The Silence of the Girls – a feminist Iliad

Emily Wilson in The Guardian:

In The Iliad, a poem about the terrible destruction caused by male aggression, the bodies and pretty faces of women are the objects through which men struggle with each other for status. The women are not entirely silent, and goddesses always have plenty to say, but mortal women speak primarily to lament. They grieve for their dead sons, dead fathers, dead husbands and dead protectors; for the city of Troy, soon to fall, and for their own freedom, taken by the victors of war. Andromache pleads with her Trojan husband Hector not to leave her and their infant son to go back to fight Achilles. She has already endured the sack of her home city by Achilles, and seen the slaughter of her father and seven brothers, and the enslavement of her mother. If Hector dies, their child will be hurled from the city walls, Troy will fall and Andromache will be made the concubine of the son of her husband’s killer. Hector knows this, but he insists that his own need to avoid social humiliation as a battle-shirker trumps it all: “I would be ashamed before the Trojan men and women,” he says. He hopes only to be dead before he has to hear her screams.

Pat Barker’s brilliant new novelistic retelling of The Iliad puts the experience of women like Andromache at the heart of the story: the women who survive in slavery when men destroy their cities and kill their fathers, brothers and children. The central character is Briseis, the woman awarded to Achilles, the greatest Greek fighter, after his army sacks one of the towns neighbouring Troy. Agamemnon, the most powerful, although not the bravest, of the Greek warriors – a character whose downright nastiness comes across beautifully in Barker’s telling – has lost his own most recent female acquisition and seizes Briseis from Achilles. Achilles’ vengeful rage against Agamemnon and his own comrades, and the subsequent vast death toll of the Greeks and Trojans, is the central theme of The Iliad.

More here.