Edited by Veronica Vivi
Illustration by Ottelien Huckin https://www.ottelienhuckin.co.uk/
History often ignores women’s contributions. Modern schools, such as my own, may try to teach about their contributions, yet it is clear that many women are resigned to the shadows. Pat Barker has emphasised this injustice with her shocking novel The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of The Iliad with one crucial difference: it tells the story of the women who were caught up in the bloodshed.
The Iliad is studied in many academic courses and institutions and is commonly regarded as a literary masterpiece. While reading it, I was displeased, although not particularly surprised, by the lack of information about the women in the narrative. Despite the fact that much of the conflict in the epic is created by men fighting over Chryseis and Briseis, neither are given much opportunity to express their opinions. Hera and Athene have more vocal parts in the narrative, yet they are constantly defined by their appearance, and are shown to be controlled by the gods, especially when Zeus recounts the punishments that he inflicted on his wife when she disobeyed him. The goddesses and gods participate in the war but appear more concerned with the battles than with the fate of enslaved women. Homer, evidently, thought that unless a woman was a goddess, her thoughts were not worth being given a voice.
The Illiad romanticises war in order to exaggerate the glorious deaths of its heroes, who are never given much personality. Homer dedicates pages to an extravagant list of the way warriors died, without acknowledging their histories or emotions. Barker cleverly plays on this, when Briseis confides to the reader, “But you see the problem, don’t you? How on earth can you feel any pity or concern confronted by this list of intolerably long names?” (217). Instead, she goes on to describe the fallen warriors’ childhoods, allowing the reader to form an emotional attachment to them.
Briseis is in complete contrast to the narrative voice of The Iliad in many ways. Her words are articulate with a matter-of-fact tone. She witnesses women being murdered; women being raped; women huddling in the dark, waiting for ruthless soldiers to break down the door, yet she retains a chilling clarity throughout. Barker, to remain truthful to The Iliad, is forced to ensure Briseis is passive towards some of the hardships imposed on her. For example, in Homer’s epic, Agamemnon offers gifts to Achilleus, “seven unfired tripods; ten talents’ weight of gold; twenty shining cauldrons; and twelve horses[…]I will give him the seven women of Lesbos[…] the daughter of Briseus” (Homer, Loc 5903). Barker’s Briseis goes to Achilleus and submits to the will of the men who ‘own’ her, yet she resists them in other ways, such as when she is told to forget her old life: “Forget”, she thinks. “So there was my duty laid out in front of me, as simple and clear as a bowl of water. Remember” (Barker, 20).
Additionally, the Greek gods and goddesses, who are constantly present in The Iliad, rarely make appearances in Barker’s work. Other than the hint that Briseis’s prayer may have caused Apollo’s plague, and an occasional entrance by Thetis, Briseis must make her way in the mortal world unaided by higher powers. This technique allows readers to fully sympathise with her situation, as they understand that no deity will appear to help her.
Furthermore, the novel deviates even further from Greek mythology by humanising Achilles. Despite the ruthless, animalistic violence that he displays both on the battlefield and towards Briseis in the bedroom, his vulnerability is emphasised in his reliance on Patroclus and Thetis. Unlike Homer’s characters, Barker’s are developed to the point of complexity. Yet no sympathy is felt for Achilles: when readers are faced not with a heroic warrior, but with a needy, spiteful, murdering rapist, they will long to take up a sword and plunge it into his infamous weak heel – despite Briseis’s suggestion that this myth is not true.
The Silence of the Girls should be a welcome addition to university curricula, especially if read alongside The Iliad. English literature students would be able to study Barker’s fascinating technique of writing about brutal events with an almost accepting tone, as well as engaging with the pure emotion and twisting plot that the author creates. The novel’s unique view on the Trojan war would provide a great deal of interest to student of mythology, as its viewpoint is not of a Greek hero or any type of god but of an enslaved woman. Additionally, although the mystery of whether the Trojan war occurred will forever remain a mystery, students of history may find the novel helpful, as it shines a light on what life may have been like for Greek women in a patriarchal society where they had virtually no rights. Barker’s novel offers a more realistic depiction of war than The Iliad, where gods fly down from Olympus every few days to aid in the conflict. Emily Wilson, after highlighting some historical inaccuracies of the novel, asserts that, “no words from women in this period survive but Barker is surely right to paint them as thoughtful, diverse, rounded human beings, whose humanity hardly ever dawns on their captors, owners and husbands. This central historical insight feels entirely truthful” (2018).
The Silence of the Girls is a highly unpleasant novel to read. Its scenes of rape are grotesque, its recounts of women being stabbed in their pregnant stomachs are vile, and its descriptions of deaths on the battlefield are even more bloody than Homer’s. Yet a new perspective on the true horrors of war is a welcome change from the frequent recounts of male warriors. Its characters are complex, contradictory, and constructed in a realistic, believable way. The plot is so well structured that readers familiar with The Iliad will notice how elements of Homer’s work are evoked, while seeing how Barker’s Briseis is able to resist the hardships forced upon her with bravery and intelligence. Pat Barker’s work is brutal, unsettling, and a compelling novel which deserves contemporary study.
Barker, Pat. The Silence of the Girls. Penguin Random House UK, 2018.
Homer, The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richard Lattimore. Kindle ed., The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Wilson, Emily. ‘The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker Review- A Feminist Iliad’. The Guardian, 22 Aug. 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/22/silence-of-the-girls-pat-barker-book-review-iliad. Accessed 28 Oct. 2018.
About the Author
Erin Hutton is a first year student studying English and Theatre at the University of Warwick. She is interested in works of mythology and fantasy, as well as books and TV series that deal with social issues.