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Literature’s Exception(s)

Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and the State of Exception

L’état d’exception dans The Silence of the Girls de Pat Barker
Catherine Lanone


Publié en 2018, le roman de Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls, réécrit l’Iliade pour exposer le point de vue de Briséis, la captive vouée au silence que se disputent Agamemnon et Achille. Barker dépeint la colère d’Achille et l’exigence tyrannique d’Agamemnon comme une crise qui n’est pas sans évoquer l’état d’exception d’Agamben. Elle arrache l’épopée à l’intemporel en lisant la guerre de Troie au prisme de la Première Guerre mondiale. Tout en déconstruisant le modèle épique par le biais du réalisme, et en recentrant le récit sur la femme, Barker complexifie le personnage d’Achille, guerrier impitoyable mais aussi personnage lié à la mer, à l’identité fluide. L’image du petit galet sur la grève, poli mais coupant, fait figure d’exception, et offre à Briséis un corrélat objectif, représentant sa capacité à survivre et endurer, à user du rire et de l’ironie comme d’une arme, mais aussi à soigner et à réunir les fragments disjoints de vies brisées. Ainsi, Barker joue sur l’intertextualité pour dialoguer à la fois avec la grande tradition épique et avec la violence du monde d’aujourd’hui.

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1As a child, Pat Barker watched her grandfather’s scars when he washed himself in the kitchen, but he remained silent when she asked him about his World War One experience: ‘So what I had in my background is a mysterious wound, and silence’ (Barker 2019a, 7:58). In the 1990s, she wrote about the silencing of men in her World War One Regeneration trilogy, exploring the plight of poets like Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, of doctors like the unusual anthropologist and analyst William Rivers, and of fictional characters like the bisexual, working-class Billy Prior, an exception among upper-class officers. In 2018, The Silence of the Girls came as a surprise, at the apex of World-War-One commemorations, when one might have expected Barker to return to the war archive rather than turn to the Iliad. In fact, Barker takes exception with Homer’s gendered epic, and explores another kind of silencing, that of the female captive: ‘I was astonished by that silence. The eloquence of the men, the absolute silence of the women they are quarrelling about’ (Barker 2019b, 17). The novel also includes third-person chapters that adopt the perspective of Achilles. This surprising choice prompts to consider the politics of power, and to read the feud between Agamemnon and Achilles in the light of Agamben’s state of exception. Barker’s novel stands out, as she breathes World War One into the Trojan war, using anachronisms to give her raw account of a war of attrition. While parody subverts the great epic tradition, her Briseis is a precarious witness and a survivor, resonating with today’s troubled world.

The State of Exception

2Briseis is not a familiar name like that of Helen of Troy, and yet in the Iliad her story offers a striking parallel to Helen’s: both women are the cause of a feud between two men that leads to bloody battle. Because Helen loves Paris and follows him to Troy, abandoning her husband Menelaus, a Greek coalition is formed and a long, ruthless war begins. Because Agamemnon takes Briseis, his captive, from the great warrior Achilles, the latter refuses to go on fighting and his anger makes him responsible for the deaths of countless Greeks. Surprisingly, the Iliad does not begin with the seduction of Helen, or the thousand ships sailing for Troy, and it does not end with the Trojan horse (the fall of Troy is part of the Odyssey). It simply revolves around the wrath of Achilles when Briseis is taken, and it ends after Briseis has been returned, when Achilles resumes fighting to avenge Patroclus’ death, and finally grants a truce to Priam so that he may bury his son Hector.

  • 1 Tecmessa is reminiscent of the Stockholm syndrome.

3Barker’s novel roughly follows the time-scheme of the Iliad (it is mostly a coquel, though it begins a little earlier, when Lyrnessus falls and Briseis is taken, and it ends a little later, after Troy has fallen and Achilles has been killed). The tone, however, differs from the iconic epic as she demythologizes the premises of the plot. The novel’s epigraph, taken from Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, stresses the way in which ‘European literature’ begins with something ‘as basic as a barroom brawl’ (Barker 2018, n.p.), two men fighting over an abducted girl. Later, Briseis finds the situation absurd: ‘it made no sense, to me, that the two most powerful men in the Greek army should fall out over a girl’ (Barker 2018, 95). This runs against ordinary interpretations and popular culture. Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy, for instance, relies on the codes of romance, and Briseis ‘supplants Helen to become the true focus of the pivotal story of abduction, seduction, and passion’, while Brad Pitt’s Achilles is muscular, sensuous and seductive, ‘a signifier of active eroticism’ (Blondell 70). On the contrary, even though Barker’s Achilles is also handsome, ‘the most beautiful man alive’ (Barker 2018, 49), the codes of romance fail to apply. Unlike Rissa, a former prostitute, who finds it easy to give her body, and Tecmessa, a younger captive, who convinces herself that she is in love with her captor,1 Barker’s Briseis watches Achilles constantly yet feels no desire for him, always remembering that he killed her bothers and husband: ‘You never mention his looks. And it’s true, I don’t, I find it difficult. . . . How do you separate a tiger’s beauty from its ferocity?’ (49).

