, who feels that wars should keep pace with the natural rhythms of life, like the change of the seasons—or, more personally, the growth of his son Neoptolemus, whom he has not seen since leaving for war. 
If Ransom is about humanizing Achilles and Priam, this passage begins to hint at why that humanization is necessary. The sheer length of the Trojan War has distanced Achilles from life's everyday experiences: sowing fields, harvesting crops, and watching his son grow. Because Malouf tightly associates these ordinary events with what it means to be human, their absence constitutes a kind of "death," even for a warrior like Achilles.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
As Achilles walks away from the water and toward the Greek camp, he thinks about how he himself will not die in the sea but on land. He knows that this is his fate but can’t entirely embrace it, which is why he keeps returning to the beach with his “ghosts”—Patroclus and Hector.
Although the goddess Iris will ultimately suggest that some events result purely from "chance," others seem to be set in stone. Here, for instance, Malouf denies Achilles any possibility of changing his ultimate destiny, describing it as ""inevitable." This understandably infuriates Achilles, not only because his destiny is to die young, but also (presumably) because having a "fixed" fate appears to deny humans the possibility of free will. Ultimately, however, the novel will suggest that while fate may govern some external events, humans can, in a figurative sense, free themselves of its confines by changing themselves.
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Achilles first met his friend Patroclus as a child, when Patroclus was exiled to the court of Peleus, Achilles’s father. Achilles listened, enthralled, as Patroclus’s father explained that his son had accidentally killed a playmate in a quarrel. When the story reached its climax, Achilles met Patroclus’s eyes and felt as if he himself had been struck.
This passage is the first in the novel that deals explicitly with the power of stories, and it does so in a way that intersects with the theme of chance and fate. As Patroclus's father tells the story of the boys playing knucklebones, there is a "long moment [when] the taws hang at the top of their flight," and those listening to the retelling think the story might end differently than they know it does. Storytelling, in other words, opens up a window into alternate worlds that couldn't exist in real life. Relatedly, it allows people to "live" events outside their own direct experience; Achilles, for instance, feels the blow as if he were actually present during the argument.
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Peleus agreed to allow Patroclus to stay, and Patroclus grew up as Achilles’s adoptive brother, shaping the kind of man Achilles himself became. Although Patroclus occasionally resented his dependency on Achilles’ family, Achilles found Patroclus’s vulnerability moving, and would often think about the circumstances of their meeting.
In Ransom, personal identity is actually a social phenomenon, and Achilles's relationship with Patroclus is a good example of this. Achilles only becomes "fully himself" in relation to Patroclus, which helps explain why Achilles reacts so intensely to his friend's death: it undermines his sense of himself. With that said, Malouf does not depict death and loss as entirely bad things, because they provide a point of common understanding between all people. Similarly, in this passage, Achilles finds Patroclus's "daunted look" endearing, which suggests that human weakness can provide grounds for empathy.
Themes
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Now, however, Patroclus himself is dead. Achilles had withdrawn from the fighting at Troy because of an argument with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces: Agamemnon had attempted to take Achilles's captured slave-girl, Briseis, to be his own concubine, which Achilles took as a slight to his honor.  Patroclus had at first followed his friend’s lead, but began to question Achilles’ actions as the Trojans, under the command of Prince Hector, gained more and more ground against the Greeks. Eventually, Achilles and Patroclus argued, and Achilles agreed to compromise by allowing Patroclus to wear his armor and lead Achilles’ troops in his place. As Achilles watched from the camp, however, Patroclus died at Hector’s hands—though Achilles also attributes his death to the gods.
Achilles's close but occasionally troubled relationship with Patroclus in many ways mirrors his own internal splits and contradictions. On the one hand, the two are so connected that they almost seem to share a physical presence; when Patroclus begins to cry as he pleads with Achilles, Achilles not only recognizes that Patroclus is crying for him, but also feels the tears "in his own throat." That said, Achilles and Patroclus clearly have different ideas about what is honorable. This disagreement between the two is painful for Achilles even before Patroclus's death, and foreshadows the much deeper sense of alienation Achilles will feel afterwards. Finally, the circumstances surrounding Patroclus's death also touch on the theme of fate, since Achilles on some level believes that the gods are responsible for the sword-stroke that kills him. This is undoubtedly one reason why Achilles finds his eventual revenge so unsatisfying; Achilles can kill and mutilate Hector, but he cannot directly target Patroclus's "true" killers.
