by Diane Burton
Briseis and Achilles, 1803 | Thorvaldensen Museum | Wikimedia Commons
A couple of weeks ago I read The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. I always look forward to a new Barker novel; her work is remarkable for the way it conveys the texture of everyday life and acknowledges the individual complexity of characters from every milieu. She is especially skilled in portraying life under stress, individual and/or communal, as in times of war or social upheaval. Her Regeneration Trilogy, three novels about both home front and battlefront in the First World War, is my favorite, so I was eager to get into the new novel, which tells a piece of the story of the Iliad, specifically the story of the Trojan women.
It is told mainly from the point of view of Briseis, queen of Lyrnessus in Asia Minor, whose city has fallen to the Greeks, her husband, father, and brothers killed in the fighting. Briseis, now a slave, is awarded to Achilles as his prize for taking the city, but the return of another captive, Chryseis, Agamemnon’s prize, to her father leaves Agamemnon without a concubine of high station. Agamemnon, a king, pulls rank on Achilles to demand he turn over Briseis and choose a lesser prize. Achilles, insulted, refuses and retires from the fighting. This is the source of the wrath of Achilles, the famed sulk that begins the Iliad.
As much as I like to read about the ancient Greeks, I’m no scholar of the classics, so my reading of modern retellings is always colored slightly by a suspicion that the classical world is just too long ago and far away for any present-day reconstruction to convey it adequately, and the accompanying assumption that any present-day reconstruction will use the ancient story to reflect our contemporary concerns. This is, after all, part of why we revisit the classics, part of why we consider them classics—we hope or fear that if they still speak to us today they may have in them something about the human condition that is timeless.
The story of the Trojan women after the fall of Troy has long engaged my interest and my dread, almost against my will, from the Iliad itself to the plays of Euripides, to Ovid’s Heroides, to the various versions of Troilus and Cressida, to Simone Weil’s dissection of the essential abjection resulting from force: force is that x that turns a person into a thing.
In the context of the Trojan War, men of the defeated side were killed, women were taken captive, and any captive was a slave. A slave, by Weil’s formula, is a thing, at best a former person; if women are already semi-chattel, slavery formalizes, makes official, reinforces the marginal status of even the highest-ranking women: a queen is just a more valuable prize than a woman without a crown.
In Barker’s novel, Briseis accepts her diminished position, even her enslavement, but she is never less than a person and always a person determined to survive. Her strength of character and clear-eyed vision of the world she lives in provide entry into an existence that seems at first unimaginable. As the novel proceeds, the conditions of that existence become not only easier to imagine but more and more familiar.
For Briseis, romantic love holds little value or even meaning. Her first husband, now dead, was foolish but tolerable; she’s hardly overcome with gratitude for her assignment as concubine to Achilles, though she and he negotiate a grudging reciprocal respect, even liking, over their short time together; she feels nothing but contempt and disgust for Agamemnon when he appropriates her, knowing his claim of droit de seigneur is about insulting Achilles rather than valuing her; she accepts marriage to one of Achilles’s men as a safeguard against a harsher fate. Briseis is practical: marriage and concubinage alike are transactional arrangements, made for purposes of advantage and/or security on the part of everyone involved.
The romance in the novel is between Achilles and Patroclus, quite literally a bromance, between two highborn warriors who have grown up together, with some undertones of homosexuality but more of homosociality, and most of all of brotherly love. Brotherly love here is founded not only on likeness but on difference, on affection but on competition as well. Women have no place in the heroes’ enmeshment with each other, no emotional valence in their interactions. Briseis accepts this as the way of the world, though she finds herself feeling real affection for Patroclus and deep sorrow at his death.
Maybe you can see where this is headed.
The Silence of the Girls is a fine novel, well written, even gripping, especially since readers have a pretty good idea of how it will end. But it will never be a favorite of mine among Barker’s work, partly because of when I read it, in early October of 2018, just after the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. Those proceedings, with their demonstration of male entitlement and privilege, and the nominee’s and his supporters’ outrage when those conditions are questioned, especially by women, made me wonder how much has changed in the millennia since the fall of Troy. Achilles, sulking in his tent, was no more petulant than the aspiring Justice; Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, showing off for each other and laughing at the helpless women—in more than one of the allegations—come across as a bitter parody of Achilles and Patroclus, with all of the competitive bravado and none of the courage. And who plays small-minded Agamemnon here, intent on saving face while insisting on his prerogative?
The men, then and now, perform for each other, to establish or contest status, position, impunity from consequences: Look how much we can get away with! The women now are no longer slaves, but their voices and experiences carry no weight with the decision-making body. The attention paid to the harm they have suffered is shallow at best; the hearings and investigations into their allegations were grudging and half-hearted, paying lip service to the seriousness of the misconduct alleged, but undertaken and conducted in bad faith.
There is a minor character who appears briefly in the Iliad and more notably in the plays of Euripides, but does not figure by name in Barker’s novel. This is Talthybius, the herald of Agamemnon, who escorts Briseis from Achilles’s camp to Agamemnon’s; who takes the child Astyanax from his mother, Andromache, to be hurled from a cliff to his death so that no child of Hector’s remains alive to threaten the Greeks; who announces to Hecuba the killing of her youngest daughter, Polyxena, as retribution for the loss of Greek heroes. Euripides portrays Talthybius as sympathetic, tactful, gentle in words and manner, trying to soften the impact of invariably horrible news he delivers. The herald knows the orders he carries out are monstrous, but he is a soldier and he carries them out.
When I first noticed this character, years ago in graduate school, he reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s powerful phrase, “the banality of evil.” Arendt, of course, referred to the bureaucrats of Nazi Germany, in particular Adolf Eichmann. I do not mean to suggest that the recent hearings are anywhere close to equivalent to the atrocity of genocide or to the killings enacted after the fall of Troy. What I do mean to suggest is that tact, sympathy, lip service toward humane values and respect for individual persons, whatever their gender, status, and position, are not enough and may even compound injury with insult. Thus, those who professed to believe Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and to be moved by her experience but who found it possible to ignore its implications for the Supreme Court, the Senate, and all of us, in support of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, might to their benefit examine the character of Talthybius. If many circumstances have changed in the last couple of thousand years, some have not, and Talthybius, who recognized cruelty when he saw it but acquiesced in it to preserve the status quo, is no more admirable a figure now than he was to Euripides.
Diane Burton is an associate editor of Nimrod. She retired from teaching at The University of Tulsa two years ago.