The Lotus Eater

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Mythic Structure in Somerset Maugham’s “The Lotus Eater”

The word ‘myth’ is derived from the Greek word ‘mythos’, which means a traditional tale common to the member of a tribe, race or nation. It usually involves the supernatural elements to explain some natural phenomenon in boldly imaginative terms. Today myth has become one of the most prominent terms in contemporary literature analysis. It was Northrop Frye, one of the most influential myth critics (others including Robert Graves, Francis Fersusson, Richard Chase, Philip Wheelwright), who discovered certain formulas in the word order. He identified these formulas as the “conventional myths and metaphors” which he calls "archetypes". C.G. Jung was of the view the materials of the myth lie in the collective unconscious of the race.

The well-known legend of the lotus-eaters tells us the story of Greek mythology, in which the lotus-eaters, also referred to as the lotophagi or lotophaguses (singular lotophagus) or lotophages (singular lotophage), were a race of people living on an island near North Africa dominated by lotus plants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary food of the island and were narcotic, causing the people to sleep in peaceful apathy.

Tracing back to the ancient and pagan Greece for its origin, the story proves to be immensely popular and has gradually grown quite deeply rooted in European mythology. With its multiple potentialities, the story has been reused, revamped and reworked on in many formats. The writers of different centuries and countries have seen in it various possibilities and they all in turn have attempted to re-tell the same story, but with different perspectives and purposes. Quite naturally, with its scope of multifaceted interpretations every such attempt brings in new effects, adding new layers to the original legend. Or rather, one may so express it, every time such attempt of re-telling creates the story anew. But however new a facet it may take in every re-telling, it must always take on its meaning in a way by referring back to the original. In other words, every such re-telling must remain transtextually related to its source, creating a palimpsest on it. I

The two terms ‘transtextual’ and ‘palimpsest’ have been mentioned about which we should have a clear conception. Texts have meaning. Reading is the process to extract that inlaid meaning from texts. Such an idea seems quite simple and obvious. Yet it faces today a kind of radical challenge. The contemporary literary and cultural theorists have questioned its validity from various points of view. After Saussure and others, a text is commonly seen as lacking any kind of independent meaning. As the nature of sign becomes non-referential (in that it no longer possesses any capacity to refer directly to the objects of the world) as well as relational (in that it takes on its meaning depending only on the various relations that it holds with other elements that exist within the system) and differential (in that it takes on its meaning only through highlighting its difference from other elements within that system), all the meanings that we can produce or find in a language also become relativised and, therefore, are quite unstable regarding their reference to the world outside. Consequently the texts are also robbed off their ability to refer to the objects of the world outside the linguistic and literary systems, since they are built from the same signs and systems as well as the codes and conventions established by the previous works of literature. Moreover, it is often argued, the systems, codes and conventions of other art forms and culture in general also play a crucial role in producing the meaning of a text. In such a situation a text can no longer function today as the sole “container of meaning”; rather it becomes now a space wherein “a potentially vast number of relations coalesce” (Allen 12). The act of reading thus becomes an attempt that makes us...
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