Classics Book Club: Silence of the Girls

Ancient History student – and resident book expert – William Rigby talks us through Pat Barker’s phenomenal 2018 retelling of the Trojan War. You can follow his reading adventures over on Instagram at @rigby_reads!

The Silence of the Girls, written by Pat Barker in 2018, is set in the mythological world of Homer’s Iliad. Homer’s Iliad is a setting where male aggression and power struggles take centre stage. 10 long years of siege, countless dead on both sides, sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, all killed in the name of a single King’s desire for his wife to be returned to him and for his honour to be restored. It is a setting in which ancient heroes were brought to life. Familiar figures like Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon all fight to achieve kleos, everlasting glory. In this setting, their actions are heroic, brave and courageous. And their feats are echoed throughout history forever. Achilles fulfil his prophecy, and he is still revered as one of the greatest fighters of all time. Odysseus achieves his nostos, his homecoming. And Agamemnon successfully sacks the city of Troy.

However, you may notice a glaring omission from this description. There are no women. This is a world where male fantasy is given higher priority over female reality. A quote from The Silence of The Girls clearly shows a female’s place in this world:

‘Silence becomes a woman’

This deeply misogynistic rhetoric is commonplace in this world. Their voices are never consulted in the original text, their actions are unnoticed, and their position is often seen as an item. An accessory to a man’s entourage of baubles and titles.

Barker takes up the important and eye-opening task of giving a voice to the voiceless. The Silence of the Girls serves as a feminist retelling of these ancient stories. This refreshing female perspective allows its audience to try and imagine the experiences that women went through on a daily basis inside the Greek camp.

Barker’s Briseis is a tenacious and complex character. Her life as a slave to Achilles and then to Agamemnon and then back to Achilles is a stark reminder of the reality of ancient warfare. Too often are we told of the heroics, stratagems and feats, but not nearly enough are we reminded of the gritty reality of war. Unfortunately, while unique in her own rights, Briseis’s experiences are far too common a fate.

There is a specific line in this book that encapsulates this divide between fantasy and reality. It takes place when King Priam begs Achilles for the body of his dead son, Hector, to be returned. On his knees, he declares:

“I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”

Closely mirroring the original lines in Iliad 24 (503-506) this is a scene that is wrapped in pathos and dramatic weight. It is a terrifying sentiment for anyone to comprehend, but the fact that he says this with such grace and respect is revealing of what kind of man Priam is. But then, in an aside to the audience, Briseis remarks:

“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.”

This line is a perfect juxtaposition. It is a stark message and reminder to the audience, that whilst the stories of these men are undoubtedly tragic, and their lives are woven with gut-wrenching drama and irony. But, on the other hand, the women are forced to suffer a much more human and prolonged reality.

Achilles and Briseis fresco in the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii
ArchaiOptix CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Book Club Questions

1. Briseis’ attitude toward Achilles changes throughout the course of the novel. Did you always find yourself agreeing with her opinion of him? Why or why not?

2. What is most striking about the difference between how Achilles presents himself privately and publicly? In what ways do the two personas merge toward the end of the novel?

3. How did reading The Silence of the Girls impact your understanding of Homer’s Iliad? What did this book add to the story of the Trojan War as a whole?

4. There are many visceral and devastating depictions of war and its aftermath in The Silence of the Girls. Which moment struck you as the most heartbreaking or poignant?

5. Honour (τιμή), for your family and your city, is a strong theme of the Iliad. How does this theme apply to The Silence of the Girls?

6. The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Iliad from one of the minor character’s point of view. If Pat Barker were to write another retelling, whose point of view would you be most interested in reading? How, for instance, might Paris, Helen’s lover, tell his tale?

7. What did you think of Barker’s decision never explicitly say what kind of relationship Achilles and Patroclus had? Especially in light of the fact that many other modern authors portray them as having a romantic relationship.

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