4The feud between Achilles and Agamemnon is equally stripped of romance. Briseis is acutely aware of being handed over to Agamemnon like a commodity, an object, while the pronoun ‘it’ materializes this process of reification or abjection: ‘there was only one word, one very small word: it. It doesn’t belong to him, he hasn’t earned it’ (97). She finds no comfort in Achilles’ wrath, which makes the Greeks resent her as the cause of the quarrel between the two leaders: ‘I could feel the same hostility, the same contempt beginning to gather around me. I was Helen now’ (110). Rather than romance, Barker is interested in the politics of power, in Achilles’ anger when Briseis, his trophy, the equivalent of a medal or a badge of honour, is taken from him. Agamemnon’s decision triggers what Georgio Agamben defines as a ‘state of exception’, a provisional lawlessness justified by extreme circumstances, in an authoritarian claim that implements a new paradigm of government:

. . . if exceptional measures are the result of periods of political crisis . . . then they find themselves in the paradoxical position of being juridical measures that cannot be understood in legal terms, and the state of exception appears as the legal form of what cannot have legal form. (Agamben 1)

  • 2 René Girard considers that desire is triangular and mimetic. In that reading, Briseis should be con (...)
  • 3 Jonathan Shay has compared Achilles’ behaviour to the trauma of American soldiers in Vietnam, notin (...)

5Agamemnon’s substitution of Briseis for Chryseis (the captive whom he was forced to return to her father, Apollo’s priest) is a tyrannical decision that endangers the body politic. In Barker’s novel, this is not based on either desire for Briseis or desire for Achilles himself, following René Girard’s pattern of mimetic desire,2 but on political choice: ‘Men carve meaning into women’s faces. Messages addressed to other men’ (Barker 2018, 107). The italics, the parallel structure, the repetition of ‘Look at her’ (107) stress that Briseis’s body is scripted: for Achilles, as a trophy, she signifies that he is the greatest of warriors; for Agamemnon, as a repurposed trophy, she signifies that the king of kings has taken Achilles’ prize, and may take whatever he wants from all men. This is a betrayal of leadership, a deprivation of honour, the kind of moral injury that deteriorates character. Hitherto a pro-social, prominent figure of the Greek community of soldiers, Achilles withdraws from battle, isolates himself, trusts no one but Patroclus.3 For David F. Elmer, in the Iliad, despite his isolation, Achilles embodies ‘the social bond, that unites the group’ (Elmer 70), but the decision to take Briseis shatters the body politic: ‘The Iliad’s opening scenes provide a kind of symptomatology of the crisis opened up by the state of exception’ (Elmer 69). Like the IIiad, Barker’s novel explores this crisis of exception, mostly, but not only, from the viewpoint of the odd one out, Briseis.

  • 4 The tale of Achilles’ heel does not actually appear in the Iliad.
  • 5 Barker uses the term in several interviews, with Elinor Wachtel for instance. It is also interestin (...)
  • 6 See Alexandre Privat’s Phd thesis.
  • 7 The scene brings to mind Sassoon’s guilty hallucinatory dream in Regeneration, which prompts him to (...)

6As Emilie Walezak points out, Barker’s realistic rewriting of the epic mode highlights the split between Briseis’s first-person realistic mode and the third-person, more mythological passages devoted to Achilles: Achilles and Briseis belong to different worlds, different narrative modes, two different kinds of different distribution of the sensible (Walezak 97). The limited mythological mode (the only gods are Apollo and Thetis, Achilles’ mother, the Nereid) also allows Barker to distance herself from the epic, to probe into the state of exception. Barker demystifies the hero, stripping him of some of his legendary attributes: ‘Achilles’ heel. Of all the legends that grew up around him that was by far the silliest’ (Barker 2018, 277).4 But Achilles is not just the killing machine of the opening scene. He is also an anomaly, the son of Thetis, roaming the beach, a liminal space. This is in part parodic (Achilles calls his mother like a lost little boy, Thetis fusses over him, he is drawn to Briseis because her hair smells of the sea too, a variation on the Œdipus complex) but it also endows Achilles, when he is away from the battlefield, with a hybrid, ‘amphibian’5 quality that corresponds to a form of unexpected gender fluidity or vulnerability. This led Barker to stray from her initial conception of Achilles as a mere narcissist, to explore his in-betweenness, a metaphor for vulnerability. This is also implied by his music, his lyre, which, like his beauty, makes him resemble Apollo. His unfinished song is complete precisely because it has no conclusion, just like Patroclus and Achilles’ interrupted lives (274). Barker’s version of the epic warrior suffers from battle trauma. The crux of the Iliad, Achilles’ angry destruction of the body of Hector day after day (since it is miraculously regenerated by the gods), may be read as a metaphor of the endless re-enactment that comes with trauma and grief. Barker expands on Homer’s sense of compassion. The great scene where Priam comes to beg for the body of Hector in the stealth of night, and the two enemies share food and a moment of emotion, is an instance of the pity of war, to borrow Wilfred Owen’s phrase. This makes The Silence of the Girls an exception in Barker’s work while also creating a sense of continuity. A quintessential warrior, Achilles is transformed by his wrath, he is forced by his own decision to remain passive, to wait endlessly. When Patroclus goes to the battlefield wearing Achilles’ armour, Achilles is split, he seems to see himself. He anxiously watches the battlefield from his anchored ship, becoming, like Briseis, a precarious witness6 who only sees from afar, who can only grasp the event indirectly. Sun-drenched, he watches his hands grow, he feels himself fusing with Patroclus as if fighting within the same armour, and he hopes to become himself again: ‘He needs to reconnect to his surroundings, get back into the real world, adjust to a view not framed by the cheek iron of a helmet’ (173). Later, he senses the hallucinatory presence of Patroclus, reproaching him with not burning and burying his body. Rather than an epic vision, this resembles the delusions triggered by war trauma.7 Achilles’ withdrawal becomes akin to enforced paralysis or passivity, the kind of traumatic inversion that Barker explored regarding the soldiers in the trenches. In fact, Barker’s revision of the classics owes much to her World War One experience.

