Thesis musings

Published March 20, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Don’t let the title set off warning klaxons shouting “boring!”:  my thesis is going to be about the Trojan War, as dealt with in literature and art for 3000 years.

Okay, maybe that still sounds boring, except that I’m focusing on gender issues and the role of Achilles.  So I’ve got all kinds of fun stuff like men in drag, and men loving other men.  (Though, strangely, the two are not actually connected.  Not directly, anyway.)

So, if anyone’s read any of my previous entries about my eventual thesis, then those (un)lucky individuals already know that the course I took last semester ended with a massive research paper that was, well, I thought it was an early concept sketch, as it were, of my Master’s Thesis.  But after the fact I realized that there was no actual, you know, thesis involved.  I was just essentially doing a literature and art review covering well over 2000 years.  It’s interesting stuff–books have been published about far less interesting things–but it’s not a thesis.

The entry that follows is partially filling the few interested parties in on what I’m thinking now, and partially just a writing practice for me, trying to determine what I actually want to make the real thesis about.

So, last semester’s paper started out about sexuality–focusing on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos and how it’s been re-interpreted and re-presented/represented–but morphed into being about gender roles about two weeks before it was due.  (Never a good time for a topic shift!)  But that still doesn’t qualify it as a thesis.

I started that final paper out with an introductory section given the “cute” title of “Manliest of the Achaians” since it was about gender roles (particularly regarding the definition of masculinity) and because one of the often repeated ways that Achilles is described in the Iliad is “best of the Achaians.”  I tried to cobble together some kind of pseudo-thesis for that paper, saying that his primacy as an icon of masculinity was best proven by examining the exceptions, or some such rubbish.

But the thing I’ve been thinking of lately, whenever I come to dwell on the subject, is how the reverse is true.  No, not the reverse, exactly, but….well, in short, I’ve been realizing that despite his sometimes being held up as a paragon of masculinity, there has never been a time–that I’m aware of–in which Achilles actually was all that masculine.

Sure, he fights better than anyone else in his entire war…but only when he’s not sulking in his hut/tent.  Sulking is never regarded as manly in any of the cultures I’m dealing with.  (I would love to visit a culture where it was regarded as manly, though…)

Sure, he talks a good game about loving his concubine, Briseis, but he completely ignores her when he gets her back, because Patroclos, the one person he truly loves, has been killed.  Admittedly, in the culture where these tales began, loving a man more than any woman was not considered a stain on a man’s masculinity, but the homoerotic aspect of their relationship has tainted his masculinity in many succeeding cultures.  (For example, the 20th century performances of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, in which Achilles appeared in drag, or wearing a feather boa. (Not making that up, btw.  Read it in the introduction to the play.))

Sure, he’s the most handsome man in the Greek camp…but put him in a dress, and he’s more beautiful than all the daughters of Lycomedes.

And that’s just the original myth I’m talking about, primarily as described in the Iliad.  (Though the stuff in drag on Scyros came from later Greek sources, like the Athenian tragedians.)  There’s all kinds of new wrinkles as time progresses and the definitions of masculinity shift.  Like the bit with him retiring from the war?  In the Middle Ages–and this was inherited by authors as late as Shakespeare–he withdrew from the war because he was in love with Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and so he was withdrawing to obey his lady, as any proper Medieval knight would.  But that was still a stain on his masculinity, a willing subversion of it as proof of love.  (This is particularly the case in later authors who deal with that version of the story, especially Shakespeare.)  And in the 18th century, particularly in England, the kind of masculinity on display in ancient times–the bravado, the violence, the drinking, the noise–became detested, and was no longer acceptable for a man obeying social dictates.  (If you’re familiar with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Squire Western represented the old, no longer accepted style, and Squire Allworthy represented the new masculine ideal.)  So everything about Achilles that had been his more manly side–the violence, the bad temper–became defiances of proper masculinity.

However, all of that is still just a literature review, a summary of how things changed over time.  And while that would be fine and dandy if I was writing a book for public consumption (and yes, I’d like to do just that), it’s not acceptable for a Master’s Thesis.

But I have totally no clue what, precisely, my thesis is, coming off that base.  Admittedly, there’s still some time yet before I need to think about that.  (Not sure how much, exactly.  At least a year, most likely.)  But I feel like I ought to have a better handle on what I want to do with my thesis, in case anyone asks me.

In fact, it came up today at the museum.  The director was saying something about why (straight) men can’t bring themselves to admit that other men are attractive, and then she started apologizing to me, and saying how that was just the sort of thing that comes up sometimes, and of course I laughingly assured her that it was nothing out of the ordinary to me, since my thesis involves just that kind of issue.  Then I had to try to explain what my thesis actually was, and it started getting awkward.  But that was okay, ’cause it’s an informal setting (which sounds bizarre, considering I’m talking about the director of the museum) and I’m still only a volunteer there.  But if a professor should ask me about it and I don’t have a good answer…!  Then I’m gonna feel realllllllllly weird.


3 comments on “Thesis musings

  • Hmm, well a couple of thoughts that came to mind reading this. And for the record, I don’t know that much about this at all so just random ideas that might spark something for you. The whole Achilles’ heel thing being a weakness while he was unable to be killed any other way – how that’s impacted on today’s culture or something. Or the symbolic nature – the arrow in the foot representative of Achilles being raped, therefore leading to his death or something – the way in which rape influences/characterizes decisions. Achilles in comparison with Helen of Troy, maybe contrast of the relationships between characters – or the way women and men respond to drama. the affect of death on women vs. men in the time period. Something about the way love vs. lust and the way it can cause tragedy.

    Pick out what bothers you most, gender if that’s it – what is it about gender in this that stands out – the way in which masculinity is defined, the way in which he is regarded as masculine, whatever it is – think about what is already out there in terms of research – and pick what you agree/disagree with and work from that. Research is there to support your theory – ignore it all until you know what is you want to argue/maintain/discuss – and then find research that supports and opposes you. Plus talk to random people who don’t know much about the topic, explain it to them and see what they say, ask questions about their initial impressions – sometimes you’re in too deep when you already know a lot of the material – my sister hates reading and all that sort of stuff – but she thinks out of the box – whenever I get stuck, asking her sometimes sparks something that makes an essay more original or deeper. Obviously I know it’s a lot harder than that, but sometimes it helps to go back to basics to get started.


    • I actually got put onto the gender issue by talking to my professor last semester, who doesn’t know much about the myths. When I mentioned the time Achilles spent disguised as a girl on Scyros, he was shocked that such a masculine hero had spent time in drag. Considering this same professor said he had laughed out loud in the theatre in seeing the movie “Troy” when Achilles called Patroclus his cousin, I had a feeling that meant that there was something out of joint. I’m still trying to put the pieces together as to where I’m going, but I feel like I’m onto something, if I can just order my thoughts enough to see it.

      The problem with the “Achilles heel” issue is that it’s very late; in all the earliest sources, he’s completely vulnerable. The dipping in the River Styx myth doesn’t appear in any written sources until AD 95, and even then it’s the ankle. It doesn’t become the heel until a translation error going from Latin to French. (In my fiction, I tend to make his weak spot the other body part associated with him: the Achilles tendon.)


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