Gender issues are present in every aspect of human life, also in literature, but we are not always aware of these issues (OWL, n.d.). Pat Barker’s book The Silence of the Girls is an example of feminist literature. This book is a retelling of Homer's The Iliad, but in a feministic way.
In the Iliad, they only talk about women when they talk about someone's mother, someone’s slave or someone’s whore. There is not much information about their inner lives. The Trojan War started over a woman, but nothing more. You almost never hear something about them. In the Silence of the Girls, the tables are turned. Briseis, a slave of Achilles but once a Trojan queen, is the main character of the story and we see the story in her point of view. Although, in fact she only has a voice in narrative terms. Already in the very beginning of the story we hear the opinion of women when they talk about Achilles. The Greeks call him 'Great Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles'. But Briseis and the other women simply call him 'the butcher'. The stories of these women also sometimes reflect those of modern women as well. It lets us look at the experiences of women back then and women nowadays.
In the Iliad, Briseis only gets a name, not a voice. If you did not read the Iliad, you almost certainly never have heard of her. If you did read the Iliad, you probably have forgotten who she is. Only by reading The Silence of the Girls, you will know everything about her. Briseis is absolutely not one of Homer’s heroes: not Hector, not Achilles, not Ajax, nor Patroclus. She only gets ten mentions and she only speaks once in a poem of 15 693 lines. But Briseis’s story is important and Pat Barker figured that out too. Helen is the start of the Trojan War, but Briseis is the cause of a lot of events that happened in the Iliad.
The Iliad begins with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon over two young women. Reading this, Pat Barker says she was afflicted by how “the girls, who say nothing at all, are simply transferred like parcels. It seemed important to me to address that and try to fill in that silence” . The Silence of the Girls begins with the fall of a Trojan town: Lyrnessus, Briseis’s home. It is completely destroyed by Achilles and his men. For the male warriors, the fall of their city is the end of their story: they are all dead. For the women, life continues but in the most awful, horrific way.
The women are oppressed by men in every way; they were slaves, sex slaves, they are not allowed to have an opinion and they are not allowed to have a voice. The women are marginalized. They are exchanged as sexual trophies by the same men who killed their families. They are not considered as a person, only as a ‘thing’. We hear this in Helen’s thinking: “I’m here. Me. A person, not just an object to be looked at and fought over”. Even when Achilles is angry because Agamemnon takes Briseis away from him, he actually is not angry about the fact that he takes her as a person. He is angry because he takes away his prize of honour. And losing your prize of honour is a big shame. On page 108 Achilles says: “None of that gives him the right to take another man’s prize of honour. It doesn’t belong to him; he hasn’t earnt it”. After which we hear Briseis’s unspoken thought: “Honour, courage, loyalty, reputation—all those big words being bandied about—but for me there was only one word, one very small word: it”. Because they are just treated as objects, these men don’t think about their feelings, as we can read in the sentence: “Tell him he can fuck her until her back breaks”.
Gender roles are very present in the novel. Even now, every society has gender role expectations; how we are supposed to speak, dress, behave based on our gender.Until long after the Second World War, Western society was based on one ideal: the man is the breadwinner, the woman takes care of the children and the household . In the story, men believe they are supposed to compete with other men and dominate women by being aggressive, strong, demanding and cool-blooded killers. On page 215 we receive a list of all the men that Achilles killed during a battle. “Iphition, eighteen years old and killed with a sword cut straight down the middle of his head, Hippodamas, killed by a spear between his shoulders blades…” . The list goes on and on. The death of fifteen men is described, all killed by Achilles. And Achilles himself, he feels proud of it.
Women, on the other hand, have to be passive, naive, soft, accepting and nurturing. While the men are fighting in the battles, the women are healing the wounds of the injured men. “Silence becomes a woman' is a sentence that is repeated several times in the book. The shocking thing about this statement is that it is not questioned, not even by the women themselves. Male dominance was accepted because it was ‘just the way it is’. They weren’t even blamed for piercing pregnant women with a spear. Because that was just what happens, that was life.
Even now when Briseis is the main character of the story and she is the narrator in most of the parts of the book. In the second part of the book, Briseis’s perspective get company from Achilles’s point of view, told in the third person narrator. All the action in the story comes from him so it is interesting to see his point of view. I think these parts are also necessary to give context to the reader and it clearly shows the difference between the life of the men and the life of the women. Yet, the intention of the book is to show the perspective of the women. It is Briseis’s narration that makes the story. For this reason, you can see that Pat Barker does not let go of the original story. The story remains the same. On page 267 Barker also quotes Priam’s words to Achilles as it had been said in the Iliad: “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son” . For a moment, you think she wants us to feel pity for Priam, but she quickly added a powerful reply of Briseis: “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”.
The Silence of the Girls invites us to look differently on The Iliad and on our own ideas of telling stories. If you read the Iliad, you will probably think “aw, poor Achilles” when his prize was stolen by Agamemnon. But after reading The Silence of the Girls, you will not think this anymore. Because the women are not silent anymore. Their voice is brought to life in this novel. It has a very clear feminist message about how difficult it is for women to makes themselves recognizable from male-dominated stories. The Iliad is a heroic story. Its main characters were defined by great deeds of courage. They are called heroes but there is no mention of heroines. And actually, I really do not want to call these men heroes. They were nothing like heroes. Everyone should know that.