Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which won this year’s Orange Prize for fiction, is a retelling of a very old story, the rise of the Greek warrior Achilles to immortality through his feats at Troy. Its innovation, however, is that the person who tells the story is Achilles’ companion Patroclus, a shadow by the hearth of myth, and to make the love story between the two young men explicit rather than inferred. Miller does a magnificent job of balancing antiquity and a sense of the modern. And in doing so, her novel highlights some of the profound limitations contemporary storytelling about LGBT people and relationships between people of the same gender has placed on itself.
In response to decades of popular culture that framed same-sex desire as a condition that could only lead to isolation, misery, and death, movies, television, books, even music videos responded with narratives that framed homophobia, whether externalized or internalized, as a powerful and deadly force, and a significant driver of stories. While the stories have been powerful tools in changing attitudes—Vice President Biden cited Will and Grace as a factor in changing his mind about equal marriage rights—they have something in common with the stories they pushed back against: both sets of stories treat homosexuality as a source of problems. As we imagine a future destination for gay-friendly popular culture, in other words, maybe what we should be dreaming of is stories that look like those from the distant past Miller summons back into existence, rather than anything from the recent past.
In The Song of Achilles, Achilles and Patroclus’s relationship is doomed not because they are men and love each other, but because their relationship is tied up in the warp and weft of history and the forging of legend. Throughout the novel, their relationship is presented as erotically emotionally fulfilling, and both men fight for their relationship and live it in public as a point of pride. Achilles claims Patroclus as his husband. Warned that in Troy, their relationship could cause comment because they are beyond the age when Greek boys stop having sex with each other and begin having sex with women, they choose to live publicly together anyway. They don’t even necessarily break because Patroclus is mortal and Achilles is half-human and half-god. Patroclus summons his courage to insist to Thetis, Achilles’ divine mother, that he is a worthy lover of her son, and ultimately, she comes to believe him. Ultimately, their love founders because Achilles ultimately chooses his fame over their relationship.
It’s a vision Patroclus sees early in his arguments with Thetis, who urges Achilles to come with her, away from his human father and his education. “She would feed him with the food of the gods and burn his human blood from his veins,” Patroclus worries. “She would shape him into a figure meant to be painted on vases, to be sung of in songs, to fight against Troy. I imagined him in black armor, a dark helmet that left him nothing but eyes, bronze greaves that covered his feet. He stands with a spear in each hand and does not know me.” In Troy, Achilles slowly becomes the sum of his fame. Walking through the camp and realizing that Patroclus knows many more of the men than he does, Achilles tells Patroclus “There are too many of them…It’s simpler if they just remember me.” And when he and Agamemnon clash, it becomes clear that Achilles is in love with the promise of his legend as much as Patroclus. “‘My life is my reputation,’ he says. His breath sounds ragged. ‘It is all I have. I will not live much longer. Memory is all I can hope for.’ He swallows, thickly. ‘You know this. And would you let Agamemnon destroy it? Would you help him take it from me?’” Their tragedy is Achilles’ romance with his own death, a self-destructive, immortalizing urge that has nothing to do with self-hatred over his love for Patroclus.
It’s exactly the kind of story that we need more of: depictions of relationships between men and women as sources of passion, emotional support, and pride that serve as the basis for characters who have other entanglements with the world, other triumphs, other tragedies. This is not to say that we should eliminate stories about the power of homophobia, given that it remains a powerful force in American society and the world at large. Coming out, self-hatred, family rejection or surprising family acceptance, and displays of societal homophobia, from verbal intolerance to violence, are both reliable dramatic fulcrums, and powerful mobilizing tools against hateful attitudes. And making those experiences central to gay characters’ identities and story arcs is also a way of acknowledging that straight audiences, when encountering gay characters, may foreground those characters’ sexual orientations, and may have as their central experience of those characters either grappling with their lingering assumptions about LGBT people or congratulating themselves for embracing characters wholeheartedly, even if the fictional people in those characters’ lives do not.
But if the only thing gay characters are allowed to do is be a vehicle for straight people’s revelations, or for conversations about the state of society, we’re replacing stereotypes with sainthood and the burden of social utility. And after a while, if the only or biggest problems characters have stem from the fact that they aren’t heterosexual, the lingering collective message is that homosexuality or bisexuality are a problem, even if one of society’s making and to society’s shame. It may be an inversion of old Hollywood narratives that portrayed gayness as a reason to be depressed, miserable, or suicidal. But it’s still a striking limitation to place on characters if the goal of such shows is to defy cramped visions of gay life and to present gay characters as fully human. Joy matters. As Daniel Mendelsohn writes in a piece for the most recent issue of Out about growing up without gay television, “Who hasn’t learned how to kiss from the movies? What I was desperate to see in the mid-’70s, when I was 14 and 15 and 16, was precisely what the pop culture wasn’t ready to show me — the images that all my straight friends had been casually absorbing all along: what desire and sex, kissing and lovemaking, happy coupling actually looked like.” What we need is not to render homophobia invisible, and swap one dominant narrative for another, but more stories overall, and more diversity in their narratives.