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.


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

Gender Dynamics

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.

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  • 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 entire section contains 1721 words.)

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