Seeing Troy through the Prism of World War One

7Fiona Cox and Elena Theodorakopoulos consider Barker as one of ‘Homer’s daughters’, women writers who ‘have subverted, questioned, parodied, and turned to Homer over the course of a century from 1914 to the present day’ (Cox and Theodorakopoulos, 2). Barker also points out that The Silence of the Girls is part of a spate of recent novels by male and female writers that rewrite the classics, mentioning Colm Toibin (whose 2017 House of Names draws upon Euripides’s Oresteia, portraying Agamemnon’s return and murder by his wife Clytemnestra) or Madeline Miller (her 2012 novel, The Song of Achilles plays on the homoerotic subtext of The Iliad and portrays the passion between Patroclus and Achilles). We may also think of Margaret Atwood’s 2005 Penelopiad, which focuses on Penelope’s sacrificed maidens, or classicist Natalie Haynes’ 2019 A Thousand Ships, revisiting Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey from a panoramic, all-female perspective. Pat Barker is no classicist (she jokingly recalls that she had to take her Latin test seven times, which prevented her from reading English literature at university (Barker 2019c, 7:43), but she has a historian’s eye and revives the Trojan War with uncanny sensory vividness, perhaps because she can bring to this war of attrition her experience of fictionalizing World War One archives.

  • 8 Barker points out that she first made the analogy in her 2007 novel, Life Class: ‘there’s a passage (...)
  • 9 Shaw-Stewart was educated at Eton and Oxford, where he was duly taught the classics; he was killed (...)
  • 10 The Allies’ decision to open a second front (in order to weaken the Ottoman Empire and German army) (...)

8Barker has long considered the First World War as the Trojan war of our times,8 an analogy which springs from the war poets themselves, who referred to the Iliad either to celebrate courage or to challenge slaughter, as Elizabeth Vandiver has shown in her 2010 study, Stand in the Trench, Achilles. Vandiver’s title comes from a poem which Patrick Shaw-Stewart9 wrote while waiting for the battle of Gallipoli.10 Overlooking the place where Troy once stood, the poet’s persona awaits no ‘second Helen’ but ‘Shells and hells for me’ (Shaw-Stewart in Vandiver 271). He invokes Achilles, an exceptional fellow fighter, a protector, a mediator. Closing on a call for Achilles’ calling, the poem ends with the Homeric image of Achilles’ head blazing against the sky and with his famous war-cry:

Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me. (Shaw-Stewart in Vandiver 271)

9As Vandiver puts it, ‘[t]he awe-inspiring, superhuman Achilles, whose shout scatters the enemy, is asked in Shaw-Stewart’s poem to shout “for” the all-too-human inhabitant of the 1915 trenches’ (Vandiver 276).

10Whereas the World War One poet sought the help of myth, Barker dismantles myth by reverting to realism. Achilles’ wild cry is just a threat relentlessly coming closer, with a frequency marked by commas (‘again, and again,’):

I heard him before I saw him: his battle cry ringing round the walls of Lyrnessus. (Barker 2018, 3)
Again, and again, that battle cry rang out, as inhuman as the howling of a wolf. (4)
But then that war cry came again, and again, each time closer, and we all knew who it was, though nobody said his name. (5)

11The novel opens on a group of women who know that they are caught in a war of attrition and that the siege can only end with the fall of Lyrnessus. They have gathered in a tower, in a stifling room stinking of bodily secretions, milk, urine and menstrual blood, a naturalistic touch that brings home to the reader the sense of entrapment. Briseis watches the Greeks sweep into the city, and sees Achilles murder her husband and brothers. He looks up but cannot see her, since the sun is in his eye, as if Barker had substituted the invisible, silent Briseis, blending with the light of the sun, for Homer’s flame-capped Achilles.

12The suspended time of waiting is replaced with a succession of swift scenes, as the surviving women are led away, their ‘jumbled shadows’ (15) like a parodic frieze, while what Caruth calls the wounding repetition or ‘double wound’ (Caruth 4) of trauma begins, marked by the intrusion of an odd present tense:

. . . we passed a small garden and the scent of mimosa drifted towards us on the warm night air. Later, when so many other memories have vanished, I still get flashes of that smell . . . reminding me of everything I lost. Then it was gone, and we were holding on to each other again, slipping and slithering along alleys cobbled with our brothers. (15–16)

13The Proustian olfactory recollection is a prolepsis, a temporal spasm, blending scent and the reminiscence of loss and horror. There are no burials, the bodies are to be torn by dogs and black birds ‘drifting down like scraps of burnt cloth’ (16), akin to the birdlike, ‘hundreds of black, beaked, predatory ships’ (17). As opposed to such metaphors, clipped sentences depict the women being ‘lined up’ and ‘inspected’ (17), in terms that recall a slaves’ market, just as ‘A short voyage’ (16) reads like a miniature Middle Passage. Thus, the striking opening fall of Lyrnessus vividly revives the Trojan war, while bringing to mind nineteenth-century slavery and contemporary warfare, like the recent siege of cities in Syria.

