Ransom

by

David Malouf

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Ransom: Part 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Inside his hut, Achilles watches listlessly as his men eat, argue, and share memories. His attendant Automedon is nearby, and Achilles thinks about how he resents the man. Automedon may be loyal and tactful, but he is also the one who caught Patroclus when he fell and defended his body from the Trojan army—two tasks Achilles feels belonged to him. For his part, Automedon knows how Achilles feels but is devoted to him regardless. Recognizing this, Achilles eats a bit of food so that Automedon and his squire Alcimus will feel free to do the same. Alcimus eagerly grabs at the food in response, and Achilles thinks indulgently about the boy, whose "overabundance…of an animal nature" reminds Achilles of a younger version of himself.
Achilles's detachment from the world around him stands in sharp contrast to everything that has happened to Priam in Part 3. Priam, for instance, has learned to take pleasure in the meaningless "prattle" of people and things around him, seeing it as an expression of "each thing's presence." By contrast, Achilles shares the sense that chatter—in this case, his men's conversation—is meaningless, but not the sense that it might nevertheless hold "interest" (to borrow a word from Priam). This speaks to the deathliness of Achilles's current state, since he has lost the ability to appreciate the ordinary pleasures that make life meaningful. It also perhaps explains why Achilles feels drawn to Alcimus, since an "animal nature"—an ability to give himself over to the pleasures of the moment—is part of what currently eludes Achilles.
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Suddenly, Achilles hears the sound of strings and realizes that a god is in the hut with them. Achilles slips into a frame of mind he associates with his mother and water, and the world around him seems to take on a fluid quality.
The trance-like state Achilles enters in this passage is another example of how suspension works in Ransom. Malouf describes the moment as one where Achilles slips outside the normal constraints of his body, and even his own identity. The external world also seems to become less solid, "as if flow, not fixity, was [its] nature." The fluidity and changeability of this state contrasts with the rigidity of fate and physical reality, providing a space in which change and growth are possible.
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Achilles sees a figure, whom he at first mistakes for Patroclus. As the figure approaches, however, he sees that it is an old man and thinks that he is seeing his father, Peleus. Achilles is highly conscious of how much he himself has changed since he last saw his father, and it saddens him to see how much older his father has grown in the meantime as well. Weeping, Achilles drops to his knees in front of the visitor.
Significantly, Achilles begins to soften to Priam even before the latter has a chance to state his case. In mistaking Priam for Peleus (who has presumably grown old in Achilles's absence), Achilles is forcibly reminded of his father's mortality. However, where Patroclus's death enraged and embittered Achilles, the sight of his "father's" impending death elicits only "tenderness" and thus lays the groundwork for the appeal Priam will later make. Ultimately, Achilles will stop seeing death as a personal insult (as he did when he sought revenge for Patroclus's death) and begin to see it as a universal human experience which should therefore inspire empathy.
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Automedon and Alcimus cry out, and Achilles realizes that the visitor is actually a stranger. Still overwhelmed by the experience of “seeing” his father, however, he simply asks the visitor who he is and indicates that his attendants should put away their swords.
Even after Achilles has realized his mistake, the sight of Priam continues to move him. Again, this points to the changes underway in Achilles's character, since he can now recognize the vulnerability and humanity of a complete stranger.
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Priam, meanwhile, is unnerved by the sight of Achilles on his knees but manages to explain who he is and why he is there. When Achilles wonders aloud how he got into the camp, Priam says that he had a guide, and is reassured by the fact that Achilles seems to recognize the significance of Hermes’s role in bringing the king here. Priam says that his herald (i.e. Somax) is outside the hut, along with the ransom he has brought.
For all the changes he has already experienced, Priam still remains somewhat bound to his old ways of thinking at this point in the novel. Achilles's actions in this passage disturb him, for instance, because they do not align with his earlier premonition of the meeting: in Priam's vision, he himself was the person kneeling. This episode, then, in some ways flips the script on Priam, who had previously argued that the "unexpectedness" of his appeal might spark a change in Achilles. Here, the strangeness of Achilles's actions gives Priam pause and (perhaps) greater insight into the man he is pleading with.
