By Tuba Gulmez
In this literary analysis, Tuba artfully points out the contradictions in how we think of tragic heroes/heroines. On the one hand, in spite of his many flaws, Odysseus is elevated as a heroic literary figure. On the other, though Medea meets the criteria for a tragic heroine, she is often demonized and diminished. This essay argues not only that we should be more inclusive with defining our heroes, but also that we should question the way that we celebrate so-called “heroic” characters and their harmful behavior.
—Joss Lake, editor
Literary texts, such as Shakespeare’s Othello and Homer’s The Odyssey, often revolve around the idea of a male hero, especially a tragic one. The tragic hero wins the reader’s sympathy through their redeeming traits, such as their power and determination, yet we still refer to them as heroes when these same traits lead to their downfall. In order to understand this phenomenon, we must also question why we don’t refer to Euripides’ Medea as a hero, even though her character traits, deceitful actions, and plans of revenge are jarringly similar to male heroes. Both Medea and Odysseus inflict needless pain and suffering on other characters to prove their love and feelings of betrayal, yet the outcomes are quite different. Medea is characterized as a villain solely based on her being a mad woman, yet we refuse to hold Odysseus to the same standards of judgment. We must not only reanalyze our definition of what is required of a character to be deemed a hero, but also reevaluate our valorizing judgment of these problematic characters.
Odysseus is a prideful man, respected by everyone and celebrated for his power and strength. He is consistently portrayed as a hero through his bravery and presumed loyalty, but his pride is what eventually leads to his downfall. Odysseus is nowhere near as “perfect” a man as the characters and Homer make him out to be. His disloyalty to his wife Penelope is proven multiple times as he acts in adulterous ways. On the other hand, Penelope can only do so much as a presumed widow, where she is constantly pressured into remarrying, since the only way her status in Ancient Greek society would be upheld is through belonging to another man. Her hospitality is taken advantage of as potential male suitors have overstayed their welcome, which angers Odysseus once he comes back home. As a result, Odysseus plans and avenges these suitors. In Book 22, Odysseus explains his jealousy: “And you flirted with my wife while I am still alive! You did not fear the gods…you thought no man would ever come to take revenge. Now you are trapped inside the snares of death” (p.477, 35-40). This is followed by his violent killings of the male suitors. As a man, Odysseus is expected to act this way, and his actions are neither surprising nor frowned upon. Instead, he is celebrated and looked up to by others as he becomes a role model. His actions are seemingly justified because other men were not respecting his wife Penelope, but his jealousy enraged him to a point where he became a murderer in the name of love. This familiar trope is an example of a crime of passion, a violently jarring action taken by most tragic heroes, in which excessive love and jealousy leads to a tragic outcome and eventually, to the character’s own downfall. The violent nature of Odysseus should lead us to question whether he should really be deemed a hero, due to his destructive flaws. Euripides’ Medea tells a similar story involving love, jealousy, and passion, yet the reaction given to Medea by other characters—and even readers—is, unsurprisingly, very different.
As scholar Ian Reilly explains, Medea is a pivotal work of literature in terms of “motherhood and heroism” (27) and how the characterization of a tragic hero plays out. Medea tells the story of a woman who has been wronged by her husband, Jason, cheated on and left for another woman, a princess. As a foreigner who has given up her family and more for her husband, Medea reacts to Jason’s infidelity with sadness, grief and ultimately, rage. Medea explains throughout the play the hardships women go through as a result of their gender and also believes “if her marriage bed’s dishonoured, no one has a deadlier heart” (p. 9, 263-265). Jason believes that he is doing what is best for his family and their status, yet he does not understand the love Medea has for him. This leads her to pursue acts of revenge due to her excessive love turning into jealousy, in a similar way to Odysseus, since she wants Jason to feel the same pain and betrayal she is going through. Medea is self-aware about how her vengeance is dangerously evil, but her emotions keep her from thinking rationally as she plans to kill her own children, the princess, and Jason’s father-in-law. The reader is aware through Medea’s monologues that she has a difficult time coming to this decision and feels immense guilt, yet as a woman she feels though she must prove her power and not let Jason escape from his wrongdoings. Before Medea leaves Jason for good, she proclaims, “I’ve done what I had to: I’ve pierced your heart” (p.35, 1360). Medea’s excessive passion ultimately leads to the death of other characters as well as her own downfall, as her character becomes a symbol of violence and establishes herself as a tragic heroine.
