Compare and contrast the problem of isolation or aloneness in Medea by Euripides and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge
The problems of isolation and aloneness are prevalent both in Euripides’s Medea and in the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge. Medea and the mariner are both isolated and alone because of their fate. Their life paths are different, but they are also placed in situations where they have to make difficult choices. Medea becomes a killer and the mariner also kills the albatross which dooms him. The two characters face different circumstances, but both are left on their own against the world.
Medea is very intelligent, but she is guided by passion in life and her actions reflect this. To begin with, she burns Glauke, the woman Jason marries as well as her father and two sons. She also tricks the daughters of King Pelias into killing him. Medea enjoys seeing Creon and Glauke die, but it is clear that she has emotions for the sons. She says, “Oh this soft embrace! Their skin’s so tender. / My boys’ breathing smells so sweet to me” (1268-1269). Medea goes through a struggle before she chooses to murder them anyway. She is alone in this endeavor and her inner conflict makes her a complex character. Medea is also angry with Jason for betraying her and leaving her on her own. She is also angry at society as a whole because she is a person people do not trust, being a foreigner. Additionally, Medea is a woman and Greek society is male-dominated. She is smart and makes men feel uncomfortable because of that. Medea is left to her own devices when she is banished by Creon and Jason remarries. Her plight becomes the symbolical plight of women worldwide and her reaction results in violence because she is abandoned by everybody. Medea has become the archetype of female revolt.
Just like Medea, the Mariner used to be sociable before his trip. However, this changes as he embarks on the journey towards the Antarctic. He searches for souls that resemble himself. He considers a hermit to be his best friend. Upon experiencing death at sea, he is unable to return to society. In this way, he is similar to Medea. At one point, the Mariner is the only person left on his ship and he suffers as the dead men stare at him. Coleridge writes,
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
Till the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet. (IV.58)
As Death kills his sailors, the ancient Mariner is in a state between life and death. The world around him is very big and weighs him down. His eyes are closing and he is terribly lonely. The Mariner is also cursed as his crew stare at him and he feels as if he no longer belongs to the world of the living. This all starts when the Mariner associates the albatross with bad luck and kills the bird. There is no wind anymore and the boat no longer moves as swiftly as it was. As the mist arrives, the Mariner begins to feel guilty about killing the albatross. He sees this as a mistake at this moment and it also signifies his demise, both psychologically and physically. The Mariner is left all alone with a constant reminder of his bad deed. He blames himself for the bad fortune and his whole demeanor changes. This situation also signifies that one cannot rely on luck and superstition is not a reason to make a fatal mistake. The Mariner is left without a crew in order to suffer.
The events in Medea take part in Corinth where society sees anything atypical as something that would be threatening towards the order in society. Foreigners and women do not have rights in this place which leads to Medea’s sense of isolation. Medea is discriminated against as a woman and as a foreigner and she chooses revenge. This is different than the ancient Mariner because he suffers due to his mistake of killing the albatross. The fact that Medea is highly intelligent threatened Corinthian rulers who chose to exile her. Medea is now left alone and isolated. Betrayal and isolation turn to be poisonous for Medea. Jason is now married to a princess and this is when she opts for revenge. This is a brutal and primal human impulse and the result of Medea’s isolation. Medea’s unusual character and reluctance to conform isolate her as well. She is estranged because she is different. This also fuels her passion and anger. He forces become destructive and she wants to show everyone what she is capable of and serve them what she deems they deserve. Medea commits the murders because she sees murder as the best way to avenge herself. The Nurse says,
She’s fierce, headstrong by nature. Take care.
So go now—inside as quickly as you can. [The Tutor and children enter the house]
It’s obvious the cloud of bitter grief
rising inside her is only just the start.
As her temper grows even more intense,
it will soon catch fire. She’s a passionate soul,
hard to restrain. (102-108).
