Ransom focuses tightly on the inner worlds of two characters: Priam and Achilles. As the novel opens, however, neither of these characters has a particularly stable or unified sense of identity. Each is instead pulled in different directions on account of factors like their social roles as a king and a warrior and their interpersonal relationships. This is a distressing experience for both men, who feel variously uncomfortable with or alienated from different aspects of themselves. In the end, Priam’s visit to Achilles will provide the framework necessary for each man to rebuild his sense of self, but it does this—unexpectedly—by stripping away much of what makes the characters distinct to reveal a common underlying humanity.
To a certain extent, Ransom suggests that human identity is naturally dual and composite. The carter Somax, for instance, very calmly notes that humans have both a physical nature and a spiritual one, saying, “We’re children…of the earth, as well as of the gods.” For both Priam and Achilles, however, this ordinary duality is exaggerated—literally, in the case of Achilles, who is the son of a sea goddess and therefore half divine. By and large, Achilles seems to accept the split in his identity as natural, though he misses the easy way in which, as a boy, he was able to slip between the spiritual world of his mother and the earthly world of his father. As the novel opens, however, Achilles has become more seriously estranged from his divine nature, existing in a state of living death the novel describes as “earth-heaviness.” Priam, meanwhile, is trapped between physicality and spirituality in a different sense. Although he is an elderly man, subject to the same pains and losses that affect any other human, Priam is also a king and, in that respect, a symbol of a “fixed and permanent” social order. The burden of being this symbol weighs on Priam, however, to the point that he seems in danger of losing himself inside his role as king; he talks, for instance, about “rattl[ing] about like a pea in the golden husk of [his]…dazzling eminence.” Further complicating all of this is the fact that identity in Ransom hinges on interpersonal relationships. Achilles, for instance, only becomes “fully himself” in relation to his friend and “soulmate” Patroclus, but his dependence on another for his sense of self means that he experiences Patroclus’s death as a loss of his own identity.
For both Priam and Achilles, then, the challenge is to resolve these feelings of inner turmoil and estrangement. In part, that simply means coming to terms with the complex and even conflicting nature of identity. While talking to Somax, for instance, Priam is surprised to discover that the carter is quite at ease with both sides of his nature—the physical and the spiritual. In order to make this kind of peace with themselves, however, both Achilles and Priam first have to rediscover a core humanity distinct from any of the specific identities they hold (as kings, warriors, demigods, etc.). Ransom repeatedly refers to Priam’s visit to Achilles as a “merely” human action, or an action that “any” man might undertake—that is, it’s not rooted in anything particular to Priam, but instead is an experience common to all fathers. Even more broadly, it’s rooted in an awareness of mortality that all humans share: in making his case to Achilles, Priam points out that they both know, as only humans can, what it means to be mortal, and that they should therefore have compassion for one another. Priam’s appeal resonates with Achilles, who (as Priam earlier predicted) is then similarly able to cast off the obligation of being a “hero” in favor of simply being a man.
Counterintuitively, then, Ransom suggests that people need to shed (at least temporarily) what seems to make them most distinct in order to fully grow into their identities. People need to recognize their common humanity in order to find their own individual human selves. As the novel draws to a close, both Priam and Achilles are newly comfortable with all aspects of themselves; Achilles, for instance, rediscovers the “lightness” of his half-divine nature in the wake of Priam’s visit. What’s more, this treatment of identity reflects the novel’s broader ideas about the link between mortality and humanity. Ultimately, Ransom suggests that it is the knowledge that life will end—that is, that every individual will lose his particular identity—that makes human nature distinct.
Identity, Humanity, and Mortality ThemeTracker
Identity, Humanity, and Mortality Quotes in Ransom
The man is a fighter, but when he is not fighting, earth is his element. One day, he knows, he will go back to it…But for the whole of his life he has been drawn, in his other nature, to his mother's element. To what, in all its many forms…is shifting and insubstantial.
He had entered the rough world of men, where a man's acts follow him wherever he goes in the form of a story. A world of pain, loss, dependency, bursts of violence and elation…at last of death.
[B1] He was waiting for the rage to fill him that would be equal at last to the outrage he was committing. That would assuage his grief, and be so convincing to the witnesses of this barbaric spectacle that he too might believe there was a living man at the centre of it, and that man himself.
He is obliged, in his role as king, to think of the king's sacred body, this brief six feet of earth he moves and breathes in—aches and sneezes and all—as at once a body like any other and an abstract of the lands he represents, their living map.
This time, when I look behind me, what is glowing out from under the coverlet…is the body of my son Hector, all his limbs newly restored and shining, restored and ransomed.
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.
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.
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.
Royal custom—the habit of averting his gaze, always, from the unnecessary and particular—had saved him from all that. And yet it was just such unnecessary things in the old man's talk, occasions in which pain and pleasure were inextricably mixed, that so engaged and moved him.
It was such a comfort just to hold on to her, and feel the warmth of her, and the scratchiness of her hide against my cheek. But whether it was for grief at my loss, or joy that she was safe, I can't tell you, sir. We're such contrary creatures. Maybe both.
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.
[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.
What he feels in himself as a perfect order of body, heart, occasion, is the enactment, under the stars, in the very breath of the gods, of the true Achilles, the one he has come all this way to find.
This is the first world we come into, he thinks now, his world of hot-water pitchers and oil jars and freshly laundered linen or wool. And the last place we pass through before our body is done with it all. Unheroic thoughts.
Look, he wants to shout, I am still here, but the I is different. I come as a man of sorrow bringing the body of my son for burial, but I come also as the hero of the deed that till now was never attempted.