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Malouf’s Ransom explores man’s quest for meaning, underscoring the importance of hearing and telling stories as they influence basic human understanding and interactions. Priam’s anecdotes illustrate the ability to cement our identity and reinforces that stories enable people to understand and empathize with one another. Moreover, Priam’s transition from a ‘child’ into a man throughout his journey is facilitated by Somax’s narratives on family life, prompting the former to reflect on the human condition, allowing an increased perception of his own experiences through the agency of the latter; similarly, it is Patroclus’ story that ignites a human response in Achilles. Ransom suggests that notion of one’s life being a story allows the king of Troy to challenge the fixity of his fate, as it provides an opportunity to dictate his own tale in the search for ‘something new’. Finally, stories satiate the need to be remembered suggesting that storytellers immortalize men by sharing their tales.
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Priam’s need to tell the story of his past allows him to reflect on his former self, Podarces, increasing his consciousness of his identity and by sharing this with Hecuba, Malouf reinforces the need for the shared human experience, and that stories allow this. The telling of the king’s story in the third person is juxtaposed with the first-hand account, highlighting that the former only entails the facts and lacks the personal sensations Priam’s version expresses. In divulging these feelings which “[have] for so long been in secret in him” the old protagonist is able to explore his duality, his life as a king and the “ghostly” path of Podarces, forcing him into realisation of “what it means for [his] breath to be in another’s mouth”. Priam’s consciousness of his current role is heightened as he understands himself more clearly whilst speaking of the echoes of the past, ultimately spurring him on to ransom treasure for his son in a bid to cement his story. Moreover, though the old man acknowledges Hecuba “must have heard [his story] a hundred times”, he repeats it nevertheless to establish a shared understanding of how he felt and the ramifications he faced. The king coaxes his wife to “imagine… [Being] the child”, increasing her emotional perception of her husband’s past; her reactions to the “stench” which “sticks” and her husband’s sudden shift from a “pampered darling” to a slave “brat” are strengthened by Priam’s personal and detailed account. Her feeling of disgust suggests that the couple have reach a similar level of comprehension allowing a stronger connection between the two to form. Malouf suggests that Priam’s anecdote paves the way for his self-growth, and the sharing of his tale with his lover allows a deeper connection between the two in regards to the king’s consciousness of his story.
Similar to the tellers of a story, the listeners, too, benefit as they are prompted into reflection on their lives and humanity itself through another’s experience, as revealed by Priam upon hearing the humble carter’s anecdotes and Achilles’ recollections of Patroclus. Somax’s positive insights into his family life impels the king’s introspection into his dealings with fatherhood. The fondness of his family is reflected in Somax’s memories, which prompt “curiosity” in Priam as he has never dealt with family outside of the “royal sphere”. Upon discussing “blessed sons” and the profound grief that causes the carter to “break into a sweat… at the memory of it”, an appeal to fatherhood establishes a connection between the two protagonists, and forces Priam to consider the adequacy of his grief for Hector’s death, and by extension, his role as a father. The self-reflection reveals the king’s relationship with his children as merely “formal and symbolic” prompting a feeling of regret that he did not “twine his sons” into his “affections”. It is thus through Somax’s anecdotes that the king has a newfound responsibility as a father which spurs him to restore his son’s body in its rightful place. Furthermore, the text suggests that stories elicit a human response from listeners, allowing them to connect more deeply with fellow humans. As a boy, Achilles learns to feel empathy upon hearing Patroclus’ tragic story as he “stands spellbound” at his companion’s plight. The third person’s account offers Achilles a relatively objective version of the story, suggesting that his deep connection with Patroclus is all the more powerful. The warrior’s pity for a boy “with the mask of an outcast upon him” reignites a human response within him that serves its purpose in his future dealings with Priam. Perhaps in this way, Malouf suggests that Achilles’s bond with his “soul mate” is achieved through a story, which has the power to encapsulate and transform the emotions of listeners.
The king, who throughout his journey challenges fate with free will, is spurred on by the notion of his life being defined as a story. The text suggests that man ‘writes’ his own narrative through his actions and choices and in this way transcends (and possibly subverts) his fate. Priam, who is convinced that his actions “follow [him] in the form of a story”, is determined to define his life separately from his role as a king, impelling him to find “something new”, thus challenging his pre-determined fate with an exertion of freedom. The old protagonist, in choosing to write his own story, does not alter his final destiny, but changes the path he takes to reach it, paving a “new” course which renders him as a man rather than an automaton fulfilling a purpose. Similarly, the king’s initiative influences Achilles’ decisions to temporarily step outside of his role as a warrior, thus the linear direction of the tale is disrupted by choice. A fleeting power over their destinies allows the two protagonists to metaphorically ‘pause’ the inevitable progression of fate, reflected in the truce between the Greeks and the Trojans to mourn for the dead before the ultimate destiny is fulfilled. In this way, the inexorable destruction of Troy is juxtaposed with the possibility of “something new”, and Malouf suggests that the intrusion of the latter on the former is what gives Priam hope that even in a deterministic universe, where one’s life is determined by the gods, the opportunity for free will still exists.
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The desire to be remembered is preserved by the retelling of a story, challenging the fixity of mortality and thus casting men into metaphoric timelessness. The text suggests that storytelling through the oral tradition from storytellers such as Somax, and moreover, the reconstruction of an old legend by authors such as Malouf himself renders men immortal as their actions, which “follow them in the form of a story” is being retold. Priam’s assertion that “this story will stand as proof of what I am” reiterates man’s desire to not be forgotten, and that a story has the power to transcend this impeding mortality. In retelling the story of his childhood, the king restores his former identity, and reimagines the “stench” that he associates with it, proclaiming “at any moment” he can envision his alter ego: “so there you are, old man Podarces”. The stench of faeces that encircles the young king’s being remains from the birth of Priam to his death at Neoptolemus’ hands, suggesting that the king’s duality has been a permanent part of his life. In this way, Podarces’ “ghostly” life is envisaged, leaving him unchallenged by the passing of time. A character’s perpetuity is reinforced by Somax’s anecdotes of his lost ones, which is told in such vivid details that his memory appears “present and raw”, suggesting that the power to render man immortal is possessed by the storyteller. The carter has the ability to capture a moment of truth in retelling a story, suggesting that their repetition, “having heard them a hundred times before and know[ing] every detail…” makes the story permanent. Thus, rather than being a “stealer… of other men’s lives”, perhaps a storyteller is simply a curator, who collects stories and retells them, rendering the men of these tales in a state of perpetuity.
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