David Malouf

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Fate, Chance, and Change Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Fate, Chance, and Change Theme Icon
Identity, Humanity, and Mortality Theme Icon
Language, Storytelling, and Empathy Theme Icon
The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ransom, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fate, Chance, and Change Theme Icon

In much of Greek mythology and literature, fate appears as an ultimate and inescapable force. This is certainly true of the stories surrounding the Trojan War, including the Iliad: in Homer’s version of events, the deaths of Hector and Achilles, and even the fall of Troy itself, are all preordained. As a retelling of a single episode from the Iliad, Ransom largely works within this same tradition, depicting the final destinies of its characters as fixed and unalterable, at least by the time the story opens. At the same time, however, the novel attempts to reconcile this concept of fate with more modern ideas about chance and free will in order to envision a world in which internal change is possible, even when external change is not. 

Fate itself appears in various guises in Ransom, some more traditional than others. Priam, for instance, at one point associates destiny with the will of the gods. But other, more earthly forces exercise in the book a similarly binding power over human lives. Priam, for instance, describes the royal sphere he occupies as king as one in which speech, actions, and events are never “accidental” but are instead carefully plotted out ahead of time in order to adhere to set symbolic meanings. Regardless of the particular form it takes, however, fate often overrides individual desire and action in the novel. This is particularly clear in Malouf’s treatment of death, which—because it is universal and inevitable—is perhaps the most basic kind of destiny at play in the novel. Far from being avoidable, for instance, Hector’s death at Achilles’s hands is presented as the only possible outcome of both men’s lives: “a meeting that from the beginning had been the clear goal of their lives and the final achievement of what they were.” What’s more, Ransom structurally emphasizes this connection between fate and mortality by repeatedly flashing forward to deaths that take place beyond the timeframe of the novel, but which nevertheless seem settled—most notably, Neoptolemus’s grisly murder of Priam during the fall of Troy.

Of course, it's possible that the details of Hector's and Priam's deaths have not always been set in stone. The goddess Iris, for instance, describes the siege and fall of Troy as "the way things are" rather than "the way they must be," implying that things might at one point have gone differently. By the time the novel begins, however, there is very little sense that major changes to Troy's future are possible: events have taken on a momentum of their own. Interestingly, however, the climax of the novel—Priam’s visit to Achilles with treasure in order to ransom his son’s body—seems to exist outside the bounds of fate, however that fate is defined. Although the meeting is possibly preordained in a certain sense (Priam, after all, foresees it in a vision), the novel also describes it as an event that flies in the face of every major form of “destiny,” including social convention, individual character, and even physical probability (no one, for instance, thinks it is even possible for Priam to reach the Greek camp alive). In fact, Priam’s plan is a direct response to Iris's words: as he explains to Hecuba, the simple act of relabeling fate as "chance" might provide an "opening" where humans can exercise free will, presumably because it expands the range of actions they can imagine. This in turn can have a snowball effect. For instance, Priam's actual meeting with Achilles does not entirely conform to his vision of it, because Achilles kneels to Priam before Priam has the chance to do the same. In other words, by acting in such an unexpected way himself, Priam creates a moment in which others can behave in similarly surprising and unscripted ways.

In the end, of course, Priam’s actions do not alter the material facts of either his own destiny or Achilles’s. Since both men are (still) fated to die in the war, it is tempting to conclude that Priam’s newfound hope in the idea of chance is misplaced. In reality, however, something has changed over the course of the novel: Priam and Achilles themselves, who shed some of the norms and burdens associated with their usual roles as king and warrior, and become more fully human as a result. This is why Priam's insistence on "naming" fate as chance is so important. However fixed external events may be, Ransom suggests that humans can rise above their fates by creating moments where internal change is possible.    

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Fate, Chance, and Change ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate, Chance, and Change appears in each part of Ransom. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate, Chance, and Change Quotes in Ransom

Below you will find the important quotes in Ransom related to the theme of Fate, Chance, and Change.
Part 1 Quotes

For a long moment the taws hang there at the top of their flight; as if, in the father's grave retelling of these events, he were allowing for a gap to be opened where this time round some higher agency might step in and, with the high-handed indifference of those who have infinite power over the world of conjunction and accident, reverse what is about to occur.

Related Characters: Achilles, Patroclus
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

He is waiting for the break…Something new and unimaginable as yet that will confront him with the need, in meeting it, to leap clear of the clogging grey web that enfolds him.

Related Characters: Achilles
Page Number: 35–36
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

And perhaps, because it is unexpected, it may appeal to him to: the chance to break free of the obligation of being always the hero, as I am expected always to be the king. To take on the lighter bond of being simply a man. Perhaps that is the real gift I have to bring him. Perhaps that is the ransom.

Related Characters: Priam (speaker), Achilles
Related Symbols: Ransom
Page Number: 59-60
Explanation and Analysis:

It seems to me…that there might be another way of naming what we call fortune and attribute to the will, or the whim, of the gods. Which offers a kind of opening. The opportunity to act for ourselves. To try something that might force events into a different course.

Related Characters: Priam (speaker)
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

And I am back there in the very midst of it, looking down that white-dust road into another life. And it means nothing, that other story. In this one the miraculous turnabout has never happened. I am just one more slave-thing like the rest, one among many.

Related Characters: Priam (speaker)
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

In the end, what we come to is what time, with every heartbeat and in every moment of our lives, has been slowly working towards: the death we have been carrying in us from the very beginning, from our first breath.

Related Characters: Priam (speaker)
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3 Quotes

He had never in his life till now had to do with any but simple folk like himself, eaters of sheep's cheese and raw garlic, women laying out a bit of washing to dry on a bush beside the road, half-naked children, their heads shaven against lice…He would have to rely on native wit, and such bits of experience as are common to all, whether the gods in their wisdom have set us high or low.

Related Characters: Somax
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

The realm of the royal was representational, ideal. Everything that was merely accidental…all this was to be ignored, left to fall away into the confused and confusing realm of the incidental and the ordinary.

His whole life was like that, or had been. But out here, he discovered, everything was just itself. That was what seemed new.

Related Characters: Priam
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4 Quotes

He knows what this sudden suspension of his hard, manly qualities denotes. This melting in him of will, of self. Under its aspect things continue to be just themselves, but what is apprehensible to him now is a fluidity in them that on other occasions is obscured.

Related Characters: Achilles
Related Symbols: Earth and Water
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

He isn't [Idaeus]—of course he isn't, he's Somax. A simple workman, who this morning, as on every other morning of his life, just happened to be standing in the marketplace waiting to be hired when two strangers appeared who just happened to be he king's sons, Trojan princes.

Related Characters: Somax
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

[Death] is the hard bargain life makes with us—with all of us, every one—and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another's losses.

Related Characters: Priam, Achilles, Patroclus, Hector
Related Symbols: Ransom
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis: