: As opposites, relationship andalienation reveal much about character. In Homers The Iliad, Achilles
tragic flaw, anger, and his petty pursuit of honor cause his alienation from
society. His reconnection comes only after his friend Patroclus dies and he sees
that the he has focused his life on trivial rewards rather than love.
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Relationship versus Alienation
Relationship versus Alienation
In the Stories of Achilles, Gilgamesh, and Job
As opposites, relationship and alienation reveal much about character.
In Homers The Iliad, Achilles tragic flaw, anger, and his petty pursuit of
honor cause his alienation from society. His reconnection comes only after his
friend Patroclus dies and he sees that the he has focused his life on trivial
rewards rather than love. Herbert Masons title character, Gilgamesh, is also
distracted from his friendship, and his friend, Enkidu, must die before he
appreciates the importance of the relationship. It takes an unmediated
conversation with God for the Bible figure, Job, to realize that his alienation
is self-inflicted because he doubts God. After this recognition, he is able to
regain his identity as a religious
shepherd. Achilles, Gilgamesh, and Job feel alienation from their individual
beliefs, their relationships with others, or their relationship with their
god or gods, but they also eventually work back toward regaining connection and
By definition, a storys tragic hero must have a tragic flaw. In The Iliad,
the tragic hero Achilles displays excessive anger. Even though his anger
motivates him as a great warrior, it is, conversely, his tragic flaw. Also known
in Greek as thumos (1), or intense spiritedness, this anger is the factor that
separates Achilles from the rest of his society in a number of ways. His rage,
or mnis (2), against Agamemnon and Hector causes his desertion the war effort,
the death of his friend, Patroclus, and his own eventual death. In Book I,
Achilles is motivated by a need for the character trait that classified him as a
hero...glory. His thumos causes Achilles to disconnect himself from society. He
is focused so much on the acquisition of glory and a divine reward for a
glorious life, not to mention Briseus as his prize, that he cannot bring himself
Later, in Book XVI of The Iliad, Achilles anger is his weakness, and the
cause of Patroclus death. Achilles sends Patroclus with the Myrmidons and
lends him his own armor, telling him to repel the Trojans from the ships, but
never go further. He reasons that his reputation would be ruined if Patroclus
No doom my noble mother revealed to me from Zeus,
just this terrible pain that wounds me to the quick-
when one man attempts to plunder a man his equal,
to commandeer a prize, exulting so in his power.
Thats the pain that wounds me, suffering such humiliation. (3)
He continues to persuade Patroclus, saying .... you can win great honor,
great glory for me in the eyes of all the Argive ranks(4). Although Achilles
is appealing to Patroclus sense of friendship, Achilles himself is estranged
from his own sense of friendship because he is so blinded by his quest for
glory. In this case, Achilles alienates himself from his community.
Upon Patroclus death, Achilles awakens to the true spirit of his
relationship with his friend. The glory and honor that once ruled his life now
mean nothing compared to his bond with Patroclus. Achilles, the mighty warrior,
falls ...overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust...tearing his
hair, defiling it with his own hands(5). However, his self-inflicted
alienation has cost him the life of his friend, and by the time he comes to
realize that love is more important than conquest, it is too late. The result,
Achilles isolation from community and relationship, has caused him to feel
intense anomy (6), that there is no meaning or reason to life. Because of
Patroclus death, he has become dehumanized and unattached to his own feelings
and rational behavior. His alienation from himself then leads to his inability
to actively participate in his formerly comfortable society.
Both The Iliad and The Odyssey teach that it takes a long time for a person
who has totally been lost in a traumatizing event, such as war, to finally be
found. This idea of alienation from self, or disconnection from ones beliefs
and personal history, is clear in the story of Odysseus. After his battles in
the Trojan War, Odysseus must travel many years, not only to find his home, but
overcome numerous obstacles to rediscover his pre-war self. The Iliad also
portrays this idea of self-rediscovery as Achilles attempts to renew himself
after losing himself in war. First, however, Achilles rages on, as in the
episode where he slaughters the men by the river. Although he still possesses
the thumos, he is working his way toward transformation. He never makes it home
like Odysseus, because he dies first, but this is what makes his heroism tragic.
Both Achilles and Odysseus become human after living for so long as machines of
war. As they rebuild their dignity, they both reabsorb into society, though
Achilles only lives on as a legend of war while Odysseus goes on to rebuilds his
The story of Gilgamesh portrays relationships in much the same way as The
Iliad. Once they meet, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become instant friends. In fact,
they are so close that they have a yin-yang type relationship whereby they are
perfect complements for each other. What Gilgamesh lacks in bravery, Enkidu
makes up in courage, and what Enkidu needs in interpersonal skills, Gilgamesh
provides with his position as a semi-god. The first stanza of the poem
summarizes the story, stating Gilgamesh was a god and man;/ Enkidu was an
animal and man./ It is the story/ Of their becoming human together (7). Since
Gilgamesh and Enkidu are not wholly man, they are alienated from society. They
cannot relate to other members of their community because they are unique. Their
differences, in fact, cause the strong bond of their friendship.
The alliance between Gilgamesh and Enkidu concludes in a similar
fashion as the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus. As Gilgamesh and
Enkidu head off into battle, Gilgamesh convinces Enkidu to lead the warriors.
This resulted in Enkidus death and the withdrawal of Gilgamesh into deep
seclusion from the public because of his guilt complex. It is as though half of
him has died along with Enkidu, and he feels the emptiness just as Achilles
Gilgamesh wandered through the desert/ Alone as he had
never been alone/ When he had craved but not known what
he craved;/ The dryness now was worse than the decay.
