Relationship versus Alienation

Relationship versus Alienation

In the Stories of Achilles, Gilgamesh, and Job

As  opposites, relationship and alienation reveal much about character.
In Homer’s 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 Mason’s 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
rebuilding identity.

By definition, a story’s 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 męnis (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
to battle.

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.

That’s 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 one‘s 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