14Above all, Barker taps into the trauma of World War One to familiarize the nine year-long, ‘interminable war’ (22). The battlefield is narrow, caught between the gates of Troy and the shore where the Greek camp has been built, a site of slaughter that brings to mind the No Man’s Land: ‘the once fertile plain so churned up with horses’ hooves and chariot wheels it had become a wasteland in which nothing grew’ (112). This impression is strengthened by the useless wall and the trench paved with ‘duckboards’ (117), built by Agamemnon to protect the ships:

A great trench had been built in the scrubland that divided the sand-dunes from the battlefield. Hundreds of men, so thickly caked in mud they seemed to be made of it, were pushing wheelbarrows full of soil away from the site, while others dug deep into the water-logged clay. (117)

15The prosaic mud is a far cry from the epic mode. The armies shift back and forth, fighting bloody battles over yards of ground which are taken and re-taken, as the Greeks reach the gates of Troy, then the Trojan offensive is successful when Achilles stops fighting. In the overcrowded, squalid camp, the plague that spreads is due to the heaps of garbage and proliferation of rats rather than to Apollo’s curse. Barker in interviews praises Homer’s accuracy, his insistence on body parts; she suggests that he must have had some kind of war experience to know so much about organs. Again, she adds details drawn from the Great War, strengthening the sense that the conditions must have been very similar: Briseis, tending the wounded, listens for the crackling of gangrene that announces impending death. The conflicted women nurse the wounded, yet secretly rejoice that the Trojan earth should poison the enemy’s wounds. Barker’s anachronistic elements wrench out of the epic the rawness of war experience.

16The dialogues also contribute to such shock tactics, because the Greek and Trojan voices sound much like Barker’s trademark working-class characters, as when Achilles first sees Briseis: ‘“Cheers lads,” he said. “She’ll do.”’ (19). Odysseus claims that Achilles is ‘gagging for’ fighting (137), the men are ‘cheeky little sods’ (71) and Agamemnon is a ‘total fucking disgrace’ (80). Men ‘bugger off’ and the songs are drawn from rugby songs. While Barker has been praised as a historian as much as a novelist for her war trilogy, reviewers like Emily Wilson and Sophie Gilbert find anachronisms like the week-end market, half a crown, or gaining half a stone rather awkward. Yet, Barker deliberately wanted her reader to be ‘brought up short’ (Barker 2019c 52:08) by such discrepancies: she uses anachronisms to presentify the Trojan conflict as a raw, modern war, and to debunk the epic mode and use parody to impose a woman’s perspective.

Survival and the Parodic Mode

17Pat Barker writes back to the epic mode and the mix between Greek myth and popular super-heroes in today’s popular culture, rejecting what Linda Hutcheon calls the ‘value-free, decorative, de-historicized quotation of past forms, . . . a most apt mode for a culture like our own that is oversaturated with images’ (Hutcheon 90). The novel opens ‘with a corrective to the presentation of war as an episode of glory and heroism’ (Cox and Theodorakopoulos 3): ‘Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles. . . . how the epithets pile up. We never called him any of these things; we called him ‘the butcher’ (3).

18Ironically listing and subverting Homeric epithets, Barker ‘overlays the Trojan war with the horror of subsequent atrocities, by echoing the language used for “the butcher of Bosnia” or for the Holocaust criminal Klaus Barbie, “the butcher of Lyons”’ (Cox and Theodorakopoulos 3). She also echoes Sassoon’s hatred of monuments with their ‘intolerably nameless names’: ‘But you see the problem, don’t you? How on earth can you feel any pity or concern confronted by this list of intolerably nameless names?” (194). Homer’s list of casualties depicts wounds and lineage to spare anonymity, but little else:

On this he struck Dryops with his spear, about the middle of his neck, and he fell headlong at his feet. There he let him lie and stayed Demouchus son of Philetor, a man both brave and of great stature, by hitting him on the knee with a spear; then he smote him with his sword and killed him. After this he sprang on Laogonus and Dardanus, sons of Bias, and threw them from their chariot, the one with a blow from a thrown spear, while the other he cut down in hand-to-hand fight. There was also Tros the son of Alastor—he came up to Achilles and clasped his knees in the hope that he would spare him and not kill him but let him go, because they were both of the same age. . . . Therefore when Tros laid hold of his knees and sought a hearing for his prayers, Achilles drove his sword into his liver, and the liver came rolling out, while his bosom was all covered with the black blood that welled from the wound. (Homer n.p.)

