Characterization in Circe by Madeline Miller
Madeline Miller’s speculative fiction novel is a love letter to the Greek mythological figure Circe, following the goddess through a feminist retelling of her story. In it, she is not the witch of myth who lures innocent men with her voice and heartlessly transforms them into pigs. She is not the cruel sorceress who is tricked by—and then submits to the will of—Odysseus. Instead, Miller portrays Circe as a woman who has been taught by experience that the world is a violent, imposing place filled with people who take what they want and burn the rest. While Miller’s portrayal of Circe is an excellent exercise in characterization, however, her subject’s circumstances and the scope of the novel’s time frame undercut the believability of her minor characters.
Miller’s novel follows Circe from birth, through her role in classic epics, and even speculates on the end of her life. This allowed the author to explore how Circe’s beliefs and personality changed through every stage of her life. It also allowed her to provide a thoughtful background that lent a greater sense of reason to Circe’s portrayal in Greek legend.
Circe is initially portrayed as a Godchild who is unwanted and unloved by her parents and older siblings. This makes her into a relatable figure of loneliness and rejection, but this is only the first layer of Miller’s interpretation. Because Circe’s family starves her of affection, she is consumed by her first love, acting only in his benefit to the price of losing herself. Eventually, because of her reckless devotion, she earns the Greek gods’ ire and is banished to the island Aiaia.
Circe’s desire to love and be loved, an affliction caused by a life of isolation, is a driving factor for most of her long life. It rots and turns to bitterness after she is assaulted by fishermen visiting her island. It also fuels several romances during her long life, some more ill-fated than others. Her trysts with Hermes are an initial balm for her loneliness. Her brief involvement with Daedalus is one of her earliest tastes of sweetness. Her romance with Odysseus makes her wise and conscious of her own flaws. Her love for Telemachus is unselfish, but not a selfless.
She comes to love herself, as well, which she finds is the key to loving another. “I had been watching myself with [Telemachus],” the narrative says. “It was a novelty to me, noticing the expressions shaping themselves on my face, the movement of the words across my tongue.” As her self-awareness develops, she becomes one half of an equal bond rather someone else’s afterthought.
The novel’s focus on Circe, however, is a double-edged sword. The narrative takes place over the course of many centuries, three-quarters of which is all in the same setting (Aiaia). Fitting all that into a three-hundred-some page book means that characters such as Daedalus, Hermes, and even her own son, Telegonus, get very little character development. Being a goddess, Circe is immortal and outlives all of her mortal acquaintances. Characters who had great influence on Circe’s life are reduced to one or two dismissible chapters that end brief in Hallmark-style “where are they now?” summaries of how they lived and died after parting ways with Circe. This lack of development hammers these characters into the second dimension.
What Miller excels in doing, however, is shining a light on her main character and delving into the mechanics of what made Circe who she was, not just at the end of her life, but at every milestone along the way. While the pacing of the story did make it difficult to “round out” her other players, her characterization of Circe felt like a case study of a real-life goddess.
I give Circe 7 out of 10 doomed romances.