What is power? This might not be the right question to ask for it’s more than likely that everyone knows the answer already. And it might not be wrong to conclude that everybody agrees it’s about controlling others, domination, making decisions on what others should or should not do. Madeline Miller pretty much (if not completely) shows this through her 2019-Women’s-Prize-for-Fiction-nominated novel, Circe. She shows how the gods have total control over humans (or, any creature below them), how men dominate women (also the undercurrent counter-attack they never realize), and how those with strength can do whatever they want to those who are less powerful.
The book, founded on and centered around the Greek mythology, tells about a nymph (a lower-class, powerless deity) named Circe who was born to a Titan father, Helios, and a naiad mother, Perse. She’s so physically imperfect, with unpretty appearance and bad voice, that even her own mother despises her. But she has a heart of compassion and determination that one day, when she knows she shouldn’t, she comes near Prometheus and asks, “What is human like?” while giving him some nectar to survive after his punishment. That might be a simple question asked out of curiosity, but it looks like a particular one the writer wants us readers to ponder about while scrutinizing her characters not as deities nor Titans, but as human beings.
And while you’re at it, Circe falls in love with a human herself, a charming fisherman named Glaucos. Helplessly head over heels and willing to do anything in order for them to be together forever, she ventures into Knossos and picks the flowers known for their ability to change somebody into somebody else (or, rather, into their real selves). She uses them on Glaucos and changes him into a sea god, but the result is not what she has expected. He becomes as arrogant as any deity or Titan you might encounter, and he falls in love with another nymph, the pretty and mean Scylla. Jealous and desperate, Circe uses the same flowers to change Scylla into a monster, which brings her to her demise: imprisoned for the rest of her life on a remote island.
But that’s her turning point. There on that secluded place, she starts to see things clearly, understand more the way of the world and herself, exploring her true power and using it. She meets sailors (men, to be precise) and comes to know how the opposite gender thinks that a woman living on her own is a weak creature easily intimidated and made a target of their animal desire and abusive behavior. Without her willing to, she has to help her sister Pasiphaë give birth to a monster and learns that if you don’t use your every power and trick to control men, men will control you. She meets Daedalus and finally feels what true love is. She meets Odysseus and knows that she can’t make the same mistake again and so secretly bears him a son, a descendant, walking steadfastly into the realm of motherhood. Through her centuries of experience, she can finally see that she is the master of her own destiny and can do whatever she deems right, or necessary.
Circe’s transformation is perhaps that which people see as ideal these days. Initially innocent and letting herself be bullied for what she is, she then fights back with all she has. She is still a compassionate person at heart, but she no longer takes anybody’s nonsense thrown her way. However, the most interesting thing most readers will never probably miss out is how Miller, through the story of Circe’s ups and downs she has constructed, lays out blatantly the bitterness so many women have to endure. She bewails the notion that unpretty women (here being symbolized by ugly nymphs) are considered useless and unvalued, having no possibility of marriage, a huge burden to their family, dirt staining the world. She cries out loudly that women can actually totally independent: living on her own, fighting on her own, making her own decisions and being held responsible for them. With this lone wolf that is Circe, Miller wants to push into our face the fact that women can rely on their own capability and on themselves. And one more thing that we have to praise Miller for is her audacity to criticize the divinity—how the gods want humans and every creature beneath them to always worship them, pray to them, and sacrifice anything for them to the point that they will do just anything: manipulating, threatening, creating troubles and giving ordeals. This is not a mere criticism. This is how the world truly works.
Circe is, on the whole, a story about women. It’s about how all women on this planet can have their own power and the right to wield it. And Madeline Miller makes it clear through her engrossing narrative. It’s like pieces of cards being piled up neatly into a pyramyd the top of which readers will finally see, where Circe eventually decides her own final destiny and goes through what she has to. Miller also describes every character very well, displaying their seeming personality traits and then gradually revealing their true colors, making them so complex and natural and “human.” With this way of characterization you cannot even hate Pasiphaë, though Circe has time and again fallen victim to her cruelty. And you cannot also love Odysseus whole-heartedly, though he is one of those men who can understand and cherish her. Miller shows you people as they truly are.
Last thing to say, Circe is a fantastic read, fast-paced and enjoyable. And though there is nothing new in its idea or structure, its being “realistic” and powerful is enough to move you.