Due to lack of time to write “normal” blog posts, I’ve decided to post the weekly 800-word papers I write for Classical Lit., taught by Mrs. Merkle (her blog, the Fortnightly Purse, is in my blogroll). So here it is, Is Helen A Sympathetic Character? 🙂
Queen Helen is, in my opinion, more despicable than she is laudable. However, she does have some good qualities, and I will discuss these before the others. First, Helen expresses remorse for her elopement with Paris, which shows some admirable character traits, not the least of which is a sense of honor. Second, she makes a noble attempt to gainsay Aphrodite when the goddess commands her to sleep with Paris, which shows some hints of pride and shadows of virtue.
As regards the first, Helen is touched by the slaughter of her family and friends as they fight to reclaim their queen. Their deaths reach the tender gaps in her heart, pricking her conscience and inspiring her to remain apart from Paris for their sakes. Helen realizes that her elopement with Paris might not have been the brightest idea, how ever appealing it was at the time, and that it was a selfish move that cost the lives of all those dear to her. “…I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither following your son…But it did not happen that way, and now I am worn with weeping.” 
In regard to the second, Helen shows her willpower in her attempt to dissuade the goddess’s desires, doing what she can to keep her resolve while not further angering the gods. “Not I. I am not going to him. It would be too shameful…my heart even now is confused with sorrows.” 
Despite these reasons, Helen is still far too proud to suggest that she return with the Achaians, and is content to remain within the city and allow the armies to carry on with their butchery for her sake. She cares for her friends’ deaths, but not enough to put an end to them. The queen part in the woman has not yet been conquered by her pity for her countrymen. Just as pride was Hector’s fatal flaw, it is also Helen’s flaw, and spells not only the destruction of the Trojan population, but thousands of lives on the Greek’s side. Helen could not condescend to be so humbled as to walk out the gates of Troy back to her former husband, even to save the lives of innocent women and children—the inhabitants of Troy. We see glimmers of this selfishness in Helen’s farewell speech to Hector’s body (Bk. 24, ln. 762-775), in which the most common word is a first-person pronoun.
According to Herodotus’ account of history, Helen was actually left in Egypt for the duration of the war. Should this account be the correct tale, then Helen is far more the unknown character than she is according to Homer. Sadly, the only other (third) account of the Egypt version if that of the playwright Euripides, who claims that Hera transported Helen to Egypt and made a ‘pseudo-Helen’, which the goddess then took to Troy.
But if the Egypt version of the story is true, then Helen seems to have actually had very little hand in her abduction. The pawn in the gods’ chess game is far more the helpless woman in this version than she is in Homer’s account, which makes her much more sympathetic character than she is in the Iliad. How can anyone be upset at someone who was kidnapped…for being kidnapped? The reader feels nothing but a distanced sympathy for the Helen of Herodotus.
We see, therefore, that the varying accounts of the Queen each make her into an entirely different person. In the light of Homer’s story, Helen is a detestable, albeit remorseful, adulteress who really has very little feeling for the people of her nation. While she feels regret for her actions, she is too proud to seek forgiveness and restoration, and is forced by her own emotions to remain in Troy with Paris. But to the reader of Herodotus, Helen is a victim, forced to act as the circumstances and the gods demand. We feel a rush of pity for a woman who is only a name on the page, a flood of sorrow at the fate of such a Queen, as we consider everything she had in her favor—her beauty, her husband, her throne, and her father and family.
Unfortunately, the only other authors to corroborate either of these stories are the playwrights Stesichorus and Euripides, who most likely cannot be trusted for accuracy (we all know how historically accurate the average playwright is). Which story is right? We will never know. I would prefer to believe Homer for the simple reason that his tale is more romantic, although it casts an unfavorable light on the Queen. Therefore, I believe that Queen Helen does not deserve our pity, nor do her admirable qualities, according to Homer, equal or outweigh her dreadful ones.
 The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore.
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pg. 104-105, 3:173-176
 Ibid., pg.111, 3:410-412
 Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 137-138, 2:113-116
 Euripides. Helen.