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Listening for the Plot: The Role of Desire in the Iliad's Narrative



Listening for the Plot: The Role of Desire in the Iliad’s Narrative


Rachel Hart Lesser

Doctor of Philosophy in Classics

and the Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender and Sexuality

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Mark Griffith, Chair

This dissertation is the first study to identify desire as a fundamental dynamic in the Iliad that structures its narrative and audience reception. Building on Peter Brooks’ concept of “narrative erotics,” I show how the desires of Akhilleus and his counterpart Helen drive and shape the Iliad’s plot and how Homer captures and maintains the audience’s attention by activating its parallel “narrative desire” to plot out the Iliad’s unique treatment of the Trojan War story. I argue that Homer encodes the characters’ desires in repeated triangles of subject, object, and rival, and that Akhilleus’ aggressive desires to dominate his rivals Agamemnon and Hektor cause the heroism and suffering at the poem’s heart. I approach desire and its narrative function from an interdisciplinary perspective informed by gender and sexuality studies, narrative theory, novel studies, and psychoanalysis as well as Homeric scholarship.

The introductory chapter lays out and justifies my argument for the Iliad’s “narrative erotics.” I posit that traditional knowledge and incomplete predictions arouse the implied audience’s desire to engage with the narrative, and that repetitions guide its interpretation of the plot. I also introduce the generative desires of the poem’s characters, which include “queer” desires that violate established norms of gender and sexuality. I define desire as an experience of wanting characterized by lack and explore the semantics of the epic’s language of desire, including eros, himeros, and pothē.

In the first chapter, I demonstrate how the Iliad’s programmatic first book introduces Akhilleus’ desires as the engine of the main plot and provides a template for their satisfaction. When Agamemnon removes Briseis from Akhilleus’ tent, Akhilleus’ desire for this lost female object is paired with an aggressive desire to best the Greek leader, whose action has diminished his status. Akhilleus expresses these desires through his grief and wrath, withdrawing from battle and asking Zeus to grant the Trojans success in his absence so that the Akhaians recognize his worth. Akhilleus’ desires thus produce the plot, causing the answering “desire” (pothē) and suffering of his own men. Homer emphasizes Akhilleus’ creative role by associating him with the narrator and Zeus, the plot’s divine architect. At the same time, the resolution of the opening conflict between Khryses and Agamemnon establishes a paradigm that guides the audience in plotting out the fulfillment of Akhilleus’ desires as the narrative progresses.

The second chapter identifies books 3-7 of the Iliad as a “superplot” that contextualizes Akhilleus’ main plot within the larger Trojan War tradition. While Akhilleus disappears from the narrative, Homer introduces the erotic triangle of Menelaos, Helen, and Paris as the basis of the war. Helen and Paris are portrayed as “queer” subjects whose transgressive desires cause conflict and the heroic epic that commemorates it, calling into question the narrative’s ethics. Helen’s tapestry of the war highlights her generative role, which parallels Akhilleus’. In book 5, Diomedes’ aristeia prefigures the main plot’s martial heroism and the involvement of Aphrodite and Ares elucidate the imbrication of sexual and aggressive desires. Andromakhe’s anguished response to the fighting in book 6, however, foreshadows the human cost of satisfying Helen’s and Akhilleus’ desires, problematizing the war’s morality.

In the third chapter, I show how Homer, in the middle books of the Iliad, delays satisfaction of the audience’s and hero’s desires and explores the dire consequences of Akhilleus’ plot. In book 9, the poet stimulates the audience’s desire for a reconciliation between Akhilleus and Agamemnon, but instead the famous embassy inadvertently repeats the original insult and reignites Akhilleus’ desires, with devastating result. Homer positions these desires as the cause of the Great Day of Battle (books 11-18) and, especially, Patroklos’ death, which reveals the limits of Akhilleus’ vision and control. This pivotal event initiates a second movement of the main plot, making Akhilleus redirect his desire for intimacy toward Patroklos and his aggressive desire toward Patroklos’ killer, Hektor. For this reason, his reconciliation with Agamemnon in book 19 fails to provide narrative resolution. Akhilleus’ lack of interest in Briseis’ return and refusal to partake of food help to signify his continued dissatisfaction as new desires consume him.

The fourth and last chapter argues that Akhilleus’ longing for his dead comrade and concomitant desire to destroy Hektor propel the plot forward to the poem’s conclusion. I show how Homer focuses the narrative on Akhilleus during his devastating aristeia and uses a language of desire to describe his motivation for fighting. Drawing on psychoanalytic theories of mourning, I argue that Akhilleus’ aggressive fixation on Hektor is an expression of his ambivalent desire (pothē) for Patroklos. I also identify the “queerness” of Akhilleus’ desire for Patroklos and demonstrate how it engenders the Iliad’s heroic climax, confirming the importance of “queer” desires for the production of the epic’s narrative. Priam’s embassy in book 24 finally dissolves Akhilleus’ aggressive desire and allows him to satisfy his “desire for lamentation” (himeros gooio). The two men’s completion of the reconciliation paradigm established in book 1 marks this resolution. But the Iliad ends only once the Trojans too are able to work through their desire for Hektor by reuniting with his body and giving him a proper funeral. I end by considering how fully the poem’s conclusion satisfies the audience’s narrative desire, given the continuation of the Trojan War story beyond the bounds of the epic.

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