silence of the girls

Pat Barker’s ‘The Silence of the Girls’ Gives the Perspective of Ancient and Modern Women Alike

The book reimagines 'The Iliad' from the perspective of the epic's oft-ignored female characters.
August 23, 2019
8 mins read

“The Silence of the Girls,” written by Pat Barker, is a retelling of Homer’s “Iliad” from the perspective of a minor character — Briseis, Achilles’ war prize. Briseis, the queen of a city near Troy, is captured and enslaved by the Greek army and must learn to survive as the “bed-girl” of the famous hero Achilles. Tensions between the hero and the Greek commander Agamemnon escalate, and Briseis unwillingly sets in motion a quarrel that changes the course of the war. Even though she is a major catalyst of the story, Briseis hardly appears and is kept silent in the “Iliad.”

Barker’s “The Silence of the Girls” changes that by giving Briseis and the rest of the Trojan women their own voice. And their stories sometimes eerily echo those of modern women, forcing the reader to look at the experiences of both ancient and modern women alike.

Throughout the book, Briseis lives through and hears about many situations that modern women still find themselves in today. When Briseis is first led through the Greek camp as a new slave, she is catcalled and jeered at in ways reminiscent of today’s world. She recounts a specific cat-call: “Hey, will you look at the knockers on that!”

The modern slang is jarring and anachronistic in the context of ancient Greece. With this out-of-place phrase, Barker makes it clear that, while we have come a long way from the omnipresent slavery of the ancient world, humanity still has far to go before we can leave it all in the past.

Along these lines, Barker uses modern swears to create the same jarring effect throughout “The Silence of the Girls.” The Greek men sing an obscene song about raping Helen and then killing her, with gratuitous cursing. The vulgarity of the song is shocking, even after all the previous horrible events, like Agamemnon spitting into Briseis’ mouth after he takes her from Achilles.

The book is one awful, shocking moment after another, and yet the cursing still shakes the reader. The modern swears bring readers out of the horrific life at the Greek camp and into today’s world, where horrible things still happen.

There are a few times when she tells stories that are eerily reminiscent of stories you hear today. When Briseis recalls her past friendship with Helen, she shares that the woman confided in her about her childhood sexually assault. Briseis thinks to herself: “Oh yes, I got that story too. Poor Helen, raped on a river bank when she was only ten. Of course I believed her. It was quite a shock to me, later, to discover nobody else did.”

The moment harshly reminds readers of the #MeToo movement, which emphasizes the importance of believing survivors. This connection shows, once again, that the ancient world oftentimes bears an awful similarity to the modern one.

“The Silence of the Girls” is not all about the awful moments, however. Barker draws out similarities between ancient and modern women in some uplifting ways as well. When Briseis is remembering Helen’s friendship, she recalls Helen’s beautiful tapestries that she herself weaved. Briseis calls them Helen’s way of making herself human in response to the rampant objectification and shame that she faced. Briseis thinks, “[Helen] was so isolated in that city, so powerless … and those tapestries were a way of saying: I’m here. Me. A person, not just an object to be looked at and fought over.”

Even in Helen’s impossible situation, trapped between two peoples who both hated and fought over her, she manages to find a way to be herself and to be human. Even though these words are given to a woman who lived thousands of years ago, they ring true for people today.

Briseis also has her own moment of defining herself as a person. At the beginning of the novel, Briseis’ struggle with personhood and identity is heartbreaking as she is faced with slavery in the Greek camp after her (relatively) free life in the Trojan city. When Briseis goes to work in the medical tent at the Greek camp, she finds something she likes and is interested in. She narrates, “I really started to think: I can do this. And that belief took me a step further away from being just Achilles’ bed-girl — or Agamemnon’s spittoon.”

After everything Briseis has been through, after rape and objectification, she finds a sense of purpose and sense of self. It’s inspiring, to say the least.

Perhaps most importantly, “The Silence of the Girls” is about finding—and creating—a space for a woman’s perspective in a world dominated by men. Briseis recalls a famous moment at the end of Homer’s “Iliad” when Priam, the king of Troy, comes to beg Achilles to return his son Hector’s body to him for burial. Priam says, “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”

This moment has proven fascinating for many Homeric scholars, and yet Barker doesn’t care to analyze it herself. Instead, Briseis has her own story to tell, and she thinks, “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.” Her words remind readers that Priam’s story, while painful, has already been told and that this is Briseis’s story now.

“The Silence of the Girls” gives a voice to the women whose perspectives were not told in Homer’s epic. This book is about breaking a repeated phrase: “Silence becomes a woman.” In the book, Briseis and Tecmessa, another captive Trojan woman, think about this phrase and then laugh and whoop and screech as loud as they can, even with all the men around them watching incredulously.

This book breaks the silence for ancient women through moments like this and also just by telling their stories and giving them a voice. It also recalls the #MeToo movement again for the modern readers, as well as the Time person of the year in 2017, “The Silence Breakers.” Once again, “The Silence of the Girls” connects ancient and modern women and tells their stories together.

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