Can ancient Greek mythology somehow reflect the experiences and stages of life one encounters today? Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018) does just that. Circe’s character is alienated as a young child and she struggles through accepting her own existence versus understanding if there is a place for her in the real world. As she silently experiences the unfairness of the male patriarchy, she has to adapt on her own time. However, the biggest decision she faces is whether leaving the toxicity of her traditional family will save her life or not. In the end, Circe decides to accept her fate by gaining power and strength through forceful separation. All these circumstances sound extremely tiring and cruel, however, many young brown girls have to deal with similar instances or worse scenarios that define their entire lives. It is unfair to say that they go through these terrible experiences simply because of their cultural backgrounds. Instead, this discussion can easily revolve around how misogyny once again seems to be the root of many issues even today. By using distinct stages of Circe’s life, Madeline Miller portrays Circe as a character who has to step away from her familial toxicity in order to gain power as a woman which directly reflects modern ideologies surrounding young girls of South Asian descent.
The first stage of Circe’s character directly compares to a young brown girl and has to do with childhood itself. Circe’s childhood was a form of alienation that was out of her control but different from simply just exile. In the first chapter, Circe’s mother, Perse, makes a point of “wrinkling her nose” because Circe is a girl (Miller 10). In response, her father reassures her mother that Circe can eventually “be traded for something better” (10). The misogynistic values as well as the premeditated mindsets from her family already set Circe up in a difficult position. Not only was Circe physically separated and alienated from her family but also she was mentally distant due to the toxicity of unjust treatment. This experience of Circe directly correlates to how many young brown girls in western society feel throughout their lives. It’s important to note that this is not simply because of who Circe is personality-wise but rather this is a literal instance and result of misogyny as well as discrimination towards her uniqueness. Furthermore, in chapter three of the novel, Circe has a discussion with her brother, Aeëtes, that further sets a foundation for alienation in her childhood. She tries speaking to him and his replies are blunt:
“Oh? And when will you be king?”
“Soon,” he said. “Father is giving me a kingdom.”
I thought he was joking. “And may I live there?”
“No,” he said. “It is mine. You will have to get your own.” (Miller 46)
This scene is a parallel to how many young desi girls end up interacting with their brothers as they begin to see the unfair advantages their brothers receive simply by not being women early on in their childhoods. In this way, Circe directly represents the ups and downs of young brown girls as they weave through their childhoods.
The next stage of Circe’s life that promptly connects to a young brown girl developing in western society is the discovery of her hidden skills and talents. Specifically, as the readers know, the magic that she contains. However, it can be represented as independence or a unique interest that a young girl might entertain herself with. A specific example would be a desi girl choosing to find familiarity within the arts rather than just solely throwing herself into the expected STEM-related interests. In the novel, one of the primary instances of Circe beginning to understand her powers and being shut down is when she speaks with her grandmother. Circe says, “I do not know the word. Some device. Some bargain with the Fates, some trick, some pharmaka—”(Miller 62). Her grandmother replies with, “ ‘You dare to speak of that?’”(62). This hostility and immediate dismissal from her grandmother directly shows how easily she is regarded as someone with potential outside of simply what is expected of her. From there, Circe’s behavior during this stage of her life shows that she understood the only way she would be able to survive is by believing in her ability to fend for herself to find a way out. For example, Circe’s reaction to realizing she needs to get back at everyone by affecting Scylla. She says, “I left my father’s halls … There was no one to see me. I gathered those flowers of true being and brought them to the cove where it was said Scylla bathed each day” (Miller 76). Despite her actions being controversial, it is easy to connect that she quickly understood she needed to take matters into her own hands in order to find some sort of peace with the treatment she was receiving from the outside. This thought process directly corresponds with how a brown girl who upholds traditional values has to balance western society while also following the boundaries placed on her by her culturally driven family. The only way out is to stand up for one’s self. Additionally, another strong example of Circe having to balance her own powers and fitting into what is set for her is when Aeëtes makes another appearance. He shows off his skills,
“But you should know that I would be happy to give Zeus a more…impressive demonstration.” … My father’s words came slowly. That same numbness still masked his face. I understood with an odd jolt. He is afraid. (Miller 91)
This scene is a punch to Circe’s gut as not only was he being taken seriously as a threat simply because he was a man but this was just another case of her brother outshining her. However, it also exemplifies how she had to keep herself quiet in order to keep things tame. In that sense, often these desi girls have to hide their talents in order to continue being treated normally and with some semblance of respect; otherwise, it can threaten the male presence within the family or, simply, the masculinity being exhibited through the boundaries. Indrani Chatterjee conducted research on women in South Asian culture and said, “The place of women-centered households is fundamental also to rethinking monasticity from a South Asian perspective” (59). South Asian homes are centered around women from when they are young teens which is why these girls have to be cautious of their boundaries at all times.
