When we talk about what an episode "signifies,"
we mean the following (using Patroklos's death as an example):
(a) its dramatic significance
(what subsequent events "happen because of," i.e. are dramatically
motivated by, the fact and manner of Patroklos's death? Is
irony associated with these events, or with the speeches made
by the participants? ...etc.)
(b) its symbolic significance
(what aspects of P's death resonate with other moments in the poem?
It takes Homer several pages to narrate P's death [which is one of the
"squiggles" that tell us it is significant]; does the poet
include imagery in this narrative that is echoed elsewhere in the poem?
Is there foreshadowing involved? What about that moment where Achilles's
helmet [which P. has borrowed] rolls in the dust, for the first time
ever [as Homer tells us, line 796]? What about the fact that P. is killed
by Hektor while posing as Achilles? ...etc.)
(c) its structural significance
(why does it occur in book 16 out of 24 [i.e., 2/3 of the way through]?
Are there events earlier and/or later in the epic that balance or mirror
this one? The Iliad is a notably "architectural" poem--that
is, it is built according to a very well-thought-out structural design,
with an artistic symmetry comparable to that of the Parthenon. How does
Patroklos's death contribute to the architectural design of the poem?
We can ask these same
questions of any major event in the poem (and even
quite a few of the minor ones).
In the "free time" generated by our not having class on Tuesday,
I would like you to ask similar questions about certain "highlights"
of Books 18-24, focusing especially on the following:
Hektor's death, XXII: 248-375.
Compare this episode with that of Patroklos's death (XVI: 783-861).
Consider the way each of the two bodies is treated by the victor(s),
using Andromache's description of the way Achilles treated her father's
corpse (VI: 414-421) as a blueprint for the way heroes' bodies ought
to be treated. Consider also the prophecies that feature in the dying
men's final speeches: How do they contribute (structurally/symbolically/dramatically)
to the poem? How are these speeches received by the victors, and what
does that reveal about the character of each? In other words, how do
Patroklos and Hektor measure up as victims; and how do Hektor and Achilles
measure up as victors, respectively? How do Hektor's answer at XVI:
859-61 and Achilles's at XXII: 365-66 reflect their actions and characterization
throughout the epic? Do the two of them stand for (represent, symbolize)
anything (apart from "Troy" and "Argos," respectively)?
How does Hektor's deliberation (lines 98-130) reflect a scheme of values
different from what we have seen evolving in Achilles? At the crisis,
how do these values stand up to heroic confrontation (lines 136ff.)?
Athene's trick (pretending to be Hektor's brother) seems cruel and underhanded
to the modern reader. Keep in mind that, among other things, such Olympian
"helpers" may act as symbols of the hero's arete
(not a substitute for it). More importantly, why is Athene's trick a
fitting one, given the characters, situations and symbolic resonances
Finally, in relation to all these death scenes (Sarpedon's, Patroklos's,
Hektor's), what events outside the scope of the poem seem to
be inscribed in this trajectory? The fall of Troy is not depicted in
the Iliad; how does Homer gesture towards it, using Hektor's
death and its repercussions? Similarly, Achilles is not to die within
this narrative: do you see symbolic and dramatic portents of his death
encoded in the narrative?
Be sure to track Achilles's armour. What
is the significance of the fact that when Patroklos kills Sarpedon,
he is dressed as Achilles? What about the fact that Patroklos then goes
on to "act out" Achilles's own death--while wearing A's armour
and fighting for A's kleos? When Achilles, in turn, confronts
Hektor, Hektor is wearing Achilles's own armour. How many layers of
significance can you wring from the fact that Achilles is therefore,
in effect, killing himself (in effigy/surrogate)? From Achilles's
perspective, he's killing the man he holds responsible for Patroklos's
death--any irony there?
Give some thought to helmets while you're about it: from Hektor's in
Book 6, to Achilles's in Books 16 and 22, to Andromache's headdress
at XXII: 467-72, head-coverings seem to have particular significance
here. What does this motif contribute to your reading?
Look closely at how the folks back in Troy react to news of Hektor's
death (XXII: 405 to the end).