Euripides characterizes Medea as a heroine, yet to Jason and even to readers, she is seen as the villain. But can she be the true villain if her destructive tendencies are triggered by Jason and his infidelity? For Medea, revenge was the only way she could salvage her pride as a woman who’s been betrayed. Her violent behavior is no different than Odysseus’, who also felt deceived and acted upon his feelings of rage. The similarity between these two characters’ reactions and plans of action is worth noting, so we can become aware of how we define a tragic hero. The concept of heroism in literature becomes a greater issue when there are gender dynamics at play. Odysseus is labeled and accepted as a tragic hero, even if his actions are far from heroic, yet Medea is villainized, while the only difference between these characters is that Medea has to choose “between a life of domesticity/motherhood and violence/heroic glory” (Reilly 28). Medea’s seemingly unfamiliar behavior is quite common in literature, as she is the female embodiment of male heroic qualities (28). As Reilly states, “Euripides creates a traditional Greek hero in a body of a foreign woman who not only espouses but reinforces male heroic values…to salvage her honor at whatever cost…” (30). While Odysseus is praised, Medea is stigmatized and ultimately characterized as the “crazy, jealous woman.” If Medea’s values are deemed wrong, then we must also analyze our judgement of Odysseus and the definition of a hero. These ideals are inherently destructive, and as a result, both Medea and Odysseus are examples of toxic heroism.
The effects of toxic heroism are far more disastrous for women than for men, as women are held more accountable for their actions and emotions. Medea defies every societal expectation of how women should act in Ancient Greek society. Understanding how the concept of a hero is defined based on gender also involves understanding how this play “problematizes our view of women in Greek tragedy and also our reception of male heroic ideals” (Reilly 30). Readers of Medea judge Medea’s actions purely through the female lens we see her in. Her femininity and domesticity seemingly do not have enough room for her pride and violent, albeit toxic, heroism. However, Odysseus’s disloyalty, violence, and dangerous pride are not seen as negative traits because he is a man. The boundaries of male heroism are objectively dangerous, but also apparently far more dangerous when appropriated by a woman. As a result, “Medea becomes the vehicle through which male models of heroism are reexamined” (Reilly 29). Medea’s actions allow us to realize how the concepts of male heroism can be inherently toxic when applied to characters that are morally wrong, because we begin to excuse their behavior instead of scrutinizing it. We understand that Medea’s behaviors are not acceptable, which is why we do not classify her as a tragic heroine. This reasoning then brings up the question: is Odysseus a tragic hero or a toxic hero?
Gender plays an important role in how we analyze the characteristics of Medea and Odysseus and how we justify their actions. However, these characters have become the blueprint for contemporary character tropes as well, such as the “jealous boyfriend”, the “cheater” and the “angry woman.” As a modern society, we still feed into these tropes and even apply them to our lives. How a woman behaves and reacts is always seen as an overreaction and not taken seriously, where even a man’s most unwarranted outbursts of anger are never questioned. It is important to recognize these gendered tropes and work actively against them.
The concept of a hero is often given a positive connotation, even though acts of heroism incite violence and rage. We do not become aware of how incorrectly we define tragic heroism until the character in question is a woman, and then we begin to question how the concept of a tragic hero is inherently problematic. Medea sacrificed everything for the one she loved, who in turn betrayed her. This led her to act upon her worst violent impulses not only to emotionally hurt Jason, but also to reclaim her power as a woman. If Medea were to be judged on the same set of characteristics that deems Odysseus a hero, she would be known as the most heroic woman in literature. Yet, a woman like Medea who adopts male heroic values can only be seen as an angry, barbaric woman who has no morals. We enable toxic heroism by awarding the title of hero to those who inflict pain on others on behalf of their dangerously extreme emotions.
Euripides. Medea. Translated by Sheila Murnaghan, Norton Critical Editions, 2018.
Homer. The Odyssey (pp. 477). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Reilly, Ian. “‘Revenge Is Never a Straight Line’: Transgressing Heroic Boundaries: Medea and the (Fe)Male Body in ‘Kill Bill.’” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 30, no. 1, 2007, pp. 27–50. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23416196. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.
Tuba Gulmez is currently a junior at Baruch College majoring in International Business, with minors in Marketing and Political Science. They work part time as a marketing assistant at a small advertising firm, writing and editing promotional material. Outside of school and work, they enjoy writing academically and personally, whether it be research papers or journaling. Over the past two years, Gumlez has found a love for literature and gained more of an appreciation for the power of writing, which has become a source of comfort in unprecedented times. In the future, they hope to continue writing alongside their career!
Published April 25, 2022
Photo credit: “IMG_8134C Joseph Mallord William Turner. 1775-1851. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysse raillant Polyphème – l’Odyssée d’Homère. 1829. Londres National Gallery.” by jean louis mazieres is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.