The third stage of parallelism between these two different personas is Circe’s self-discovery and how it can correlate to a young brown girl accepting who she is as herself and who she is as a member of an immigrant family. As soon as Circe was exiled, not only was she literally cut off from the rest of the world but, in order to grow as a powerful magic wielder in addition to becoming someone with their own identity, Circe separated herself from worrying about validation from the outside world. Once she was exiled, she began accepting immediately, “I stood there a long time fearing such things and waiting, as if someone would come and reassure me, say yes, you may go, it will be safe… It is too late to go now, I told myself. Tomorrow” (Miller 106). Despite being in a difficult predicament that was surely agitating, to say the least, she quickly swam up from the tears and longing she could’ve drowned herself in. This forward-thinking is directly something many young brown girls have to deal with as they grow older. Many immigrant families very commonly use this specific excuse: being together as a family regardless of any issues and having a traditional community around one is the only thing that’s going to keep one afloat in a western country. However, as a desi girl grows up, she has to come to accept this excuse cannot be the only thing holding her back from feeling comfortable with herself and becoming a woman of her own. Those around Circe were surely threatened and frustrated with the show of skills and power from Crice thus exiling her, “It is agreed with Zeus that for this she must be punished. She is exiled to a deserted island where she can do no more harm. She leaves tomorrow” (Miller 100). In Circe’s case, she was involuntarily removed from a toxic family which resulted in a positive outcome. However, a question many young brown girls ponder over is if voluntarily stepping away from a toxic household is the correct option and choice in order to save their own lives. Unfortunately, this question is very difficult because, in one way they may be able to save their own sanity and become their own person with power and strength; in another way, something that Circe also deals with is being completely ostracized from the community one is supposed to be a part of and feel comfortable with.
In the fourth stage, these two complex personas are able to relate together to the concerns of sexual liberation. In specific, sexual liberation does not necessarily need to be defined as practicing or indulging in the act of sex but rather as being intimate with someone or accepting that part of oneself. One of the primary issues young brown girls predominately face is that public display of affection and intimacy within couples is something that is considered a type of taboo in South Asian culture. Often this occurs because marriage is seen as an absolute within this society, therefore, there is no real reason for one to be super passionate or amorous with each other. However, it is important to note that many scholars disagree with this approach to marriage. Cetinkaya et al. declare, “…Harmony between the two different persons is important to maintain a healthy marriage which is the source of happiness in the society and among the individuals (Kansiz & Arkar, 2011, Cetinkaya et al.). Marriage is seen as a mere transaction in certain South Asian homes. In this way, when Circe begins to accept her role as a woman with power and strength who is able to liberate herself, she begins to delve into sexual liberation and intimacy that would otherwise restrict her progress as an independent woman. The prime example that one can see in this novel is her experience with Odysseus. She has previously had encounters with other men, however, the acceptance of her body, mind, and uniqueness allows Circe to truly appreciate the adventure with Odysseus. At first, it seems as if she believes the only way she can connect with a man is if it seems like some sort of transaction encounter. Circe speaks to Odysseus:
“I have heard,” I said, “that many find their trust in love.”