Do you see a parallel between Priam's wallowing in the dirt (ln. 414,
out of grief for Hektor) and Achilles's refusal to eat (XIX: 213 and
305-308, out of grief for Patroklos)? How does their grief over a loved
one's death threaten to sever each of these heroic men from the ongoing
process of living? How do they overcome this "disconnection"
to return to life by the end of Book 24?
Why do you think Priam's response here is emphasized more than Hekabe's?
Note especially how Andromache finds out about her husband's death (ln.
437ff.). Homer really turns on the pathos here: how does he do it (i.e.,
what emotions does he draw on to wring a tear from his audience)? How
does she finish, here, the story Hektor started to tell back in Book
The Funeral Games for Patroklos (Book 23) give us additional insights
into Achilles's character in general, and his capacity for dealing with
grief in particular; however, they do interrupt the "main"
storyline a bit. Why do you think Homer takes the time to narrate the
Games so lovingly?
Priam's extraordinary midnight embassy to Achilles in Book 24 is, in
a way, the emotional climax of the whole work. Why does Achilles finally
agree to give Hektor's body back--that is, how do the dramatic, symbolic,
structural and philosophical layers of the poem come together
here to produce the logic according to which Achilles (under Homer's
direction) acts? What kind(s) of closure is Homer offering us here?
Some important things you might want to consider
about this scene:
--Thetis, sent by Zeus, appeals to Achilles on the gods' behalf (note
how the direction of communication here reverses what we saw in Book
1). What is the structural value of this?
--There is something fundamentally cruel and disorderly about the idea
of children dying before their parents (cf. Thetis's laments dirented
at her mortal son)...how does this play into Priam's status vis-a-vis
--In Book 9, we saw Achilles's philosophical quest
for some kind of meaning in death; at XXIV: 550, he seems to
acknowledge that there is no compensation for death as such.
(To review the models of compensation that have been suggested
by various characters in the Iliad, click here.)
Notice the 2-phase model of consolation Apollo suggests in his
speech at XXIV: 46-49, quoted at the very top of this page. How does
this model play out in the exchange between Priam and Achilles? (Hint:
Achilles himself summarizes, in the opening and closing of his paradeigma
speech about Niobe, lns. 599-620.)
-- Note that Priam is the only one who has suffered more than Achilles
(lns. 505-506). He appeals, as a grieving father, to Achilles's memory
of his own father. Why is this especially poignant--and effective?
--Achilles has, in fact, been something of a curse on fathers: Priam,
Hektor, Peleus. At the same time, we have seen him surround himself
with a number of "surrogate" father figures: Agamemnon ("I'm
taking away your prize because you've been a naughty boy..."),
Phoinix, Patroklos (whose name means "glory of the fathers"),
and now Priam. How do you see this "quest" for a father figure
playing into the dramatic, symbolic and structural design of the poem?
[By the way, Achilles does have a son, Neoptolemos, whom he conceived
while disguised (by Thetis) as a girl to avoid being sent to Troy (read
about it here).
This son receives almost no attention from Homer (though he will loom
large in Virgil's retelling of the fall of Troy, in the Aeneid). Why
do you think Homer downplays him?]
--Note our last sight of Achilles (lns. 675-676). How many layers of
significance can you wring from the fact that we leave him precisely
Finally, Hektor's burial rites (ln. 710 to the end): compare Andromache's
lament (lns 723-745) with Thetis's for Achilles (XVIII: 52-63). Note
that when Thetis visits Achilles at XVIII: 71, she holds his head in
her arms--as Andromache holds Hektor's here, in a traditional mourning
posture. How does Homer use Thetis's gesture as a symbolic tool?
Back at Hektor's funeral: what is the point of giving Helen the last
word (lns. 761-775)? And finally, why is it appropriate (or is it?)
that we end this epic with the burial of Hektor--not some event in the
Greek camp? How do you see this ending fitting in with Homer's architectural
Design in the Iliad
Do your best to schematize for yourself the overall structure (what
I've been referring to as "architectural design") of the epic.
I will go over this with you later (be sure to bring your Iliads
to class on Thursday AS WELL AS the Hymn to Demeter).
Note: your discussion contributions on the
questions I've asked above (which will be graded as your class participation
for Tuesday) are due by midnight Tuesday (that is, 13 hours after
our class would normally end).