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As the rest of his men remain absorbed in their meal, unaware of the "extraordinary" events that are transpiring, Achilles motions for Automedon to bring Somax inside. Although he is not entirely sure that Priam is who he claims to be, Achilles feels sympathetic towards him on account of his own father, whose aged image still lingers in Achilles's mind.
This passage is another example of the different meanings of "extraordinary" over the course of the novel. A father pleading for mercy on his child's behalf is "ordinary" in the sense that it rings true to basic human emotions, but within the logic of an epic world, its very normality makes it unusual. Malouf also sets the meeting between Achilles and Priam against a backdrop of routine life within the camp. Although the soldiers' ignorance of what is happening might at first glance seem to undercut the significance of those events, the novel eventually suggests that the continuity of normal, everyday action is important: as Somax has already said, "life goes on" in the face of extraordinary events (good or bad).
Themes
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Automedon returns, confirming the presence of the ransom and bringing Somax along with him. Achilles asks Somax whether he is the king’s herald Idaeus, and Somax hesitates, overcome not only by the issue of his name but also by the sheer unlikeliness of everything that has happened to him. Eventually, he begins to explain how he came to be called Idaeus, at which point Priam takes over the story.
Somax's appearance helps ground Priam and Achilles's meeting in everyday, unheroic reality. Like Priam and Achilles, Somax responds to the strange situation he finds himself in with uncertainty. Somax, however, is reacting not to the intensely emotional scene that is unfolding, but simply to the idea that he is participating in these momentous events. In other words, this quick detour into Somax's thoughts reframes Priam and Achilles's meeting from the perspective of an outsider, which helps strip it of its larger-than-life aura. In Somax's mind, Priam and Achilles are secondary characters in a story about the unusual experiences he himself has had over the course of the day.
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Priam explains who Somax is and, speaking directly to the carter, thanks him for his service. Meanwhile, Achilles is watching the two men interact with one another, charmed by the fact that neither seems to be paying any attention to him. Eventually, he orders Alcimus to take Somax away and provide him with food.
As Priam did earlier in the novel, Achilles is here learning to take an interest in what is incidental, ordinary, or idiosyncratic—in this case, the exchange between Somax and Priam. More specifically, Achilles finds that the men's temporary inattention has the effect of pleasurably distancing him from his own personality. In other words, the passage provides another example of an "unlikely" event serving as a catalyst for change by breaking down the usual barriers of identity.
Themes
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Priam begins his appeal, asking Achilles how he would feel if his own son Neoptolemus were in Hector’s place. As Priam continues, he says he never imagined he would be in the position he is in now, and that he is aware that no ransom can possibly make up for Hector’s loss. Nevertheless, he says, the act of offering the ransom is inherently ennobling—as accepting it would be for Achilles.
In this first attempt at persuasion, Priam introduces all the major ideas that ground his argument, explaining that he is appealing to Achilles as a father and as another "poor mortal." Above all, though, he introduces the idea of humanity or humanness as an ideal to strive towards. Priam urges Achilles to accept his offer on the grounds that doing so will "show that [they] are men, not ravening beasts," but in Ransom, establishing one's humanity proves to be less about "rising above" an animal nature and more about descending from an elevated status as a king, demigod, etc. 
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Achilles is taken aback by the mention of his own son, and tries to imagine what his son must look like now at age sixteen. Ultimately, however, he can only picture Neoptolemus play-fighting as a young boy.
Priam's appeal in Ransom differs in one very notable way from the parallel scene in the Iliad: in the latter, Priam invokes Peleus rather than Neoptolemus. Although Malouf's Priam goes on to mention Peleus, it is the reference to Neoptolemus that initially moves Achilles, perhaps because it is an especially vivid reminder of ordinary life. Although Achilles tries to imagine Neoptolemus as a glorious warrior, his thoughts continually circle back to images of his son as a "small mimic hero," play-fighting like any other child. This proves significant later in the novel, where it becomes clear that Neoptolemus feels burdened by his father's towering reputation.
Themes
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Priam continues to plead with Achilles, asking him to remember that they both share the same basic human nature and, relatedly, mortality. Death, Priam says, is the price humans have to pay in order to live, but it is nevertheless a painful reality that should elicit compassion from anyone who suffers from it. He then again questions whether Achilles wouldn’t do what he is doing for Neoptolemus, or whether Peleus wouldn’t do the same for Achilles.
