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Achilles’ Anger and Unreconciliation: Reassessing the Concepts of Mortality and Honor
The subject of Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, is very clearly stated--it is “the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” The reader remains continually aware of the extent of Achilles’ rage, yet is never told the reason why Achilles remains angry and unreconciled. There is no definitive answer to this question. Achilles is not a static character. He is constantly changing; thus the question of why he remains angry solicits different answers at various stages throughout the poem. To find an answer, the reader must carefully examine Achilles’ ever-changing dilemma involving the concepts of mortality and honor. At its simplest, Achilles’ dilemma is that if he goes to war, he will die. But he will die with glory.
Achilles’ true nature is that of a warrior. The son of Peleus must fight. When he denounces Agamemnon and the Achaeans, he does not go home. His ship is last in line, near Troy. Subconsciously, he has already made the choice of accepting a short life filled with glory. Subconsciously, he wants to go back to war. He needs to. However, he also needs to insure his possession of glory and honor. But what kind of glory, what kind of honor? He already possesses the honor of the gods. He says, “my honor lies in the great decree of Zeus…” (IX.741.p.272). By book IX, material wealth is no longer what Achilles wants. He spurns Agamemnon’s offers. The typical mortal concepts of heroism no longer concern him; his ideals differ from those of his peers. Phoenix’s Meleager is no example to him. However, at this point Achilles still does not know what he wants. Pride and stubbornness still supplement his rage, but now his anger appears to be a manifestation of his fear and confusion—“Stop confusing my fixed resolve with this…” (IX.745-746.p.272). Achilles knows that he wants honor and glory, but in what form?
What Achilles does know, and what he must deal with, is the fact that his life will be short if he chooses to have honor and glory. Thus, the choices he makes concerning his honor are crucial. At this point his life is riding on the decision he makes. It is inevitable that Achilles will choose door #2--to go to war, live a short life, and have much glory.
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Achilles is waiting to go to war, but he must have the right reasons and inspiration. At the end of book IX, after the embassy has conveyed Agamemnon’s offers, Achilles still remains angry and unreconciled. Agamemnon’s offers of wealth and material possessions are not the incentives to inspire Achilles to fight. First of all, these prizes offered are already rightfully his; secondly, taking these gifts would be accepting that Agamemnon is greater than he; and finally, Achilles is struggling over his mortality--material gifts, although honorable and highly glorifying in the Homeric world, are not important to Achilles anymore, for he is attempting to determine whether to live or die.
The spoils of war offered to Achilles by Agamemnon rightfully belong to him. They have always belonged to him. It is Achilles’ toil and exhaustion, his relentless dedication as a warrior, that has gone into fighting for this cause, not his own, to earn these prizes that are now offered to him, these prizes that he never before was allowed to keep, “Twelve cities of men I’ve stormed and sacked form shipboard, eleven I claim by land, on the fertile earth of troy. And from all I dragged off piles of splendid plunder, hauled it away and always gave the lot to Agamemnon…” (IX.398-401.p.262).
These spoils of war serve to rekindle the fire of Achilles’ rage, for they are a reminder of his humiliation, of the honor Agamemnon so publicly stripped from him, when he took away Briseis. These offerings constitute such a blatant insult, that they can solicit only one possible reaction from Achilles, that of anger. These reminders of a fight for a cause not his own cannot possibly inspire Achilles to rejoin the war. Furthermore, what appeal could the possibility of accepting these spoils of war have for Achilles, when accepting them means running the risk of having Agamemnon take them away again. In Achilles’ mind, these spoils of war cannot possibly be permanent. The pain and humiliation of having Briseis taken away cannot be forgotten so easily. Surely, these fleeting rewards, these selfish bribes, cannot constitute glory and honor.
Achilles’ anger grows at the thought of accepting Agamemnon’s offerings, for if he were to accept these gifts, he would be submitting to Agamemnon, accepting that Agamemnon is greater than he is. Agamemnon wants Achilles to submit to him, but for Achilles, there is no honor in resignation to a lesser man: “’What a worthless, burnt-out coward I’d be called if I would submit to you and all your orders…’”(I.343-344.p.87). And Agamemnon is indeed the lesser man, by Homeric criteria. His divine lineage is not even comparable to that of Achilles. Honor and glory are contingent upon respect. Achilles has no respect for Agamemnon, and cannot earn respect himself, by complying with the wishes of a lesser man. Achilles refuses to be patronized. Agamemnon literally attempts to do this, for he offers his daughter’s hand in marriage, which Achilles so defiantly refuses. Glory is rewarded to the greatest man. Achilles cannot allow Agamemnon to be heralded as the greatest; he cannot allow his glory to be taken away and given to another man.
Finally, Achilles’ feelings of anger culminate in feelings of unreconciliation, as he struggles over his mortality, for although material gifts are honorable and highly glorifying in the Homeric world, they are not important to Achilles anymore. He says, ”I say no wealth is worth my life…” (IX.488.p.265). At this point, Achilles’ ideas of heroism, honor, and glory differ completely from those of his peers. Material wealth cannot possibly constitute true honor and glory, especially in a life so short. Achilles is aware of the fact, that if he were to accept these offerings as his glory and incentive for rejoining the war, then his glory would be as short lived as his life, for he knows he will not live long enough to enjoy these spoils of war. Achilles is attempting to determine what does constitute true honor and glory. At this point, he does not know. He is waiting, suspended in a state of immobile anticipation. Before he makes his final decision about whether or not to rejoin the war, he must discover what form of glory and honor is truly worth dying for. Achilles has already amassed material wealth, and he knows that this obviously does not constitute glory, for at this point, he feels devoid of honor. Achilles’ rejection of these material gifts offered by Agamemnon is much more than stubbornness or pride. At such a young age, he must decide whether to live or die. In order to make this decision Achilles must completely reassess his values, all the ideals he has ever known. He must reject the heroic values and standards of the very society that created a hero out of him. He must reject that which he has always known, ultimately resulting in the rejection of humanity.
Achilles remains angry and unreconciled at the end of book IX because he is not offered the right incentives and inspiration to rejoin the war. However, this remains only the primary level of his greater dilemma. He must redefine glory and honor. He is unsatisfied with the current mortal conceptions of honor and glory put forth by society. He is also forced to grapple with his mortality. He must discover what in this life is truly worth fighting and dying for.