The bored know nothing of this agony/ Waiting for diversion
they have never lost/ Death has taken the direction he had
gained./ He was no more a king/ But just a man who now had/
lost his way/ Yet had a greater passion to withdraw/ Into a
deeper isolation. (8)
Gilgamesh is nearly empty without his friend. Because he feels Enkidus
death is his fault, he is disheartened even more, and, in turn, he alienates
himself further from others.
Gilgamesh finds some comfort in relationships with other people, but he has
really only found more purposelessness. After a discussion with Ea, the poem
narrates that the transfer ...gave him pleasure, being his friend...,
however, ...they only know how to compete or echo... (9). His
self-inflicted isolation impedes Gilgamesh from interaction with other
individuals. Gilgamesh spends the remainder of the poem attempting to rebuild
himself as a complete person by searching for the parts of him that died with
Enkidu. Near the end of the poem, the reader sees that Gilgamesh finally
reconnects with his emotions, ...realizing/ He had not come this far to hear
himself/ Recall the failure of his
grief to save/ But to find an end to his despair (10). Finally, Gilgamesh
is recovering from the loss of Enkidu, and he goes on to attempt to reestablish
his relationships with his wife and the rest of society.
Of all stories of alienation, the tale of Job overwhelms the competition.
Imagine living a nearly perfect life, complete with piety, kindness, and love,
only to have it stripped away, seemingly for no reason, by a God who had been so
trustworthy. This is Jobs predicament. After committing himself to living a
virtuous life, God takes away all of Jobs belongings and infects him with
painful abrasions. Job cannot understand why God would need or want to do this
to such a faithful person, saying:
Although I am blameless, I have no concern for myself;
I despise my own life. It is all the same; that is why I say,
He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When a scourge brings sudden death, he mocks the
despair of the innocent.
When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, he
blindfolds its judges. If it is not he, then who is it. (11)
His inability to comprehend Gods reasoning causes him to feel alienated
from his own beliefs, and the God he had once venerated. Job feels that he needs
sound explanation of his condition, but none of his counselors provide him with
a satisfactory justification. Because there seems to be no reasoning behind Gods
actions, Job feels estranged from his values. Gilgamesh and Achilles also sought
explanation for their situations, but even the notion that they are semi-gods
cannot rationalize the death of their friends. Job, like Achilles and Gilgamesh,
needs to recreate the belief structure that, at one point, had always
been enough to explain the ways of God.
In his newfound misery, these beliefs explained nothing for Job, and,
therefore, he also feels alienated from his God. Platos Allegory of the Cave
seems to apply to this situation. According to the Allegory, Job is all alone in
the cave. Although his friends try to comfort him with what they see in the
shadows, the silhouettes of reality are only distorted interpretations of Gods
real design and reason. Bildad even appears to admit that his counseling is not
Gods true word, declaring our days here on earth are but a shadow, and
he continues to say that it is the destiny of the impious to live a hopeless
existence (12). In terms of the Allegory of the Cave, Gods truth is only
perverted as it is translated into shadows on the walls of the cave. Job, in his
state of anomy, expresses that his eyes have grown dim with grief; (his)
whole frame is but a shadow (13). He is indeed alone in the cave, and in this
state of alienation, the truth of God does not reach him.
Job finally feels finds reason behind his circumstances when he has his
direct encounter with God. In this first-hand meeting, God questions Jobs
being almost as much as Job has in conversation with his counselors. God
proclaims Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if
you know all this (14). Indeed, it had been Jobs hubris that had caused
him to isolate himself from his beliefs and God. Once God re-establishes Jobs
understanding of his place in society and in Gods plan, Job is relieved from
his alienation from himself, his community, and his God. Job confirms this when
he says ...I spoke
of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know (15).
Gods words bring Job to the realization that, although he is insignificant in
comparison to divinity, he has no reason to feel alienated.
I find that I share certain characteristics with Achilles, Gilgamesh, and
Job. All of us, because of our circumstances, have felt alienation from our
beliefs, our communities, or our spirituality at some point. We dont want to
give up our faith, but we struggle to find meaning or reason behind events that
happen in our lives. Achilles, Gilgamesh, and especially Job all have some type
of epiphany where they reconnect or begin the process of reconnection. Although
I dont believe in God, one line in the Bible did bring me a step closer to
understanding what I do believe. In Genesis, as the world was being created, God
says, Let us make man in our image, in our likeness... (16). As a
Unitarian Universalist, I believe that all creatures are interrelated and have
inherent worth and dignity. The fact that God uses the words us and our
affirms this notion of the interconnection of all things...that we are made in
the image of everything around us, from the trees to the oceans to the
birds(17). I was pleased to find personal meaning in a text from which I had
alienated myself. Although there are times when we find ourselves unable or
unwilling to connect with our friends, our spirituality, or even our own
beliefs, we are never alone. Alienation is only a feeling we have when we think
that no one or nothing else is feeling the same. But how can we feel alone when
we are made in the image of everything around us? Simply, we cant.
1. from the student speakers lecture.
2. Lesky, Albin, A History of Greek Literature, trans. de Heer & Willis,
London: Methuen & Co., 1966, pp24.
3. The Iliad, page 414, lines 59-63.
4. The Iliad, page 415, lines 97-98.
5. The Iliad, page 468, lines 28-30.
6. in-class notes.
7. The Iliad, page 15.
8. Gilgamesh, page 54.
9. Gilgamesh, page 77.
10. Gilgamesh, page 68.
11. Job 9:21 through 9:24.
12. Job 8:9.
13. Job 17:7.
14. Job 38.18.
15. Job 42.3.
16. Genesis 1:24.