19Barker de-doxifies Achilles’ angry killing spree. She first breaks down the list, fragmenting into entries separated by the cumulative, anaphoric ‘And then—’, like an endless litany:

And then—
Dryops. A sword strike to the neck that very early took off his head.
And then—
A spear in his right knee. As he stood there, helpless, waiting, Achilles finished him off with a sword thrust to his neck.
And then—
Laogonus and Dardanus
, brothers. They clung to the side of their chariot, but Achilles hooked them out of it, as easy as winkles with a pin. . . .
And then—
He died clutching Achilles’ knees, pleading for his life. Achilles sank his sword in the upper belly, inflicting a wound so deep the liver slid out of the gap and blood gushed and puddled at his feet. (194)

  • 11 In the interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Barker acknowledges that such voices are very close to the d (...)

20Barker cites Homer but the shifts in register defamiliarize and parody the epic. The loose translation and fragmentation subvert the heroic mode, enhancing the victims’ sense of helplessness and of Achilles’ ruthlessness, while the trivial simile of the winkles, confirms the process of ironic inversion. But the anaphoric roll call is not enough, and Barker adds another subversive layer by shifting to the tales told by women, a form of orality that challenges the masculine ethos of the great oral epic tradition. The more intimate, domestic details bitterly dissent with the definition of a man by his dying wound. As opposed to graphic death, the women recall birth and life, fleshing out the names of the dead: ‘And so I can tell you that Laogonus and Dardanus weren’t just brothers, they were twins. When they were little, Dardanus’s speech was so bad his own mother couldn’t understand him’ (192). Mulius’s mother recalls watching him in characteristic cockney: ‘Me back was broke’ (195).11 Dryops’s mother delivers herself of her own baby: ‘Oh, the midwife says, I didn’t think she was as close as that. Me mam just smiled’ (195). This is in keeping with Hutcheon’s definition of parody, to repeat or sing along badly, stressing distance and ironic difference. Time rolls back upon itself as the dead are given a childhood, a birth, and the cockney accent collapses Homer’s epic past onto our present.

  • 12 The inability to speak runs through Barker’s work, and the motif of the violated mouth recalls the (...)

21Briseis’s survival is therefore defined in terms both of silence and of a voice. Briseis refuses both the romance scenario and the tragic scenario: she does not hurl herself from the tower in the beginning, and will do what it takes to survive, even though she is turned from a queen into a slave. She wears an impassive face and smiles when serving wine at dinner, she controls her body when Achilles wants her. Barker works within the limits of the silence enforced upon a character numbed by shock and trauma, by her refusal to let herself feel too much, and by the wordlessness of slaves. There are degrees in this silence. As a concubine, Briseis may speak to Patroclus and to other women; but she is well aware that, should she be discarded by Agamemnon, she is to be given to the soldiers, bound to become the shadow of herself, scavenging for food. The women cannot voice their grief, except when using, for instance, Patroclus’s death as a cover (190). Towards the end of the novel, Agamemnon orders the sacrifice of a girl, Polyxena, who tries to speak but is gagged, and can only utter muffled screams before her throat is slit (285), a graphic image of the silencing of women. Agamemnon’s worst violation is not sodomy, but the moment when he spits phlegm in Briseis’s mouth, an instance of the gendered nature of symbolic violence (Bourdieu 3) and an inverted image of Apollo spitting into the mouth of Cassandra (to punish her for refusing to lie with him, and to make sure that, though he has granted her full powers of divination, no one will ever believe her).12

22To resist the silencing of slaves, Briseis wants to ‘bear witness’ (286). The novel recalls the four victim positions defined by Margaret Atwood in Survival. Briseis does not give up and yield to passivity, she does not deny that she is a victim either (unlike Tecmessa), and she knows that she cannot escape or change her circumstances (she tries to hide with Hector’s body when Priam’s chariot leaves, but she realizes that this is useless and slips back into the camp). Instead, she occupies Atwood’s fourth position, she tries to become a ‘creative non-victim’ (Atwood 1996, 37), working within the boundary conditions to rebuild her sense of identity. She thereby occupies a liminal position, which is emblematized in the novel, perhaps a little too neatly, by her ability to sneak to the beach and let the waves wash her, ‘clean, or as clean as I would ever be again’ (Barker 2018, 27), not far from Achilles, in the early morning mist that recalls the mysterious mists created by the gods in the Iliad. The pebble that she finds, ‘green, the bilious green of a stormy sea, but with one diagonal streak of white’ (29), is an objective correlative for her split condition, her dual identity as a queen and a slave. Briseis picks it up when it cuts her foot, brings it back unawares, then smells it, licks it, in a sensory, animal-like process of exploration, examining it “minutely, as people in shock will sometimes do’ (29). The solid thing, in an epic or adventure scenario, might be used as a weapon. In Barker’s novel, its sharpness has a different meaning and function. It is a pebble of identity, an exception, and it stands for the sharp edge of Briseis herself, her ability to resist: ‘So many pebbles on that beach—millions—all of them worn smooth by the sea’s relentless grinding, but not this one. This one had stayed sharp’ (30). The pebble becomes a keepsake, a talisman, a crystal of time promising some kind of future for the Narrating-I: ‘It mattered to me, that obstinate little stone, and it still does. I have it here now in the palm of my hand’ (30).

