Whose story is it? This is the question which preoccupies Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which puts a blinding spotlight on the secondary female characters of Homer’s Iliad. Here the abused women of the Trojan war struggle to tell their version of events in a male-centric landscape.
The Silence of the Girls offers an alternate view on the famous epic poem from the perspective (mostly) of Briseis, a former Trojan queen who is captured and awarded to Achilles as his battle ‘prize’.
I have just finished reading this and it was brilliant, intense. The strength of the novel truly lies in its subversion of masculine warrior ideals and the way Barker refracts various male war experiences, such as death, shame and hope, through the women.
Part Two of the novel adds Achilles’ point of view into the narrative, which seems to balance the various war experiences being told as well as contrast them. Here we see Achilles as a figure scarred by killings and literally haunted by his dead friend Patroclus. At the same time it begs the question, how does the anger and guilt of Achilles’ compare to the anger and humiliation endured by Briseis?
“Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.”120
Barker continues to depict the brutality of war in Homer’s style but it is the specific, prolonged brutality that women face. Rape, torture, living with their captors on a never-ending battlefield. The smell of death is visceral and bloody bodies are described in alarming detail. Language in the novel is extremely coarse and unusual at times with comments such as ‘cheers lads’, but perhaps this is to highlight the general barbarity.
As Briseis notes she and the other female slaves are fighting the same war as the men, only different. Their battle does not afford them armour or spears and their death is an internalised one.
Any Homeric notion of male glory and heroism is glimpsed at in Patroclus, but ultimately undercut by Barker’s depiction of the Greek campsite where warriors are little more than drunk animals. Interestingly, by debasing the male heroes the narrative gives a little more power to the female characters. The sense of this comes across strongest when the woman are preparing Myron’s body for burial and can finally shriek with laughter at him.
If The Iliad is concerned with fathers and sons, The Silence of the Girls takes on motherhood. Achilles’ relationship with his mother Thetis, Briseis’ memories of her own childhood and later becoming a mother herself, and the many other mothers whose children are killed before them. This provides a fitting theme to ground the novel’s feminist messages and reflect the value and strength of women.
Briseis wonders at the end of the novel what people centuries down the line will make of them, “A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.” (324) This line stood out to me because I realised how easy it is to forget, or worse romanticise, the experience of women in The Iliad.
Women, even as they wail or tear their hair, still seem distant in The Iliad, their emotions diluted. Perhaps because we don’t as get close to their bodies and since they are objectified in a ‘on a pedestal’ way, they feel more dignified even in the throes of despair. In Barker’s novel we get a raw sense of the undignified experience of women like Briseis, Helen and Chyrseis in war, but the narrative affords them some autonomy in voicing their whole unfiltered experiences.