In a new novel, author Pat Barker gives voice to the tyrannized female characters of ‘The Iliad’
With the novel The Women of Troy, author Pat Barker gives voice to some of the tyrannized female characters of The Iliad, which helps to humanize them and thus brings into relief the horror of theirs plights. The story serves as a sequel of Barker’s previous novel The Silence of the Girls, which focuses more directly on pivotal events of The Iliad. The Women of Troy deals with the end of the Trojan War and its immediate aftermath, from Trojan horse through the departure of the Greeks towards home.
Both of Barker’s novels feature Briseis, who in The Iliad represents part of the spoils for the Greeks from their sacking of the city of Lyrnessus. Specifically, Briseis was the reward set aside for the Greek warrior Achilles, who during the melee killed her father and brothers. Homer isn’t above forcing his women characters to become the concubines of the killers of their families, and Barker uses her narrative to, among other things, chronicle Briseis’s interior life during her pregnancy with Achilles’s baby.
The perversity of the warrior-slave arrangement serves Barker’s purposes well, since her novel seeks to offer a feminist perspective on the characters and events of The Iliad. No canonized author treats his women characters worse than Homer. For example, The Iliad features the sacking of the ancient city of Troy by a number of Achaean (Greek) kingdoms, and the booty from this sacking is—among other things—taking the Trojan women and divvying them up amongst the Greek men. These women subsequently become the slaves of their conquering warriors, who take them from their homeland and use them for all the purposes you might imagine. The Iliad, unfolding around 1,200 BCE, is of course fiction, but historically, the women of this time and place often served as the property of men.
Briseis serves as the perfect vantage from which to evoke pathos for Barker’s almost entirely defenseless protagonist. “Lying underneath him as he slept, I’d thought nothing worse could ever happen to me, or to any woman.” Some solace can be found in the fact that Achilles is long dead by the time Barker’s book begins, but other formerly Trojan women in the tale are in the midst of their own submission to the killers of their blood relatives, even their children. Achilles was aware enough of his own impending death to get Briseis married off to the less ostensibly heroic Alcimus, who loved Achilles so much he accepted his nuptial fate without question.
Alcimus is one character the author seems reluctant to mine. His decision not to consummate his marriage with Briseis struck me as noteworthy, especially with her repeated mentions that he slept with other women. Alcimus’s love of Achilles had me wondering if he might be more interested in other men, but Barker lets those intimations remain red herrings.
Barker could be making a point not to veer too close to another retelling of The Iliad, the 2011 novel The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which deals with Achilles’s romantic relationship with his loyal sidekick Patroclus. Maybe a feminist reimagination of characters from The Iliad doesn’t need to delve too deeply into the minds of the male characters. Still, Barker doesn’t hesitate to explore the interior lives of two other male characters—Achilles’s troubled yet ambitious older son Pyrrhus, as well as the politically expedient seer Calchas—both of whom get deeper explorations than Alcimus. I’d have preferred to know him better.
Homer, and the rest of literature from Greek antiquity, derive great entertainment from the all-too-human gods, but Barker chooses to keep the drama of her tale earthbound. It’s easy to miss the hijinks of Zeus and Hera and all the rest, but it’s also easy to understand the challenges of presenting Greek gods acting like themselves within the moral framework of a feminist retelling of the events immediately following the Trojan War.
Zeus is a serial adulterer, and a hitter, and the women gods aren’t above enabling him in his bad behavior—should it get them what they want. One can also imagine the problems with creating a woke version of Olympus where Zeus and the rest are magically cleansed of all bad habits. Barker lets the gods maintain their well-known messiness at a far distance from her narrative. They’re out there, but the absence of their drama allows for Barker’s more political concerns to shine in relief.
Barker is more intent on adding to the stories of some of the secondary characters of The Iliad—Briseis, of course, but we also get further dramatizations involving the rabblerouser Thersites, and Barker offers provocative and harrowing dramatizations of the post-war roles of Cassandra and Andromache. One of the unexpected charms of Homer is that so much of the material is missing. The Iliad starts during the ninth year of the ten years’ war between the Greeks and the Trojans, and The Odyssey picks up again ten years after the fall of Troy. That leaves a decade or two of room to flesh out characters, refine motivations. Barker uses as a foundation for her book some of the most well-known material in literature, and there are plenty of holes to fill in with the imagined lives of the characters.
Still, Barker forgoes the epic scope of these great works to focus on the little things more common to the mode of domestic realism, and from which she draws big meanings. Briseis is the conduit the author relies on most to add depth to her story, such as when Briseis momentarily gets her hands on the murdered King Priam’s thumb ring:
“I discovered I could still feel the ring on the palm of my hand—I had held it, briefly—as if, somehow, that fleeting contact had left a permanent trace. I know it sounds trivial, but it wasn’t. Not to me. It was one of those moments that I think everybody experiences—and they don’t have to be dramatic—when things begin to change; and you know there’s no point ruminating about it, because thinking isn’t going to help you understand. You’re not ready to understand yet; you have to live your way into meaning.”
As important as the feminist angle is to Barker’s purposes, it’s not the only point of her story. At moments like this one, The Women of Troy seeks to be literature that reaches toward the ineffable. Living our way to meaning is a basic dignity we allow ourselves whenever we try to make sense of our lives, and the author’s efforts with Briseis and the rest serve to fill in meaning where Homer’s work left off.
This past January, for reasons that had nothing to do with Barker’s novel, I started The Iliad for the first time. I’d had a W.H.D. Rouse translation on my shelf for at least a decade, and it seemed an oversight not to have taken the plunge by now. I pulled up a seat and steeled myself for what might’ve been a boring 300 pages. To my surprise, I found myself laughing through much of Book I. King Agamemnon—who to appease the god Apollo had to give up his “prize” from the recent sacking in Lyrnessus, a woman named Chryseis—tries to get as recompense Achilles’s “prize” from the same battle, the very same Briseis featured in Barker’s tale. Achilles has no interest in giving up Briseis, and from a certain perspective, these two Greek heroes whining about having to give up their prizes from the war seemed a suitable premise for a Mel Brooks skit.
The Women of Troy has me thinking a great deal about two simultaneous issues: the need to update the canon to treat women characters with as much dignity as the written word allows, and the need in all drama to have secondary characters there only to help push the story along or reveal something about the main characters. I think people should enjoy reading fiction at face value. I don’t want to sacrifice the elements of novel reading that pull me in; to do so spells a certain kind of death for the form. Literature dominated by books in which characters behave only appropriately is its own kind of tyranny. Still, I blanch at my own insensitive reaction to reading The Iliad. I’m glad Barker allows the women to take center stage here. The men of this fictional world have had their moment.
(Doubleday, August 24, 2021)