The nurse sees the power within Medea that will be destructive for others and for herself as well. This is even more so as Medea has been injured and left to suffer on her own in exile and isolation. She has been done wrong and she is there to right the wrongs. Medea is intimidating and people alienate her because of that. Her mere presence alienates other people in society and that is the beginning of her downfall. Medea is isolated from society in Corinth and she feels vulnerable at first. She speaks to Corinthian women and says, “The man who was everything to me, / my own husband, has turned out to be the worst of men” (260-262). She goes on to state that she has been wronged and that there is no turning back. At this point, it is clear that she will start plotting revenge. Medea is aware of the fact that women never seek justice when their husbands do them wrong. This is something unheard of in Corinthian society. Medea also knows that this will be a big challenge. However, she is determined to challenge societal norms. Medea’s pride has been compromised and she wants to restore it. She is empowered as she vocalizes her intentions. Medea’s passion turns into anger and she is ready to claim her position of power. This is without precedent in this society that is male-dominated. The fact that men and women are threatened by her makes her even more alone and this is also exaggerated by her being a foreigner. She considers Jason to be the worst of all men because he does not support her side. He abandons her and marries another woman while disregarding the vows he gave to her. This is the point of no return and Medea justifies her actions by the fact that she is innocent and that she wants to do something that no woman had done before. She stands for all women and chooses to prove how strong women can be and how ruthless they can become if pushed in that direction. Medea challenges gender norms and this also makes her isolated. She is not a meek and fragile woman. She is strong and ready to fight those who hurt her. Medea does not hide and justice is on her side.
The sailors see the albatross as the sign of good fortune. However, this changes as they lose the wind. Coleridge writes,
Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down,
‘Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea! (II.26)
Sailors are left without the wind they need to take them home. They can no longer do anything about it. Even they discussed it, they would become depressed. This kind of weather is not only unusual. It is a punishment for murdering the albatross. Miall writes, “the Mariner’s subsequent encounter with death is so terrible that it imposes a psychic wound from which recovery can only ever be partial. It is from the conjunction of these two causes, guilt and the encounter with death, that the poem derives much of its power” (Miall 634). He is isolated due to the feeling of guilt for killing the bird. On the other hand, the death of the sailors makes him experience a terrible sense of being alone. This is not life, but it is not death either. Unlike Medea, the Mariner creates the misfortune himself. He is not a victim of circumstance, but someone who makes a conscious choice. Medea is a victim who chooses not to be one. She would rather be a monster or a powerful human being who is potentially god-like. The Mariner is not god-like, he can only become wiser from his experience with death. He goes on to share his story with people who will listen and spread it to humanity. Medea’s actions speak louder than her words. There is no humanity left in her. The two characters are similar in the sense that they are different than society and hence isolated, but they are also different because the Mariner has a choice and Medea is exiled without a choice at the beginning.
Medea is a play that puts women in the center of the story. This is unusual for the period when it was written and Medea seems to be the one writing her own story. As Hopman writes,
it can be analyzed as an ancient precursor of the modern concept of mythopoiesis, which describes the revision of prevailing myths or discourses by minoritarian (often female) speakers. The question arises, then, whether Medea fulfills the chorus’s hopes by successfully twisting the earlier poetic tradition and generating a new story that will bring glory to women (Hopman 157).
Medea becomes a hero unintentionally. She is isolated just like any tragic hero is. Because she kills her children, she rebels against motherhood, the prevailing role that women were assigned to in society at the time. Additionally, she kills two male children, which is also her way of exerting female power. This is how she prevents a new generation from becoming powerful oppressors. Medea does not get punished for this and Euripides’ message is clear – one should be afraid of people they choose to oppress. Once, those people could rebel and there will be no peaceful action to amend this.
The Mariner and Medea are both isolated and experience aloneness. The circumstances are different and their genders are different as well. Medea is a woman in a male-dominated society and the Mariner represents mankind who is unaware of their unethical actions. Medea is a woman who does not conform to societal norms and the Mariner is a man doing his best while experiencing difficulties at sea. These two characters do not have a choice and they are led by fate. However, they are resilient and live to tell their stories.
Coleridge, Samuel T. “The Rime of the Ancient Marine.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43997/the-rime-of-the-ancient-mariner-text-of-1834.
Euripides. “Medea.” https://www.marcuswitcher.com/, www.marcuswitcher.com/Euripides,%20Medea-1.pdf.
Hopman, Marianne. “Revenge and Mythopoiesis in Euripides’ ‘Medea.’” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), vol. 138, no. 1, [Johns Hopkins University Press, American Philological Association], 2008, pp. 155–83, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40212078.
Miall, David S. “Guilt and Death: The Predicament of The Ancient Mariner.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 24, no. 4, [Rice University, Johns Hopkins University Press], 1984, pp. 633–53, https://doi.org/10.2307/450483.