Circe Themes

The main themes in Circe are gender dynamics, mortality, fate, and maturity.

  • Gender dynamics: In reinterpreting famous mythological events and figures through a female-centered lens, Miller crafts a powerfully feminist story that evaluates the power dynamics between men and women.
  • Mortality vs. Immortality: Circe's primary internal struggle is between her immortal heritage and her fascination with, and envy of, mortality. 
  • Fate vs. Free Will: As the story progresses, Circe's desire for change comes into conflict with her seemingly eternal "fate" as a goddess.
  • Maturity and Responsibility: As Circe grows up, she learns to embrace both her power and the past mistakes that cause her shame.

Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1721

Gender Dynamics

Illustration of PDF document

Download Circe Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Power dynamics between men and women are prevalent themes throughout Circe, and the maltreatment of women is common to both divine and mortal society. Young Circe quickly learns that her father is cruel and domineering, and that the women in his court are valued only for their beauty and ability to procreate. Mortal men prove to be just as brutal, as evidenced by Circe’s sister Pasiphaë’s ill treatment by King Minos and Circe’s own experience with the sailors. However, by mastering pharmaka, Circe learns how to protect herself and obtain the power she needs to stand on equal footing with men.

  • In Circe’s early years, she observes the double standards that exist between the men and women around her. Helios has absolute power in his palace and takes many lovers. By contrast, her mother has little control over her own life and must struggle to earn Helios’s attention. As she grows up, Circe learns that Helios’s social authority and sexual liberty are nearly limitless.
  • Pasiphaë’s and Circe’s early romantic experiences illustrate the gender inequality present in Greek culture. Regardless of her preferences, Pasiphaë is married to King Minos, the man of her father’s choosing. Meanwhile, Circe, who tries to select a partner of her own, is spurned and exiled.
  • As Circe travels with Daedalus, she transforms herself into her brother Perses as she directs his crew for their passage by Scylla. This gives Circe the opportunity to act as a leader, and she marvels at the extent to which the men around her follow her command. She’s incredulous at the power being male brings her.
  • Being brutalized by visiting sailors reveals to Circe that being a single woman makes her vulnerable to sexual attacks from men. In devising her defense, Circe harnesses the resources that she does have at her disposal—her magical prowess, her knowledge of the plants on the island, the social expectations of hospitality—to empower and protect herself.
  • In Circe’s interactions with Odysseus, readers see the interplay of gender dynamics. Odysseus is confident, unintimidated, and authoritative when he visits Circe. However, Circe is equally confident, unintimidated, and authoritative in her control of the situation. Beyond her witchcraft, she knows that she has what Odysseus wants: possession of his men. Instead of her body being controlled by the men around her, she controls the bodies of the men that Odysseus needs.
  • Odysseus, Telemachus, and Telegonus showcase the different ways that men navigate the social expectations of ancient Greece. Odysseus embodies the ideal Greek soldier, though he is ultimately tormented by his experiences from the Trojan war. Telemachus rejects the expectation that he must go to war and conquer, but is alienated by his father as a result. Telegonus embraces the masculine ideal, though he leaves his mother and journeys toward an unknown future.

At the end of the novel, Circe advises Penelope to have the gods send their “bad” daughters to Aiaia. This leaves readers with the hope that Penelope will provide the care and mentorship to them that Circe never received, ending the cycle of abuse and sexism.

Mortality vs. Immortality

One of the central tensions of Circe’s story is her relationship with her own immortality. Lacking both her father’s power and her mother’s beauty, Circe is an outcast among the other gods. This isolation gives her a keen interest in mortal life. However, as she interacts with and bonds with humans, she comes to fear the inevitability of losing a loved one to death. This fear is heightened after the birth of her mortal son, Telegonus. Ultimately, Circe must choose between the godhood she was born to and the mortals she comes to treasure.

  • When Circe asks Helios, her mother, and her grandmother to make Glaucos a god, she reveals that she is uncomfortable with her own immortality. She is terrified and overwhelmed by the thought of living, lonely and rejected by the other gods, for eternity.
  • After Circe embarrasses Helios by insisting that it was she who transformed Glaucos and Scylla, he burns her, wounding her badly. Grateful for her own immortality, Circle sleeps and her divinity allows her to heal quickly.
  • When Hermes visits Circe, he explains why her voice sounds so different from those of the other gods: She has the voice of a human. This means mortals may not immediately recognize her as a god, and they may not show her the fear and respect she is owed.
  • When Medea arrives on Aiaia, she shows Circe the power that individuals can have over their own destinies. In killing her brother, Medea has made a decisive choice to live in the mortal world. Medea’s rejection of Circe’s invitation to stay on Aiaia reminds Circe how lonely immortality can be.
  • Odysseus stays with Circe for a year, and then returns again after his journey to the underworld. In her time with Odysseus, Circe notices the effort required to keep a mortal body clean and healthy. She notices that theses attempts are futile, in that humans ultimately age and die. One of Odysseus’s men, Elpenor, dies just before the rest of the crew departs. Circe performs the funeral rites for him, alone.
  • Giving birth to Telegonus, a mortal, gives Circes new understanding, and new fears, surrounding mortality. Though she has anguished over losing mortal lovers, anticipating grief as a mother negatively impacts Circe’s desire to be immortal. This fear fuels her creative inspiration as she uses witchcraft to protect Telegonus.

