Pat Barker’s Classical Tradition
By Catherine Sorrentino
From the first sentence of Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls, it is obvious that she will not be aligning herself with “white male” classical tradition. “Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles. How the epithets pile up . . . we called him ‘the butcher.’ ” This opening salvo is narrated by an unlikely voice– not a male solider or poet, but Brisesis, Achilles’s own stolen war prize and the inciting figure of Homer’s Iliad. This line is striking for many reasons: it is a deliberate turn away from Homer’s masculine heroes and ideals, as well as from the academics and readers who have lionized them.
Barker’s turn to the classics seem like a departure from her earlier works, which all focus on 20th century Britain. Her earliest work all follows working class women in North England, where Barker herself grew up. Union Street, her first novel, concerns a serial killer preying on sex workers, and her most well-known work is the ‘Regeneration Trilogy’, which follows veterans from the second World War as they grapple with the burgeoning effects of PTSD on their lives. Perhaps then, for a writer who made a name for herself crafting stories about women and war, The Silence of the Girls is less of a surprise than a destination.
The Silence of the Girls, Barker’s 2018 reinterpretation of the Iliad, is narrated by Briseis, the woman who propels its story and remains in its foreground. This novel should be admired for its commitment to twisting a story of masculine expectations of victory and defeat into a subversive story of the ways that women assert their own perspectives into those environments. This strategy can yield striking results in unexpected moments, offering readers the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the original text. In Barker’s rewrite of the Iliad’s climatic scene, wherein the Trojan king Priam begs Achilles to return the body of his son Hector to him, Priam delivers still delivers the famous line “I do what no before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” But this time, he is answered by Barker’s listening Briseis, thinking “I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husbands and my brothers.”
Barker twists the Iliad’s ruminations on the cost of war to male dignity into wrenching observations on the higher price women pay. As a reader, this moment shocks. Briseis weighs this extraordinary act of pity between enemies against the countless horrors suffered by women in wartime, and finds Priam’s legendary words wanting. Even as I reread this novel, these few lines stand out for their anger at a world that finds the commonplace suffering of women insufficient for remembering. Her perspective is refreshing, even illuminating, but it isn’t enough to feel revolutionary.
In crafting a novel that attempts to break away from Homer’s masculine world by giving its voice to a female narrator, it feels as though Barker has made a very traditional choice in tying Briseis’s story so closely to Achilles. The Silence of the Girls treads the same ground as Homer, providing a different perspective on what is ultimately the same story. There is a self awareness in Barker’s writing about this paradox of retelling classic stories. There is a moment at the end of The Silence of the Girls where Briseis understands that she has been retelling an old story, when she should have been searching for a “new song.” “I tried to walk out of Achilles’s story—and failed,” she admits to us in the final lines of the novel. “Now my own story can begin.”
Barker reaffirmed that commitment to a “new song” last year, with the release of a sequel to The Silence of the Girls, titled The Women of Troy. Where The Silence of the Girls joined a number of recent titles, like Madeleine Miller’s Circe and Natalie Hynes’ A Thousand Ships, exploring classical works through female perspectives, The Woman of Troy joined a slightly different club. Barker’s tale of the enslavement of Trojan women after the fall of Troy has already been rewritten and narrated by a female voice: in 415 BC, when Euripides premiered his play Troades, or The Trojan Women.
Euripides was no stranger to writing for female voices. His body of work, even prior to the writing of Troades, reads like a list of classical mythologies’ most notorious and tragic women. Medea, Electra, Phaedra, and even earlier plays following Andromache and Hecuba define his tragedies. But Euripides abandoned his earlier plot-heavy tragic structures to write Troades, which is comprised of brutal, horrific vignettes following characters like Cassandra, Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen as they lament the loss of Troy and their future as slaves to their enemies. As Troy goes up in flames, Hecuba wails at the idea that Troy will be “forgotten.”
Yet, Barker’s The Women of Troy is hardly even the first adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy. Writers from Seneca to Jean Paul-Satre took a turn at reimagining the plight of the Trojan women, and it’s been redone with increasing frequency as an anti-war play. Femi Osofisan’s 2004 play Women of Owu sets the story in 1821, after the conquest of the Owu, and the postmodern play Trojan Barbie by Christine Evans blends the modern and ancient worlds together.
The Woman of Troy is still narrated by Briseis, but this time around it’s the women she observes who hold our attention. Most of the novel is also plot driven, a step back from Euripides’ scream into the void. Pyrrhus, the cruel son of Achilles, outlaws the burying of Priam’s body in defiance of all religious expectations. Briseis, along with an original character named Amina, risk their lives to attempt a proper burial. This premise would have been familiar to any of Euripides’ contemporaries. It’s the plot of Antigone, here providing drama and genuine tragedy to what might otherwise be a novel full of moralizing and abjection.
The Silence of Girls sticks to the plot of the Iliad closely, but The Woman of Troy is a more successful novel for abandoning tradition. This blurring of old and new voices creates something thrilling, something genuinely unexpected for a modern audience. It may also be a more Greek novel for doing so. Evidence suggests that Euripides himself created the most famous part of the Medea story, the climactic moment in which she kills her own children. The classical tradition thrived, and continues to thrive, invention rather than simple retellings.
By dismissing the original Euripides story, Barker is paradoxically remaining more faithful to the classical tradition. The grappling between tradition and novelty is old, and the imposition of modern lenses on old stories doesn’t seem to be enough. Perhaps the answer is to do as the ancient playwrights did, and write new songs.
Catherine Sorrentino (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Anthropology and minoring in Classical Studies.