Fighting Muteness in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls

Author: | Posted in Critical Essays No comments

the book cover for The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Early in Homer’s Odyssey, the young Telemachus rebukes his mother Penelope for speaking in front of a room of men, ordering her to return to her private quarters. In Women & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard points out that this is the “the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up.’” Beard goes on to consider the ways that “muteness” defined the lives of women in the “tradition of gendered speaking—and the theorising of gendered speaking—to which we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs.” Pat Barker’s 2018 novel, The Silence of the Girls, feels in many ways like a response to Beard’s observations. A feminist retelling of the Iliad, it seeks to give voice to the women and girls behind the epic, and in doing so becomes a clear rebuke to centuries of patriarchal silencing. Crucially, Barker recognizes that a rewriting of this story in novel form must begin with trauma—the trauma of the girls and women who find themselves serving as sex slaves to the very men that killed their families.

The Silence of the Girls follows a renewed interest in the tradition of women within the Classical world that includes Madeline Miller’s Circe and Emily Wilson’s recent translation of the Odyssey. Most of Barker’s novel is narrated by Briseis, a young slave who is claimed by Achilles as his “prize of honour” after the fall of her hometown of Lyrnessus to the Greeks. In Homer’s Iliad, Briseis is granted a name but not a single word of dialogue. Yet the Iliad begins when Achilles’s “rage” is sparked by Agamemnon’s demand that Briseis be given to him when he must part with his own “bed-girl.” All the ensuing events of the Iliad, like the Trojan War itself, stem from an argument over ownership of a woman.

In most of its particulars, The Silence of the Girls remains surprisingly faithful to its source materials—both the Iliad and, in its final section, Euripides’ Trojan Women. The novel’s polemic is saved from didacticism by the real skill with which Barker, best known for her Regeneration trilogy, again manages to sculpt a book that is transporting while also being deeply anti-war. Achilles himself emerges as a complex human figure—a fierce warrior, quick to anger, whose pride ultimately costs him what he loves most. In Barker’s version he also has unresolved issues with his sea-goddess mother Thetis that play out in his attraction to Briseis. At the same time, his complicated, deeply felt relationship with Patroclus is contrasted with the relative simplicity of his relationship with Briseis, from whom he extracts only sex. Mostly, seeing him through Briseis’s eyes causes us to reassess the heroic values that the original epic blithely celebrates. When he argues that he should be allowed to keep Briseis as his prize, Achilles argues that Agamemnon “hasn’t earnt it,” and Briseis bristles: “Honour, courage, loyalty, reputation—all those big words being bandied about—but for me there was only one word, one very small word: it.” For someone in Briseis’s position, honor, courage, loyalty and reputation mean little next to the brutal attempt to survive her own objectification.

This becomes apparent in the way that Barker rewrites a well-known scene from the original. After the death of Hector, when Achilles has returned to his camp and Priam arrives to beg for the return of his son’s body, Barker quotes Priam’s words to Achilles, taken straight from the Iliad: “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” The moment between the two men is genuinely moving, but so is Briseis’s unspoken thought: “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 Barker’s hands, the original story expands, and we appreciate the differing degrees of tragedy experienced in this scene by Priam as grieving father, Achilles as that son’s killer, and Briseis, the slave girl serving their wine. Honor and pride, the novel argues, are the concerns of men because the women are too busy trying to survive.

While the outline of events is likely to be familiar to many readers, Barker somehow manages to breathe new life into this very old story. Both feminist literature and historical fiction more broadly have long taken an interest in re-writing stories from the perspective of women characters, but in the #Metoo era, Barker’s novel still manages to feel both fresh and timely for the particular way that it takes on questions of sexual violence. Critically, Barker never falls into the trap of imagining a romance between Achilles and Briseis, at least not on Briseis’s end. The novel begins with Briseis watching as Achilles puts a spear through the throat of her youngest brother. The next day, she is chosen as Achilles’s “prize.” Briseis is laconic when it comes to narrating the sex scenes: “He fucked as quickly as he killed,” she writes, “and for me it was the same thing.” Briseis is self aware enough to know that she will be a footnote in a famous man’s story, and to resent it:

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 we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps?

Coming toward the end of the novel, this simple act of labeling the setting we have been reading about as a “rape camp” feels profound. It builds a connection between this distant time and our own. It also feels, quite simply, true.

Yet there is a contradiction at the heart of The Silence of the Girls, for as much as Barker wants to return voice and agency to Briseis, in narrative terms, Briseis remains an observer, constricted by her duel conditions as woman and slave. The middle section of the book can’t seem to help falling under the sway of Achilles’s story, and the point of view even shifts in short segments to his perspective. It’s a testament, I think, to the power of Homer that the original story remains so moving—particularly Achilles’s love for Patroclus and his deep need to avenge his death. Meanwhile, Briseis remains trapped watching the men fight a war of their own choosing. Seen through this light, even Achilles’s grief over Patroclus seems extravagant, self-indulgent. When their cities fall, the girls have no hand in it, and they are given no time to mourn their dead before being handed over to the men who killed their loved ones.

Within their limited sphere of action, however, the girls’ decisions still carry moral weight. Barker is careful to extend small acts of agency and resistance to Briseis, even if she cannot change the outcomes dictated by the men. When Achilles returns from battle with Hector’s mutilated body, Briseis takes a major risk by sneaking in to the barn to cover his face with a piece of cloth. Throughout the novel, the girls and women find succor in one another, sharing news and ministering to the wounds inflicted during the course of their nightly duties. In the novel’s final chapters, the enslaved women of Lyrnessus try to comfort the newly enslaved women of Troy, although they are again helpless to alter their fates. In a particularly cruel turn, taken from Trojan Women, Agamemnon orders that Andromache’s daughter Polyxena be sacrificed on Achilles’s tomb. Having made a promise to Andromache, Briseis accompanies the girl to her awful end. As the Greek ships wait to depart, Briseis runs back to the tomb to remove the bindings from Polyxena’s corpse, including the gag inserted before her execution. It can’t bring the girl back from the dead, but as a symbolic gesture it still matters—at least to Briseis. Of Polyxena, Barker writes, “The deep gash in her throat made her look as if she had two mouths, both silent.”