23This cutting edge corresponds to her irony, as when she sarcastically inwardly rewrites Priam’s famous plea for Hector’s body:

I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hand of the man who has killed my son. . . .
And I do what countless women have done before me. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers. (240)

24Like Achilles, Briseis is an anomaly, but she also fits in within the small community of captives. Her ironic perception of the warriors’ attitudes and speeches is part of the rebellious laughter that seeks to capsize the phallic domination of the captors. The women smirk at a dead soldier’s sex when cleansing the corpse, they exchange crude jokes, and Briseis bursts out laughing with Tecmessa when they mock the Greek proverb, ‘Silence becomes a woman (264). Drawing upon Cixous and Moi, Akgün points to the ‘revolutionary attitude of laughter which overthrows the codes and norms of the established order and replaces them with new and slippery ones’ (Akgün 216) in Atwood’s rewriting of the Odyssey. Pat Barker also turns laughter at the expense of the Greeks into a small but central act of disobedience and resilience. Such subversive language connects the Trojan women with Barker’s strong working–class female characters, in her early novels.

25Barker also plays upon one of Homer’s topoi, the tapestry of war woven by Helen. In The Silence of the Girls, this ekphrasis is substituted for the description of the shield of Achilles forged by Hephaistos and gifted by Thetis, which Eric Auerbach famously considered as the epitome of mimesis. Helen’s weaving tells the entire story of the war except for the end. Her tapestry depicts mass casualties and hand to hand combat, with all the recognizable figures of the famous leaders (115). Weaving is an important theme in the novel. Briseis feels a pang of painful recognition whenever she identifies a familiar embroidered piece of cloth among the spoils, proud as she is of Trojan craftsmanship, far superior to the Greeks’. The women are made to work in the camp, and Briseis when weaving is struck by the close atmosphere and the fluff in the air that makes the girls cough, a description that owes much to Victorian England. Like the washing of clothes in urine, this is part of Barker’s realistic strategy. But weaving also brings a sense of identity, especially to Helen, as Briseis sensed as a teenager, long before she was captured, while the war had already been going on for years:

What I came away with was a sense of Helen seizing control of her own story. She was so isolated in that city, so powerless—even at my age, I could see that—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. (116)

  • 13 ‘The only character who is doing what Homer himself does is Helen’ (Barker 2019c, 50:00).

26Like Homer’s (or Barker’s) double, Helen is the one who represents the war.13 As Akgün puts it, ‘The female figures in Homer’sepic turn to weaving as a means of spinning a story, fabricating a lie, or controlling destiny.’ (Agkün 208). Barker adds a twist by having Briseis spin her story rather than a tapestry. When old Nestor tells her, in the beginning, that she is no longer a queen and should forget her previous life not to suffer, she immediately knows (while keeping her face carefully still) that she must remember. The novel builds an unstable situation of enunciation, as it is unclear whether Briseis is addressing someone or herself. When arguing about the death of Patroclus as a personal rather than a communal loss, a voice in italics accuses her of debasing herself because Patroclus promised to make Achilles marry her:

I don’t understand how you could do that.
Perhaps that’s because you’ve never been a slave. . . .
Sometimes at night I lie awake and quarrel with the voices in my head. (191)

  • 14 In the interview with Wachter, Barker explains that Briseis finds a purpose when nursing the wounde (...)

27Yet the questioning voice that reappears may not be an instance of psychomachia, but an address to a listener—perhaps, as Barker suggests in interviews, Briseis’s grand-daughter (Barker 2019c). At the end of the novel, Achilles’s death is barely mentioned. To protect the pregnant Briseis, he has bequeathed her to one of his men, who is to marry her, and she boards a ship to be taken away, as the war is over and Troy has been reduced to ashes. But just as she spins her story, there are hints that she collects other women’s stories as she goes along. Throughout the novel, Briseis is presented as a carer. In the beginning, she leaves the tower to go and check on her invalid mother-in-law who has been left behind, though the latter hated her (a conflict depicted in military terms, as the other war who has made Briseis strong). Later, she is among the women tending the wounded, preparing medicines. The novel suggests that she has achieved some ability to circulate later on in her life, perhaps as a healer.14 This allows her to piece together the women’s tales: ‘In later life, wherever I went, I always looked for the women of Troy who’d been scattered all over the Greek world. . . . I met a lot of women, many of them common women whose names you won’t have heard’ (194–95).

28Like Barker, Briseis becomes the voice of communal memory, retrieving the tales of silenced women, both famous and forgotten ones. The mosaic of references echoes and subverts all the famous subsequent pieces of the puzzle, from Aeschylus, Euripides or Virgil to Racine (among others), while stripping, in a series of rhetorical questions, the portraits of the tragic sublime, to present realistic, ironic yet moving glimpses of these fallen Trojan women.

That skinny old woman with brown-spotted hands shuffling to answer her master’s door, can that really be Queen Hecuba, who, as a young and beautiful girl, newly married, had led the dancing in King Priam’s hall? Or that girl in a torn and shabby dress, hurrying to fetch water from the well, can that be one of King Priam’s daughters? Or the ageing concubine, face paint over the wrinkles in her skin, can that really be Andromache, who once, as Hector’s wife, stood proudly on the battlements of Troy with her baby son in her arms? (194–5)

29Like the slaughtering of babies and pregnant women in the beginning, the carnival of aged, dispossessed women maintains the cutting edge of anti-epic rewriting. All of this resonates with today’s world, whether one thinks of Syria or Nigeria, of ISIS or of sexually abused illegal immigrants in Britain:

Nothing happens in the book that is not happening in the contemporary world. Nothing happens in The Iliad that isn’t happening in the contemporary world, give or take changes in weaponry, which doesn’t make it worse. It just makes it different. (Barker 2019b, 19)

  • 15 In her interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Pat Barker suggests that the spate of novels revisiting the (...)

