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Homer's 'Unwilling' Women Are No Longer Quiet In 'The Silence Of The Girls'

Cameron Pollack

"Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles ... How the epithets pile up," begins The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker's tart retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Achilles' concubine, Briseis.

"We never called him any of those things," she continues, "we called him 'the butcher.'"

In the Iliad, the men are superlative. They insist on their own magnificence, even in defeat. "I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son," says the Trojan King Priam, begging for the body of his son back.

Barker gives Briseis, standing nearby, a bitter rejoinder: "And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers." In a world of men obsessed with their own pre-eminence, how much more powerful is Briseis's claim that she is just one of many.

One of the Iliad's primary themes is remembrance. The reward for fighting is glory, and Homer delivers, naming and cataloging them, not least in the famously long "catalogue of ships" in which Homer lists the Greeks who went to fight at Troy.

A fight over Briseis between rivals Achilles and Agamemnon kicks off the action of the Iliad, though she otherwise appears only a handful of times.

But she, too, appears on a list — a list of objects: "They brought out the seven tripods which Agamemnon had promised, with the twenty metal cauldrons and the twelve horses; they also brought the women skilled in useful arts, seven in number, with Briseis, which made eight."

Women are fungible. In the Iliad, Agamemnon makes her utility explicit. He tells Achilles: "I shall come to your tent and take your own prize Briseis, that you may learn how much stronger I am than you are, and that another may fear to set himself up as equal or comparable with me." It has nothing to do with Briseis.

"Men carve meaning into women's faces," Barker's Briseis observes, "messages addressed to other men."

The Silence of the Girls is cleanly, even beautifully done, but it also feels familiar. "Reclaiming" women of classics is now a genre, one that no longer feel inherently rebellious. In the past few years, Madeline Miller's novel Circe and Emily Wilson's new translation of the Odyssey have given fresh life to Homer's women, alongside novels centering Antigone, Clytemnestra and Jocasta.

Barker's retelling feels thinner than some. Perhaps that comes down to the sense that Barker is simply writing against Homer, whereas Miller and Wilson locate an anarchic current in the original poems and exploit it. It would be easy to believe there is something irredeemably sexist about Homer — his men abuse and trade women. But there's a kind of larger awareness in Homer, too: when Briseis is handed over to Agamemnon's men, Homer gives her an unexpected adjective: "unwilling." Briseis goes unwilling. Achilles and Agamemnon don't care, but with one small word, Homer signals that she has her own story.

Much later in the Iliad, Briseis mourns for Achilles' dead friend Patroclus, who had been kind to her. She cries, and according to the Iliad, "the women joined in her lament-making as though their tears were for Patroclus, but in truth each was weeping for her own sorrows." Homer gestures toward a world of hidden pain: slaughtered relatives, enslavement and rape.

I've been calling Homer "he," but most scholars now think Homer is not one person but an oral tradition passed down through centuries, embroidering and altering along the way. The poems are vast, tricky, multiplicitous, full of tiny subversions and contradictions.

It's tempting to consider these feminist retellings mere reactions against the same old story about shields and armor, heroes and battles. But there's never been just one story. Barker, Miller and the rest are not vandals breaking into Homer's house and wreaking havoc. He — they — left the door open.

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Annalisa Quinn
Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.