Themes
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Achilles did nothing but grieve for two days after Patroclus’s death, pouring dirt over his head in anguish. Eventually, however, Patroclus’s ghost appeared and asked Achilles to bury his body so that his spirit could complete its journey to the afterlife. Achilles did as Patroclus asked, looking forward to the day when his own bones would be placed in the same burial mound.
While Ransom clearly depicts the existence of a spiritual world—in this passage, for instance, Achilles is visited by Patroclus's ghost—the book is ultimately more interested in the physical and earthly. When Achilles looks forward to his own death, for example, he focuses not on the afterlife, but on where his actual remains will rest. He also pours dirt (i.e. earth) over his head, which not only has symbolic significance, but also links him to Priam, who responds similarly to his son Hector's death. In other words, Malouf's decision to focus in this passage on the physical effects of death is tied to his depiction of mortality as a common denominator between all people.
Themes
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After tending to Patroclus’s body, Achilles sought out Hector for a duel to the death. In the ensuing battle, because Hector had taken Patroclus’s (i.e. Achilles’s) armor, Achilles had the disconcerting sense that he was fighting himself. Nevertheless, Achilles came out victorious, killing Hector with a wound to the throat. Just before dying, however, Hector (or a god speaking through him) warned Achilles that he would die soon as well, and Achilles seemed to experience Hector’s journey to the underworld with him. After returning to his senses, Achilles watched as his men stripped Hector’s corpse of its armor. He himself then tied the body to the back of his chariot and dragged it around Troy’s walls as Hector’s father, mother, wife, and child looked on. Achilles desecrated the body in this way in an attempt to wear out his own grief with the shocking display of anger.
On the surface, Achilles and Hector's relationship is clearly one of mutual hostility (and, in Achilles's case, hatred). Malouf's depiction of the duel, however, is personal and at times almost intimate; he describes them being physically "joined" to one another, for instance, by the length of Achilles's sword. What's more, their identities at times seem to blend together. Achilles, for instance, experiences Hector's death as his own twice (first when he stabs him, and then when he goes with him to the underworld). This again highlights the idea of mortality as a point of commonality, but it also ties into Hector's prediction that Achilles will soon die himself: in Homer's version of the story, Achilles is destined to die soon after Hector, so in killing Hector, he has effectively killed himself.
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Back in the present, Achilles returns to the Greek camp, pondering his men as he walks past them. Despite the bonds he shares with his troops—hailing from the same place, speaking the same dialect, etc.—he knows that they think he has lost his mind. Nevertheless, he again orders them to ready his horses and chariot while he himself goes to retrieve Hector’s body, which the gods have restored to an unblemished state. Furious, Achilles once more ties the body to his chariot and drags it around Patroclus’s burial mound, where Achilles has already sacrificed numerous dogs, horses, and human prisoners in an attempt to assuage his grief. Even as he drives in circles around the mound, however, he feels that nothing he is doing is enough. Eventually, he returns to camp and falls into exhausted sleep.
When Priam explains his plan to visit Achilles, he speculates that Achilles might enjoy the opportunity to cast off his role as a hero. Priam's instinct turns out to be correct, and this passage helps explain why: in the aftermath of Patroclus's death, Achilles feels burdened by his men's expectations of him. His troops are used to leaders who adhere to a particular heroic code, and don't know what to make of a man who "breaks daily every rule they have been taught to live by."  In the end, the novel will suggest that there is value in stepping outside the conventions of epic literature in order to be simply human. Achilles, however, has not yet learned how to do that, which is yet another reason for the emptiness he feels despite all his attempts to get revenge.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
As Part 1 closes, the narrator explains that Achilles is a runner—not just in body, but also in spirit. Now, however, he has lost his taste for running and feels a sense of "earth-heaviness". He senses that something unexpected needs to happen to bring him out of his stupor, but until then, he can only sleep, cry, and “rage.”
Although awareness of mortality is central to humanity in Ransom, Malouf suggests that it is possible to take this awareness too far. At this point in the novel, Achilles's sense of "earth-heaviness" is a sign that he is allowing himself to be defined entirely by death (his own, and Patroclus's). The result of this is a kind of living death that does not allow for personal growth or development. Since death is the ultimate fate of all people, however, Achilles will need to stop thinking of the world entirely in terms of destiny in order to break free of this mindset. More specifically, he will need to learn to appreciate what Priam will call "chance," and what this particular passage refers to as "something new and unimaginable."
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