Searching for Solidarity in Madeline Miller’s Circe

Released just over a year ago, Madeline Miller’s Circe has since appeared on several bestseller lists and earned even more awards, and it makes for the perfect canon-challenging #BeachRead. The novel presents a rich array of themes, stories, and questions that push it past a simple pleasure-book. The narrative centers the mysterious figure of Circe, witch of Aiaia, a minor character in Book 10 of Homer’s Odyssey and an adversary turned bedfellow of the hero. Once reviled for turning men into swine, her sequence in the famous epic ends:

For swift as thought the goddess had been there,
And thence had glided, viewless as the air:
The paths of gods what mortal can survey?
Who eyes their motion? Who shall trace their way?1

She exits The Odyssey silent, unseen, “swift as thought.” From this silence, Miller recreates and re-centers the sorceress, complicating her character and lending texture to her millennia-long life story. Hailed as a feminist take on a classic, Miller collects the competing canons of mythology, consolidating them around one woman and her search for solidarity.

Book Cover of Circe, Designed by Will Staehle (©Little, Brown, and Company).

If you haven’t read Circe yet, I should preface this with a spoiler-warning. As a reframing of a well-known adventure, you may already know how much of this ends. And if you are new to the tale, it helps to know the mythologies and epics that shape Circe’s story, but it also won’t hurt if you come to the novel with fresh eyes.

As a reader, you are introduced to several groups or constellations of characters who seem to move and act together, both in concordance and competition. Yet, in all of this, Circe cannot seem to establish solidarity, sympathy, or sisterhood, no matter how she tries. The underpinning “I want” is not for love or adventure; she’s not a Disney princess. Her “I want” is for someone to stand with her in the in-between. The novel retains aspects of the original quest narrative, with the spotlight on Circe rather than Odysseus. Her existence unfolds as a search for solidarity and with no one more so than the reader.

Told by Circe herself in the first person, the language and action of the tale reinforce her only-ness. Listening to the award-winning audiobook makes this even more apparent and connects Circe’s story to the oral tradition of epic poetry. Hers is the only voice you hear, and she leads you, the reader/listener, through her past and singular existence. At one point when pressed to spill her stories by a mortal man, she chooses to confide in you first: “My past was not some game, some adventure tale. It was the ugly wrack that storms left rotten on the shore. It was as bad as Odysseus.”2 Through her many broken bonds – power-hungry parents, sadistic siblings, selfish loves, and forgotten friends – you are there with her, but only at a distance.

Miller cites this as her favorite depiction of Circe in her online photo essay. (Bertram Mackennal, Circe, 1893/National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne).

From its opening pages to its closing fantasy, Circe simultaneously draws you in and pushes you away, encouraging you to identify with her quest, while strategically reminding you that her world is not yours. It’s no surprise that the events, settings, and characters feel strange; it is a world of ageless gods and ancient animosities. Yet Miller balances your closeness to the character and distance from her world with masterful precision. When you feel most connected with Circe, Miller strategically jolts you awake with reminders that you can never fully empathize with the plight of the goddess, no matter how familiar her struggles may seem. In moments that many readers (women especially) may understand, Miller includes flashes of well-placed magic, divine vengeance, and reminders that you are only a confidant (maybe even a confessor). After all, you are only human.

Miller’s work is one of synthesis, unifying overlapping worlds of mythology and epic, but it is also one of separation, as she repeatedly destabilizes the reader’s identification with the witch. One of the most haunting examples comes when violent men first stumble on Circe’s island and she earns her Homeric reputation. The scene sounds eerily familiar as the captain asks about the whereabouts of her husband or her father. Oh, you’re alone? They take advantage of the solitude, violently assaulting her, anticipating no consequences. In a reference to the many other stories like this one across Greco-Roman mythology, Circe says, “I am only a nymph after all, for nothing is more common among us than this.”3 But they do not sail away unpunished, and Circe reminds you then that she is more than human. She transforms them into pigs, maybe reflecting their true selves.

Throughout the narrative, Miller constructs the world around you, making you feel as though the events are unfolding as Circe tells them. But Circe the storyteller repeatedly grounds you, only allowing a comfortable distance.. The whole book is written in the past tense until the closing chapter, where she shifts from telling you what has been to what she hopes will be. As she prepares to bewitch herself mortal, she envisions a future where she creates a life, cultivates connection, grows old, and experiences the world. In this fantasy, she has daughters rather than sons. For a moment, she almost convinces you that this is how her story ends, but then, as she has so many times before, Circe returns you to her reality, her island of exile. In the closing paragraph, she uses the present tense; you are there with her as she pursues mortality and a livable life. You, her friend and confidant, are pulled in close to the action, ready for Circe’s final divine act. But that connection is masterfully broken when the last words linger: “I lift the brimming bowl to my lips and drink.”4 You don’t get to see the sorcery, and this time, you’re the one left alone.

The paths of gods what mortal can survey?
Who eyes their motion? Who shall trace their way?5

Notes

  1. Alexander Pope, Trans. The Odyssey of Homer (New York: New York Book Exchange, 1880), 168. I cite Pope’s translation here, because it is the one I read growing up (or was forced to read and now appreciate), but I recommend Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation for future reads. Return to text.
  2. Madeline Miller, Circe (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018), 335. Return to text.
  3. Miller, Circe, 188. Return to text.
  4. Miller, Circe, 385. Return to text.
  5. Pope, The Odyssey, 168. Return to text.

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