At the end of the novel, Circe chooses to relinquish her immortality in favor of living as a mortal with her human family. She asserts that while she once thought that the immortal gods were “the opposite of death,” she now realizes that their inability to change and grow is akin to being dead.

Fate vs. Free Will

The conflict between fate and free will is a classic theme in Greek mythology. Both the Titans and the Olympians claim the power of prophecy, and Circe grows up believing in fate. Lonely and subject to the torments of the other immortals, Circe believes that she is destined to waste away in her father’s court for eternity. However, everything changes after she is exiled to Aiaia. In Circe, fate represents the stagnant, hedonistic lifestyle of the gods, eternal and unchanging. By contrast, free will is aligned with mortals and their capacity for personal growth.

  • Circe is the daughter of Helios, a god with the power of prophecy. From the beginning, her life is dominated by the belief that her life is predetermined. However, when she sees Prometheus bleeding after his whipping, she defies Zeus and Helios by bringing Prometheus a cup of nectar. This is a formative experience for Circe and represents her first exercise of free will.
  • After Circe transforms Glaucos and Scylla, she begins to understand that she has some power and authority independent of the immortality inherited from her parents. If she chooses, she can use the resources around her to create magic of her own.
  • Alone on Aiaia, Circe spends most of her days preparing herbs and supplies for her magic. She realizes how much effort and toil goes into pharmaka. Though she must work at witchcraft, she comes to view magic as a way of taking control of her life.

At the end of the novel, Circe’s decision to live as a mortal is her most definitive exercise of free will. Rather than embracing the lonely fate of an immortal goddess, she chooses mortality and the right to live and love according to her own rules.

Maturity and Responsibility

Though Circe is an immortal goddess, Circe can be read as an unconventional bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. Throughout the novel, Circe learns hard lessons about life and love as she strives to find her place in the world. One of the themes developed throughout the novel is the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions. This theme is best exemplified by Circe’s creation of Scylla.

  • Raised in a society where pain and cruelty are considered novelties, Circe is confused and fascinated by Prometheus’s decision to sacrifice himself for mortals. When her guilt over creating Scylla sets in, she attempts to emulate Prometheus by confessing her crimes to her father. However, her confession is childish in that it is meant to alleviate her own guilt and make her feel morally superior to the other gods rather than address the pain she has caused.
  • When Circe confides her guilt over having transformed Scylla into a monster to Aeetes, he tries to reassure her. Aeetes argues that Scylla is more powerful and more glorious as a sea monster than as an attractive young goddess in Helios’s palace.
  • During one of his visit to Aiaia, Hermes tells Circe about the humans Scylla has killed in the years since Circe transformed her. Circe’s guilt agonizes her, and she bemoans the suffering caused by her irresponsible, jealousy-fueled use of magic.

At the end of the novel, Circe’s decision to kill Scylla represents her increased maturity. Rather than running away from her mistakes or making excuses, Circe comes to accept them. By confessing her role in Scylla’s transformation to Telemachus, Circe can begin to forgive herself.

The central themes of the novel come together at the ending, as Penelope and Circe bond. Circe initially envies Penelope, since Odysseus ultimately chooses to leave Circe and return to his wife. However, she’s also embarrassed, as she had knowingly been Odysseus’s lover while he was married to Penelope. Though Penelope is initially subdued and shy, Circe and Penelope find companionship as they share the similarities in their stories. They have both experienced profound love and loneliness. They have also both been pawns in the political schemes of men. Ultimately, they both find empowerment through creativity (in witchcraft and at the loom) and in exercising free will: Circe gives up her immortality to live with her mortal family, while Penelope finds freedom from the of social obligations of being a wife, mother, and cousin on Aiaia. Circe’s parting advice to Penelope about having the gods send their unwanted daughters to Aiaia provides hope that more women will find peace and fulfillment as Circe and Penelope did.

Previous

Chapter Summaries

Next

Characters