It surprised him, and oh, I liked the flash of that, before he covered it over.
“My lady, only a fool would say no to such an honor.” (Miller 273)
This interaction further fuels the representation of Circe with young desi girls as it directly shows how awkward and reserved these girls can be. Sexual liberation is not the only thing that creates independence, especially in a woman, nevertheless, certain characteristics and features within an identity such as intimacy can truly cause one’s identity to stay stagnant. Later on in the novel, Circe lies with Odysseus and the intimacy creeps on her. Circe says, “We lay together in my wide, gold bed. I had wanted to see him loosened with pleasure, passionate, laid bare. He was never laid bare, but the rest I saw. We did find some trust between us” (Miller 275). It helps soothe some of the distrust and awkwardness that was initially present simply due to the isolation Circe felt as a young powerful woman. In that sense, as Circe is seen beginning to explore her powers to the maximum and truly beginning to spread her wings, it is because she has shed the baby feathers that are often seen as the limit a woman can encounter.
The fifth and final stage discussed is when Circe’s life wraps up, she has substantial experience with her age as well as her wisdom. As the book progressed, in the conversation regarding the representation of young girls through her character, one is able to see that her childhood and her age definitely served as a great example of the conflicting experience that a young brown girl can have. However, being older, especially in Circe’s case, definitely opened up a new chapter that is not often discussed in women’s lives. For brown girls, it is often the concept that they have two or three years where they are allowed to even think about who they are and what they could potentially be. From there, though, the impending and practically inevitable factor of getting married and having kids looms over their heads. In contrast, it can be seen with Circe, as she grows older, she develops into her role as a woman that can be perceived as a traditional portrayal of a female figure. She has a son and even becomes a strong maternal figure. In fact, she feeds him, takes care of him, and attends in a very safe and competent parental role. She becomes reflective in a way that allows for the good inside her to show not only for others but for herself as well. Towards the end, Circe reflects on and acknowledges her past and present, “I know how lucky I am, stupid with luck, … Beside me, my husband’s pulse beats at his throat; in their beds, my children’s skin shows every faintest scratch … I do not forget either my father and his kind hanging over us, bright and sharp as swords, aimed at our tearing flesh” (Miller 516). This way, one can see that separation is not holding her back as suspected and it does not translate to her being forced into this role, rather, it is something that helps her become autonomous from the Circe that was expected. This final stage is very crucial In helping young brown girls understand that their life will not completely end if they decide to voluntarily settle down and have kids one day. Merve Altin proclaims, “Circe directly reveals her own thoughts and emotions, expresses her feelings, and relates her own viewpoint in relation to these issues… She especially touches upon the familiar stories through which she has been known to the world. She becomes the bard of her own story, and she is free to choose the notes” (149). It is simply her voice and reflection of what she could not speak in the past years. In this way, Circe’s growth actually is able to stray from the norm and sets a good marker of how South Asian culture needs to begin to view the elder women in their lives.
Circe’s circumstances were beyond her control in many instances, however, through her progression within the novel, one is able to see how important her character is even for humans. Specifically, her character has an uncanny resemblance to the lives and experiences of many young South Asian girls who try their best to grasp onto society. Miller’s Circe goes through five separate stages in life that truly aid her in the process of self-empowerment. The first and second stages reflect childhood and the acceptance of one’s own powers. The third stage emphasizes isolation yet valuing oneself instead of worrying about the outside. And finally, the fourth and fifth stages truly bring one together when we see women being able to move past the taboo topics forced onto them. From there, they choose their own destinies, even if they follow traditional patterns, which truly exemplify empowerment. All of these stages make up Circe’s character but somehow they also properly reflect and shape a young brown girl’s life and experiences.