Priam's speech here is his second major statement about mortality and the way it impacts human life. Drawing again on the symbol of ransom, Priam describes death as a "fee" that people must pay in order to experience the world and its pleasures. As a result, death is inseparable from human nature itself and thus grounds for mutual understanding: since everyone experiences death and loss, Priam argues, everyone should be able to sympathize with the losses of others. This, again, is presumably a novel idea to Achilles, who has previously viewed death and loss only in terms of what they mean to him personally.
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Achilles thinks about what Priam has said, recalling how he felt standing by the ocean that morning, thinking of the water as a symbol of eternity. Priam’s speech has had a similar effect, and Achilles now feels as though he is looking into the future, seeing both his father and himself as old men. He knows, however, that he will die long before growing old, and he feels a chill as he thinks about the loneliness of death.
Priam's appeal sparks a complicated response in Achilles. On the most basic level, the "story" that Priam tells allows Achilles to experience events he would otherwise not be able to—e.g. the sight of his father as an old man—which in turn allows him to feel compassion for Priam's plight. Even beyond this, however, Priam's words seem to elicit a reassessment of Achilles's understanding of mortality, selfhood, and compassion. The succession of old men Achilles sees—Priam, Peleus, and himself—points to the universality of mortality. Death itself, though, strikes Achilles as an experience of total isolation—that is, an experience that cannot be shared with other people. It is this realization about the ultimate loneliness of human fate that seems to spark a change in Achilles; since death eventually cuts the individual off from all others, it is even more important to take part in a common humanity while alive.
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As Achilles recovers his composure and turns to look at Priam again, he has a vision of the future: he sees his son Neoptolemus killing Priam in retribution for Achilles’s own death. Priam sees that Achilles is stunned and falls to his knees in front of him, equally overcome by emotion. Achilles, however, can’t bear the thought of Priam begging him and pulls him to his feet, telling him that he will give him Hector’s body.
As a later flash-forward will confirm, Achilles's vision in this passage is largely accurate: Neoptolemus will kill Priam in revenge for Achilles's own death. As Achilles envisions the scene, however, Neoptolemus's ferocity makes him barely recognizable as a human (in fact, the text likens him to a "Fury"—a Greek goddess of vengeance). The actual murder, however, though just as brutal, is psychologically very different than what Achilles imagines. Malouf reveals Neoptolemus to be a frightened boy desperate to live up to his father's image. Relatedly, there is a similar, though more minor, discrepancy between the vision Priam has of clasping Achilles's knees and the way the scene actually plays out. Although Priam does eventually kneel in front of Achilles, he does so in "fellow-feeling" rather than "supplication." In other words, Malouf suggests that the future—though perhaps "fixed" in an outward and physical sense—is not set on the level of thoughts, feelings, intentions, etc.
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Leaving Priam in the care of his men, Achilles goes to retrieve Hector’s body. Automedon sets up a stool for Achilles to sit on in front of the body, and Achilles dismisses him before settling in to contemplate the man he has killed. The gods have again restored Hector’s body to an unblemished state, which—for the past several days—Achilles has taken as a personal insult. In repeatedly mutilating the corpse, Achilles has been trying to both assuage and prove his own anger, pride, and love for Patroclus. Now, however, he is able to see the gods’ protection of Hector’s body as fitting and honorable—to Hector, but also to himself. In fact, he feels completely at ease with himself, and senses a kinship between himself and Hector. After sitting in silent thought for several minutes, Achilles calls Automedon back. 
Achilles's new perspective on death and humanity allows him to see Hector in a different light. Where he had previously railed against everything that seemed to thwart his own will—Patroclus's death, the preservation of Hector's body, etc.—he now sees these events within the broader context of the gods' plans for him. In fact, he even feels a sense of kinship with Hector, with whom he shares a common fate: death in general, but also the duel that was in some sense the culmination of each man's life. Although none of this, presumably, erases the pain of the loss Achilles has experienced, his reflections in this passage suggest that he accepts the role that Patroclus's death and all the events that followed have played in his development as a person. For the first time, in fact, he feels that he is "the true Achilles," perhaps because he has learned, through loss, what it means to be human.
