Parallels With Other Stories…

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina begins with the words “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I believe each tragic heroine in literature is tragic in her own particular way, relative to the circumstances and events taking place around her so that comparisons between them may not be that appropriate.  Polyxena is a tragic heroine -of this there is no doubt; she has a tragic life, or rather final ten months of it, the time span covered in the novel, living a ‘lifetime’ in that duration.  Her story is unique and I cannot match her up with any other literary character in quite the same light.  Still, there are some similarities that might be made; I will endeavor to cover them here.

Most tragic heroines have this in common -their downfall is the result of love’s passion (Aphrodite’s maneuverings) -leading them into adulterous affairs (Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina) or being sexually assaulted (Tess Durbeyfield), and are then victimized by its aftermath.  Polyxena doesn’t quite fit that mold -Yes, it’s true that love is her undoing, specifically her spurning the love of Neoptolemus, but what is not clear is whether she created her own fate or was fulfilling her destiny.  Mainly it is the war that brings great sorrow to her.  How many countless people, mostly in stories untold, share this claim?

Polyxena is taken from a relatively sheltered court life -not entirely without grief, for she mentions her pain over the loss of her brothers, Troilus, Polydorus and especially Hector (which happened before her own story begins)- and is sent to the Amazons to secure them as an ally in the war.  She is asked to accompany them in their campaign against the enemy-occupied cities and in doing so comes face-to-face with the cruelty of war -in all its ugliness and savagery.  She reacts accordingly, shocked and horrified -an assault on her senses- yet she clings to her moral values, and remains compassionate in her regard for others.  In that respect, she can be compared with Anne Frank, the ill-fated Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Holland, who also manages to adhere to a moral sense of goodness under absolute frightening and harsh conditions.

Many tragic heroines, as Polyxena, are drawn from classical mythology.  Their names reverberate through time in the pages of some of western civilization’s greatest literary and musical works -Antigone, Ariadne, Dido, Electra, Medea, Phaedra- and are united in undergoing adversity and the suffering it entails (a common theme: helping a hero they love escape from dire circumstances and then being abandoned once the hero makes it to safe ground).

I recently saw the movie Pan’s Labyrinth and felt there was a similarity between Ofelia and Polyxena.  Ofelia, the tragic little girl in the movie, is also caught up in a grim world of cruelty, and seeks her escapism from it through fantasizing, to the point where her fantasies become her reality (I think that is the movie’s message, although the narration makes one believe Ofelia was also fulfilling a special destiny).  Polyxena, older and thus more realistic, seeks escapism through her rationalization and solitary rides on her horse, Zephyrus, but as she is confronted with one tragedy after another, she begins to doubt her ability to remain sane under the psychic battering.  When Priam, her father, tells her to prepare for the worst, she tells us:

The worst?  I have endured one worst setback after another ever since being asked to go to Themiscyra.  Was it even possible to undergo more tragedies?  I had to block such notions out of my mind and concentrate on the positive, be optimistic, else I feared I might go mad.

Yet she also experiences great joys in her final ten months -her love of Achilles, and Antiope, and Zephyrus- the memories of which allow her to endure her reversals.  “The war brought you to them,” Priam reminds her.

After the death of Achilles, Polyxena is dogged with depression, which gets worse as greater misfortunes befall her.  As she nears her time of execution, she informs us:

My depression still clings oppressively about me.  I am unable to shake it off, but I now believe I am actually well served by my deplorable state.  In my gloomy outlook, I have developed a strange longing for having my misery put to an abrupt end….I derive no pleasures from anything I saw, heard, or did, seeing a sadness in everything, not the kind of sadness that makes one cry but, rather, that projects a sense of hopelessness, seeing the world as an uncompromising, cold, unfeeling, alien place, a place where one does not belong.  This is my present world, and I increasingly look to death as my only escape from it.

Come to think of it, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Tess Durbeyfield, even Anne Frank, might have all shared the same thought.


4 Responses to “Parallels With Other Stories…”

  1. Cindy Says:

    Anna Karenina is one of my favorite novels. I’m sure she felt Polyxena’s “strange longing for having my misery put to an abrupt end,” for she flings herself onto the train tracks. But then, when she realizes what is about to happen to her, she is gripped with an overwhelming desire to live. Emma Bovary, in the throes of pain, also seems to regret what she had done in trying to end her life. I felt a calmness in Polyxena as she faced her death — perhaps because unlike the other two, she had no control over it and accepted her fate with dignity.

  2. hallenger Says:

    Polyxena draws much of her courage to face her death with dignity from her sister, Cassandra.

  3. educlaytion Says:

    I was about 2 paragraphs in and started wondering if you would mention Antigone. Of course you did! You know more about these characters than I ever will. Antigone is my personal favorite although I don’t know all those stories. Nice post.

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