Anne Carson

Autobiography Of Red

  • 48-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 47 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with an MFA in Creative Writing
Access Full Summary

Autobiography Of Red Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 48-page guide for “Autobiography Of Red” by Anne Carson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 47 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Identity Formation and Inside versus Outside.

Plot Summary

Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse reimagines the myth of Herakles and Geryon, the red winged monster whom Herakles slays in his tenth labor. Carson bases her version on fragments of the epic poem by Ancient Greek poet Stesichoros. Stesichoros’ version of Herakles’ tenth labor is unique in that it is told not from Herakles’ perspective, but from “Geryon’s own experience” (6). Using this as inspiration, Carson retells Geryon and Herakles’ story as a modern coming-of-age story about a young, gay monster named Geryon.

The novel begins with an introduction to Stesichoros’ poetic style, along with some fragments of his poem, “Geryoneis,” translated by Carson. The fragments tell the tale of Geryon, “a monster everything about him was red” (9), growing up on an island with his parents and dog, then both being slain by Herakles’ “killing club” (13) and “arrow” (13). Carson then introduces the story of how Helen of Troy allegedly strikes Stesichoros blind for writing unsavory things about Helen. Stesichoros gets his sight back by writing a “palinode” (16) to Helen, in which he retracts his previous poem. Finally, Carson includes a section, formatted in either/or statements, attempting to—though never quite—clearing up Stesichoros’ blindness.

The novel begins with an epigraph by Emily Dickinson in the form of a poem about a volcano. Geryon is introduced as a young boy, walking to school with his “bigger and older” (23) brother, whom will later bully and sexually abuse Geryon. After the abuse, Geryon begins to write his “autobiography” (29), in which he includes “all inside things particularly his own heroism” (29) and “coolly” omits “outside things” (29). At age fourteen, Geryon meets Herakles, a boy two years older than himself. Geryon begins to spend most of his free time with Herakles and eventually they engage in a sexual relationship. Whereas Herakles sees sex as “a way of getting to know someone” (44), Geryon has “a question about it” (45) and never seems quite comfortable with being sexual with Herakles. During a trip to his family’s home in the island town of Hades, Herakles takes his grandmother and Geryon to see an active volcano, which Herakles’ grandmother had photographed just after its last eruption, in 1925. The day before they go see the volcano, Herakles breaks things off with Geryon. This devastates Geryon, though Herakles seems unaffected. He tells Geryon “you know we’ll always be friends” (62), but this doesn’t ease Geryon’s heartbreak.

Geryon spends the next few years in a “numb time” (72), working at a local library “shelving government documents” (72). Herakles calls him once to tell him he’s been staying at his grandmother’s and painting her house with a boxer named Hart. At twenty-two, Geryon takes a trip by himself to Argentina. In Buenos Aires, he meets a philosophy professor at a café and attends his lecture on “emotionlessness” (86); later, he chats with a philosopher named Lazer about “distances” (94). That evening, Geryon wanders the city streets, restless, and ends up at “the only authentic tango bar in Buenos Aires” (99). There, he falls in and out of sleep, then talks to a tango singer about time and captivity. The next day, he runs into Herakles in a bookstore. Herakles invites Geryon to coffee with him and his new boyfriend, Ancash. Herakles and Ancash explain that they are making “a documentary on Emily Dickinson” (108) by “recording volcanoes” (108). Geryon and Herakles feel romantic tension and Geryon leaves the café feeling “total agitation” (110).

Herakles calls Geryon at his hotel two days later and invites him to lunch. Geryon arrives at the café to find Ancash alone and they start talking about Quechua, “the oldest indigenous language of Peru” (112), which both Ancash and his mother speak. Herakles arrives, acting casual and “ruffling Geryon’s hair” (112). After lunch, the three walk to the post office together, stopping in Harrod’s department store, where Herakles steals a bear figure from the store’s carousel as a birthday gift for Ancash’s mom. Geryon feels left out that Ancash and Herakles are “off to Peru” and leaving him behind “without a backward glance” (116), but Herakles invites Geryon to come along. On the airplane ride, Geryon sits between Ancash and Herakles and Herakles gives Geryon a handjob while Ancash sleeps.

They arrive in Lima and stay the night on a roof on which Ancash’s mother lives. Geryon regrets coming to Limabut stays. He spends the next day walking along the beach and thinking about “boredom” (125). That evening, Ancash offers to help Geryon wrap himself in a wool blanket, so he can stay warm at night. Geryon refuses, afraid Ancash will see his wings, but Ancash insists and pulls “Geryon’s overcoat down past his shoulders” (127), thereby revealing Geryon’s wings. Upon seeing them, Ancash tells Geryon about the “Yazcol Yazcamac” (128), legendary beings who, upon being thrown into the active volcano in the mountain town of Jucu, re-emerge “as red people with wings, all their weaknesses burned away—and their mortality” (129). Just then, Herakles appears to tell them they’re heading to Huaraz, the mountain hometown of Ancash’s mother. Ancash warns Geryon to keep his wings hidden in Huaraz, as some people are still “looking for eyewitnesses” (130).

In Huaraz, Geryon takes many photographs, including one of himself, Ancash, Ancash’s mother, and Herakles, sitting at a table after smoking marijuana; one of his pant leg when Ancash’s mother forcibly hid his camera from police; one of two burros “grazing on spiky grass” (138) outside the car; and one of the guinea pig they eat for dinner. Geryon also takes a photograph of Herakles’ “naked back, long and bluish” (141) one night at the hotel when the two have sex. Geryon cries afterwards and Herakles tells Geryon he hates it when Geryon cries. Geryon thinks how he “once loved” (141) Herakles but doesn’t anymore. Herakles wants Geryon to give up his ponderous thoughts and enjoy the sex act. The next day, Geryon finds Ancash alone in the hotel garden. He tries making small talk with Ancash, but Ancash assaults him with his fists. Immediately after hitting Geryon, though, Ancash wipes “the snot and blood from Geryon’s face” (143). He asks Geryon if he loves Herakles and Geryon replies that he doesn’t anymore. Ancash says the only thing he wants from Geryon is to “see you use those wings” (144). Herakles interrupts their conversation, saying that it’s time to see the volcano.

The next morning, Geryon takes Ancash’s tape recorder from his room and records himself flying over Icchantikas, the volcano. In the last photograph Geryon takes, “flour powders the air and settles on their arms and eyes and hair” (146) at the bakery with ovens built into the side of Icchantikas. The three men stand, Ancash and Geryon watching the fire, Herakles checking out the men making the bread. In the section that follows this last scene, Carson conducts an imaginary interview with Stesichoros in which she asks him about subject matter and form. Stesichoros gives answers as oblique as the questions Carson poses.

Geryon describes himself as “a man in transition” (60), who likes to write his autobiography best in “that blurred state between awake and asleep” (60). The transitions Geryon seems to face are many: between boy and man, between trauma and recovery, and between having himself defined by others and defining himself….

This is just a preview. The entire section has 1289 words. Click below to download the full study guide for Autobiography Of Red.