Hailey and I fully intended to do a buddy read and review for Madeline Miller’s Circe. Unfortunately, we hated it. After a long and cathartic ranting session, neither of us felt much like getting into it all over again in a written format. Well, it’s been some time since then, and I am ready to discuss this book in a calm and rational manner. Mostly.
Content Warning: this review discusses violence against women and sexual assault. We have to address these topics, as they are significant aspects within the book, and we had significant problems with the way the author chose to address them.
Circe is an amalgamation and retelling of the Greek myths around the mysterious witch-nymph Circe, famously prominent in Homer’s Odyssey. Miller follows Circe’s life from her early childhood to the end of her days, as she encounters heroes, fights monsters, and comes into her magical powers as a witch whom even the other gods fear.
I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.
– Madeline Miller
Dear readers, she was exactly that dull.
I do not enjoy writing rants, but I seethed over this book for over a week before I had to write it all down. Mainly, my frustration comes down to the fact that Miller took one of the coolest, most powerful, most self-assured and proto-feminist icons in Western, and robbed her of all her vitality, independence, strength, and badassery. Miller’s version of Circe is the ultimate supporter of the patriarchy:
- She eagerly goes from worshipping one male character to another: her father, then her brother, then her lover, then her son.
- She scornfully insults and pushes down all other women around her, especially casting moral judgment on women who engage in consensual relationships. (More on all this below!)
- She complains about how hard and unfair her life is, how all of the men around her are so mean, but she never questions why this may be so, nor does she consider challenging the male-dominated system that produces such outcomes.
- On the contrary, her entire raison d’être seems to be to sacrifice her life and health in order to uphold the existing patriarchal norms.
- Spoiler Alert: And in the end, this version of Circe chooses to give up all her power and eternal life, because she doesn’t want to be more powerful than her husband-to-be. End spoilers.
Yuck. What the &@%$*? Why is this book being praised as a feminist masterpiece?
There are three particularly concerning decisions by the author, including the aforementioned bizarre ending. First, the author frames Circe as a greater misogynist and adherent to patriarchal values than most of the men in her life. Through Circe’s first-person narration, almost every other female character is dismissed as a fool (see: her mother, grandmother, and the other nymphs on the island) or irredeemably evil (see: Athena, Scylla, Pasiphae). I’ll point to one example in particular: instead of, say, teaching the exiled nymphs witchcraft, or setting up a safe heaven for them, Circe slut-shames them and forces them to act as her servants under threats of violence. Circe particularly seems to enjoy punching down, wielding threats of violence against the weaker nymphs, Daedalus’s already-terrified sailors, and the widowed and homeless Penelope. By contrast, she never dares to stand up to anyone with equal or more power than herself, such as her sister Pasiphae, or her brothers. Circe also defers to every man she meets, until maybe the last hundred pages, to the point where her infant son feels fully confident in ordering her around on her own island home.
My second major concern was the use of a particularly problematic trope, where sexual assault is used as a stand-in for a female character’s development. Never mind that Circe has lived for thousands of years, witnessed political intrigue and hypocrisy at the highest courts of gods and men. Never mind that she fought monsters, taught herself witchcraft, conversed with the greatest minds of each era. No, Circe learns absolutely nothing from any of these life experiences, with regard to the nature of power, good and evil, basic survival instincts, or gendered violence. Instead, Miller uses a highly contrived and wholly unnecessary assault in order to teach her main character a lesson about trusting men, and in order to justify Circe’s subsequent decision to turn people into pigs. It is so, so very unnecessary. There was no similar inciting incident in the original myths about Circe, and 21st century readers don’t need a new justification for Circe’s actions. We fully understand and root for a woman who chooses to defend herself and her island from marauding sailors.
Finally, there was that ending. For the next few paragraphs, I’m going to talk about the book’s ending, so spoilers will abound. Over and over in this book, every character from Hermes to Pasiphae to the sea monster Trigon tells Circe to change the rules, make a different world from the one she lives in, use her powers to bring about the results she desires. In the Odyssey, Circe did just that. She ruled her island absolutely, and even the Olympians did not cross her. She and her nymphs lived in harmony, creating a safe space where women could exercise their agency without fear. She used her magic to protect her home, to assist questing heroes, to offer some good in a dark and difficult world. In the original myths, Circe did not give up her powers or her immortality. It would have been antithetical to the Greek mythological tradition to do so, considering that apotheosis (transcendence from mortality to immortality and divinity) was the highest gift of the gods. Instead, she made Telemachus, Telegonus and Penelope immortal, and they lived in peaceful, matriarchal harmony on Aeaea – y’know, because Circe could do that, as she was a goddess.
Miller flips the myth around here, to the detriment of her version of Circe. In this book, Circe rolls the dice on some weird transformative herbs that may or may not destroy her, because she believes that it would be better to turn into a monster or die, than…let me check my notes…live forever in peace, plenty, and happiness? Just to be clear, it makes no sense for Circe to take this step, even with this version of her character. She will have to spend the rest of her short, mortal life in terror of retribution from Zeus, Helios and Athena. She will effectively become her husband’s property, given the status of women at the time. She may or may not even succeed in transforming into a mortal, as she could instead turn into a violent monster far more dangerous than Scylla, or simply die from the use of these herbs. This is Circe’s happy ending. Again, I do not understand how any of this is pro-feminist.
It’s all particularly disappointing because I really liked Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. Her prior book followed an explicitly romantic relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, depicted a counter-culture of support and safety among the enslaved women in Achilles’ camp, and deftly wove through the long-standing Greek myths about every major player in the Battle of Troy. So I’ll end this review on a semi-positive note, by encouraging readers to check out The Song of Achilles instead.
And if you want to read a strong, feminist retelling of ancient mythology about a witch who has been viewed with mistrust by subsequent years of literature, who gives birth to monstrous children, who falls in love with a married trickster, who suffers horribly at the hands of the gods, who endures and comes into her own power and agency…I would strongly encourage you to read The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec.
Readers, I wish you all good luck on your reading endeavours!
PS: Hailey found this excellent critique of Circe by author Melissa Stacy. It is very detailed, well-cited, and eloquently expresses many of my own frustrations. You can check it out here: https://melissastacy-thoughtcandy.com/circe/
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