30To conclude, The Silence of the Girls is both an exception in her work and a way for Barker to pursue her relentless investigation of history, with her own specific brand of feminism, her wry irony, her play on working-class anachronisms, and her realism, much like the apparently smooth green stone with a cutting edge. If she once saw World War One as Britain’s Iliad, ‘a period of tremendous shock’, of the ‘loss of innocence [that] played a huge part’ (Barker 2012) in making Britain what it is today, she now explores the Iliad as a contemporary war, to engage with ‘a sense of an ending all around’ (Barker 2012), perhaps the end of patriarchy, or the kindling of violence, and the silencing of women in war and conflict today. Like Shay who reads Vietnam trauma through Achilles, or like Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff, who turned to the Iliad to engage with the Nazi use of force, Barker turns to Homer to engage with today’s crisis as much as with the past. Through transfocalization, she gives her voice back to Briseis, and allows her to piece together the story of her life (and potentially of all Trojan women), to expose her story rather than History or his/story. But she also probes into the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, that deeply divides the Greek camp. Beneath the gendered agenda, this feud may well reflect division in today’s Britain, and might perhaps also make The Silence of the Girls, indirectly, also a Brexit novel.15

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Agamben, Giorgio, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Akgün, Buket, ‘Spinning a Thread of One’s Own from Homer to Atwood’, Brill’s Companion to Prequels, Sequels and Retellings of Classical Epics, ed. Robert C. Simms, Boston: Brill, 2018, 206–23.

Atwood, Margaret, The Penelopiad: The Play, London: Faber and Faber, 2007.

Atwood, Margaret, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1996.

Auerbach, Eric, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953), trans. Willard R. Trask, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014.

Barker, Pat, Union Street, London: Virago, 1982.

Barker, Pat, Regeneration (1991), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

Barker, Pat, Life Class, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007.

Barker, Pat, ‘Interview with Frances Gerter’, Foyles, 2012, last accessed at on 3 April 2020.

Barker, Pat, The Silence of the Girls, New York: Doubleday, 2018.

Barker, Pat, ‘Conversation with Caroline Beck and Michael Morpurgo’, Durham Book Festival’, 2015, last accessed at on 3 January 2019a.

Barker, Pat, ‘“I Just Read the Iliad And Was Astonished by that Silence. The Eloquence of the Men, the Silence of the Women”: A Conversation with Pat Barker’ Five Dials 46 (2018): 17–27, last accessed at on 3 January 3 2019b.

Barker, Pat, ‘Pat Barker on Giving Voice to the Women in the Iliad’, interview with Eleanor Wachtel, CBC radio (2018), last accessed at on 3 January 2019c.

Blondel, Ruby, ‘“Third Cheerleader From the Left”: From Homer’s Helen to Helen of Troy,’ Ancient Greek Women in Film, ed. Konstantinos P. Nicoloutsos, Oxford: OUP, 2013, 51–74.

Bourdieu, Pierre, La Domination masculine, Paris: Seuil, 1998.

Brannigan, John, Pat Barker, Manchester: MUP, 2005.

Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Cox, Fiona, Theodorakopoulos, Elena, Homer’s Daughters: Women’s Responses to Homer in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, Oxford: OUP, 2019.

Elmer, F. David, The Poetics of Consent: Collective Decision Making and the Iliad, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013.

Gilbert, Sophie, ‘The Silence of Classical Literature’s Women’, The Atlantic, September 24, 2018,, on 20 January 2019.

Girard, René, A Theatre of Envy: Shakespeare, New York: OUP, 1991.

Haynes, Natalie, A Thousand Ships, London: Pan Macmillan, 2019.

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Privat, Alexandre, ‘Le témoin précaire et l’événement dans les romans d’Adam Thorpe’, PhD thesis, University Montpellier 3, 2019.

Shay, Jonathan, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994), New York: Scribner, 2003.

Toibin, Colm, House of Names, New York: Scribner, 2017.

Vandiver, Elizabeth, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War, Oxford: OUP, 2010.

Walezak, Emilie, ‘A.S. Byatt, Rose Tremain, Sarah Hall…: réalisme et matérialisme féministe dans la fiction britannique contemporaine’, Document de synthèse, Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches, Université de Paris, 2019.

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Wilson, Emily, ‘The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Review—a Feminist Iliad’, The Guardian, 2August 2018,, on 20 January 2019.

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1 Tecmessa is reminiscent of the Stockholm syndrome.

2 René Girard considers that desire is triangular and mimetic. In that reading, Briseis should be considered as a mediator between the two men, while Agamemnon copies Achilles’ desire for her. The fact that the taking of Briseis is a political move, designed to shame Achilles, does not preclude the level of sexual violence endured by Briseis. Barker shrewdly translates Agamemnon’s claim in the Iliad (that he has not touched Briseis in the way men touch women) as sodomy. Though Barker had of course no inkling this would be so, the novel was released at the height of the #Metoo movement a coincidence that she acknowledges in interviews, using similar vocabulary: ‘Agamemnon is definitely manspreading and mansplaining to the nth degree’ (Barker 2019b, 19).

