Hello, everyone! I just finished Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls, a brutal retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of a female slave. It fucked me up, guys. For thousands of years the West has revered the names of heroes like Achilles and Hector, but never has a thought been given to the lives of women like Briseis, slaves to the whims and violence of these men who murdered their families and burned their homes. Through Briseis’s perspective, Barker invites us to re-examine the notion of hero worship and begs us to hear the stories of women silenced by history.
Synopsis: Based on Homer’s Iliad, Barker’s novel retells the story from the perspective of Briseis, queen of Lyrnessus, who was given as a slave to Achilles after he sacked her city. Beaten, raped, and psychologically defeated, Briseis observes the intimate aspects of history’s most mythologized war. When she finds herself caught between the desires of Achilles and the Greek king Agamemnon, Briseis is forced to be the pivotal figure in a war with no end in sight.
My take: This book just about destroyed me. Reviewers have praised Barker’s “unflinching” look at the quotidien horrors of slave life in Greece, but I wasn’t prepared for the absolute dehumanization of the women in this book. Remember Helen, whose face launched a thousand ships? In Silence the Greek warriors who have fought a decade to return her to Menelaus whisper gleefully about her eventual execution. To them, she personifies the pitfalls of two-sided womanhood: beautiful on the outside, treacherous within. This dichotomy is a central theme of the novel. Women like Briseis and Helen are revered for their beauty and fought over as prizes, yet simultaneously reviled as evil temptresses when the narrative suits. As a modern reader, it is difficult to understand how such men could rape and murder women with abandon, yet also praise them to the high heavens. But Barker makes this clear through her characterization of men like Achilles, who talks about Briseis as his wife, yet would leave her in the brutish clutches of Agamemnon to soothe his pride, and Agamemnon himself, who sacrificed his own daughter for a good wind.
To Barker, these hero have always been Januses, except it’s only Barker who portrays the other side of the coin. While men like Achilles are lauded in The Iliad as godlike bringers of wrath and vengeance, Barker decries them as godless thugs. Through Briseis’s eyes we see Achilles as a monster of wrath whose war cry inspires a lifetime of nightmares. She spends the novel coming to terms with her role as concubine to the murderer of her husband and brothers, and she’s only one of many. All of the women in the camp are forced to serve the men who destroyed their lives. Can you imagine a fate more horrible? Yet as Barker points out, it these men we are supposed to root for.
Barker sums it up best with this quote:
What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know that we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.
She’s right. In Homer’s story, Achilles loves Briseis and she loves him. There is no thought given to the destruction implicit in such love. Despite the beatings, rapes, and brutalization, Achilles is allowed to love Briseis, but she has no choice in loving him back.
It doesn’t matter that both Achilles and Briseis are fictional. What matters is that when it comes to stories like The Iliad and The Odyssey, we’re taught to empathize with the male heroes while the women rot silently on the page. I remember reading The Odyssey in 9th grade and thinking “why the hell would I root for Odysseus?” Even in a tale that glamorizes his adventures, I was struck by his violence, his disregard for women, and the way Homer romanticized his brutal murder spree as a righteous display of vengeance. Of course, this was not the way my teacher portrayed him. This clash between character and characterization is exactly why a story like Silence of the Girls needs to be told. Enough of the exploits of men like Achilles and Odysseus. We need the voices of women like Briseis.
Some reviewers have critiqued the novel for having anachronisms, as if that diminishes the legitimacy of Barker’s scathing condemnation of history’s favorite “butchers.” I disagree. Perhaps it is anachronistic for Achilles to call his fellow Greeks “lads” or for warriors to comment lewdly on an enslaved woman’s “knockers,” but I have no doubt that kind of bro-culture existed in the famously misgyonistic Greece, albeit in another language. I think reviewers take offense at Barker’s anachronisms because it brings the sexism of ancient Greek culture too close to our own. We don’t want to think that there are still men like Achilles and Agamemnon, but there are. They’re our celebrities, our politicians, our leaders. Our culture has always revered them and probably always will. That’s why we’re taught about Achilles and not about Briseis. We should be less critical of these anachronisms than the fact that it’s taken this long to hear a story like her’s.
Final Consensus: The Silence of the Girls is not for the faint of heart. It’s graphic in every way possible, depressing, upsetting, and infuriating. It’s a must read. I hope a lot of women read this book and I hope men read it, too. Maybe then they might understand why this whole feminism thing still exists.