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Achilles follows as his grooms take Hector’s body to a laundry room to be washed and shrouded. The female servants there are reluctant to begin while a man is present, but Achilles finds that he is curious about the process of preparing a body for funeral. What’s more, the atmosphere of the room reminds him of his childhood nurse, and he ponders the similarities between birth and death. Eventually, however, Achilles leaves, recognizing that his presence is hindering the women’s work. As he reenters the yard, the company of his men reminds him of his current strength and vitality, but he remains conscious of the fact that he will soon be lying dead in the care of the women who are now washing Hector’s body.  
Like the riverbank in Part 3, the laundry room belongs to a world that is very different than the one Achilles (or Priam) is familiar with. For one thing, it is physical and bodily in a way that even Achilles—a warrior—is unused to. The smell is reminiscent of a nursery (or perhaps even a delivery room), and therefore evokes images of bodies that are vulnerable as a result of their infancy (or, in the case of this room, death). The laundry room is also a female space, which likely contributes to the "unheroic thoughts" Achilles finds taking hold as he stands there; the implication is that all men, however great and powerful, will ultimately end up being tended to by common and (by the standards of the day) "weak" women. Interestingly, however, Achilles does not appear resentful when he realizes this, which suggests that he has a newfound appreciation for the humble and everyday aspects of life.
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As dawn approaches, Achilles watches Priam sleep on a makeshift bed in his hut, and thinks about his own father Peleus. Eventually, Achilles wakes Priam, who looks frightened before he remembers what is going on. Achilles offers Priam water to wash with, and Priam notes with amusement the behavior of the attendants holding the pitcher and basin: when one yawns, the other clicks his tongue in disapproval. Meanwhile, As Priam washes, Achilles is struck by Priam’s noble bearing, even in old age.
Perhaps even more than the memory of where he is, it is the behavior of Achilles's attendants that pulls Priam out of his panic in this passage. The "irrelevant happening" is yet another example of the attractions of the everyday and ordinary, and it proves grounding even in the midst of fear and grief.
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Priam finds everything around him dreamlike—particularly Achilles, who is both the feared warrior who killed Priam’s son and the man watching patiently as Priam goes through his morning routine. Unexpectedly, Priam finds that he wants to know more about Achilles, and even thinks that learning about this enemy might help save Troy from its fate.
Priam's hopes that he might be able to save Troy ultimately come to nothing, which suggests that there are limits to the power of chance in Ransom: when all is said and done, Troy is "destined" to fall. Throughout the novel, however, Malouf has established a connection between the ability to imagine alternate realities (e.g. in a story) and the ability of those realities to exist. In other words, even though Priam's speculations in this passage do not alter the course of events, the very fact that he is able to imagine them doing so marks a step away from a purely fatalistic worldview: however things actually are, Malouf implies, they might be different.
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The narrative skips backward several hours to when Achilles had a hog slaughtered in Priam’s honor. The two men ate dinner together, negotiating a truce of eleven days for Hector’s funeral, and the promise of even this brief interval of peace pleased Priam. Nevertheless—and despite the friendly tone of the conversation—he remained highly aware of his host’s power and capacity for killing.
The truce that Priam and Achilles negotiate embodies many of Ransom's broader ideas about fate and death. Although Priam is well aware that the war will resume on the twelfth day, he no longer feels weighed down by the knowledge of the deaths to come. Instead, he accepts the truce for what it is: a "time for living" fully and happily despite knowing how it will end.
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Back in the present, Achilles and Priam enter the yard, where the cart is ready to leave. Priam pets Beauty but is careful not to show any emotion toward his son’s body in front of the Greek "invaders."   Somax helps Priam back onto the cart. Achilles, who has followed them to the gate, tells Priam to look to him for help if and when Troy falls. Priam, much to his own surprise, retorts that Achilles himself may be dead by then. Momentarily taken aback, Achilles recovers himself and smiles, saying that in that case he will not come to the king’s aid. Somax then urges the mules on, and the cart passes out of the Greek camp.
Like the earlier exchange between Achilles's attendants, the simple, down-to-earth presence of Beauty ad Somax seems to have a grounding effect for Priam, who might otherwise be overwhelmed by emotion on first seeing his son's body. The final conversation between Achilles and Priam, however, is a reminder that the time for enjoying these kinds of everyday pleasures is drawing to a close: both men know that their deaths are rapidly approaching. In light of this, Achilles's parting smile is likely a form of grim humor—or, as he puts it, a "dark" joke.
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