3 Jonathan Shay has compared Achilles’ behaviour to the trauma of American soldiers in Vietnam, noting that Achilles’ subsequent killing spree is similar to the traumatized soldiers going beserk, a case of fighting frenzy. Barker mentions Shay in her interview with Wachtel.

4 The tale of Achilles’ heel does not actually appear in the Iliad.

5 Barker uses the term in several interviews, with Elinor Wachtel for instance. It is also interesting that she should describe Achilles in the interview as a partly abandoned child: ‘And then when he’s seven years old, she decides she’s had enough, and she simply walks back into the sea; she doesn’t quite abandon him, she comes back but at rather irregular intervals, so she doesn’t nurture him but she doesn’t leave him alone either and I think he feels a great deal of anger directed towards her’ (Barker 2019c, 32:45). Transcription mine (as is the case for all excerpts from this interview). Interestingly enough, Barker was seven years old when her mother got married again and left her with her grandparents. The parallel stresses the complexity of the characterization of Achilles.

6 See Alexandre Privat’s Phd thesis.

7 The scene brings to mind Sassoon’s guilty hallucinatory dream in Regeneration, which prompts him to write the poem ‘Sick Leave’. Tecmessa also evokes Ajax’s nightmares (264) hinting at PTSD.

8 Barker points out that she first made the analogy in her 2007 novel, Life Class: ‘there’s a passage in Life Class where Elinor Brooke is describing the Café Royal and the way the atmosphere had changed in the first days of the First World War. She says the old men were all panicking because they thought their day was over and the young men were spouting things they had read in the newspapers. And the women had gone absolutely silent. She said it was like the beginning of The Iliad. When Agamemnon and Achilles are making these fantastic speeches and the girls they are talking about say nothing at all’ (Barker 2019b, 18).

9 Shaw-Stewart was educated at Eton and Oxford, where he was duly taught the classics; he was killed in combat in 1917, aged 29. He wrote his Achilles poem on the flyleaf of his copy of A Shropshire Lad, as if placing side by side the pastoral tradition of Englishness embodied by Housman’s poems and modern warfare. There were 250 000 casualties at Gallipoli in 1915.

10 The Allies’ decision to open a second front (in order to weaken the Ottoman Empire and German army) brought the British and Australian forces right by the Hellespont, or rather, in modern terms, the Dardanelles (the passage connecting the Aegean sea to the sea of Marmara). This was the site where the ruins of Troy were excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in the late nineteenth-century, proving that there was some historical basis for the Iliad (though he misread the embedded layers of the city’s ruins and destroyed the correct one). Though the site of Troy is correct, Barker repeatedly states in interviews that all the characters of the Iliad are myths and did not exist as such.

11 In the interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Barker acknowledges that such voices are very close to the dialogues of working-class women in Union Street.

12 The inability to speak runs through Barker’s work, and the motif of the violated mouth recalls the bit-in-the-mouth motif in Regeneration, when Yealland applies electric shocks to the man he will force to speak, though he will not listen to anything he has to say.

13 ‘The only character who is doing what Homer himself does is Helen’ (Barker 2019c, 50:00).

14 In the interview with Wachter, Barker explains that Briseis finds a purpose when nursing the wounded, and that she likes to imagine her as a healer later on. The novel begins with the tale of Achilles overcoming Apollo: ‘Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god’ (Barker 2018, 3). Yet Briseis spins her story somehow and is the one who gets the last word, long after Achilles’ death.

15 In her interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Pat Barker suggests that the spate of novels revisiting the classics may be due to the sense of an ending, hence the need of going back to the beginning, ‘of pulling the thread through, as you get near to the point where the thread is going to be broken off’ (Barker 2019c, 6:32) This might be positive, perhaps the end of patriarchy, considering ‘that women are actually calling time on being second-class citizens’ (Barker 2019c, 6:55). She lists Brexit among the things that give ‘the sense of coming to the end of something’: ‘Or you could be pessimistic and consider that we are coming to the end of a certain kind of civilization. And of course, in Britain . . . we are also coming to the end of a certain relationship that we had with Europe, so that there are a lot of endings around, there is a sense of ending in the current atmosphere, and I think that may be one of the reasons why we are going back to the first stories that were ever told in the European literary canon’ (Barker 2019c, 7:02).

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Catherine Lanone, « Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and the State of Exception »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Lanone

Catherine Lanone is a Professor of English Literature at the University Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3. She is the author of a monograph on E.M. Forster (E.M. Forster : Odyssée d’une écriture, Toulouse : PUM, 1998) and has co-authored with Laurent Mellet Howards End (E.M. Forster, J. Ivory) : Beyond Heritage (Paris : Colin, 2019). She has written an introduction and notes for new editions in French of three of Forster’s novels, published by Le Bruit du Temps (Monteriano, 2012; La Route des Indes 2013; Le Legs de Mrs Wilcox, 2015). She is also interested in women’s writing, and has published a book on Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights : un vent de sorcière, Paris : ellipses, 1999) and papers on the Brontës, Pat Barker and Virginia Woolf.

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