Week 4: Silence of the Girls Analysis

Apr 27, 2021

This week I continued my work with Silence of the Girls. Under the paradigm I discussed last week, I attempted to use Silence of the Girls to answer my ultimate research question. So, how does Pat Barker reinterpret the tale of Briseis? 

First, I looked at the narrative structure. Although this novel’s purpose is to give voice to a previously silenced character, there are multiple instances in which the narrative perspective is shifted from Briseis to Achilles. These chapters serve the very basic purpose of relating information that Briseis herself could have never known (like what happened in battle). While they are successful in this effort, they also blur the meaning, intentions, and overall development of the book. Since the book is meant to give more voice to the silenced women, an unusual amount of time is spent developing empathy for Achilles. There are long passages dedicated to Achilles’ childhood, various complexes, and overwhelming grief when Patroclus dies.

Briseis given back to Achilles by Nestor – Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) – The Prado Museum

Next, I considered the plot.  Most of the novel follows exactly from the Iliad or other source materials. As a reader, I would have liked to see  more invented plot. This is a point that I’ll come back to with each of the novels because it the author’s interaction with source materials is one of the main focuses of this project. 

Additionally, I considered this novel’s relationship to feminist writing, but I’m not sure how feminist this novel truly is. This becomes particularly clear in two areas. First, while it is difficult to write the experiences of ancient enslaved women without discussion of assault, the novel didn’t discuss much else and these scenes didn’t accomplish any new feat. The most interesting sections occurred when Briseis was interacting with other enslaved women. Here, their individual personalities shone and the reader could feel connected to the narrator. Second, as I knew the end was drawing near, I grew increasingly curious as to how Barker would wrap up her book, but I was disappointed. In the conclusion, Briseis has been impregnated by Achilles, forced to marry a Greek general, and will never see her home country again. Yet, despite the indignant and strong-willed character that Briseis has been presented as throughout the novel, she seems uncharacteristically mollified by her pregnancy. It’s an ending that has existed for centuries and always frustrated me. It simply shifts the focus to a child that the reader does not, and likely will never know, to escape writing a justifiable, but not necessarily fair, ending for the woman. What is frustrating is that Barker seems completely capable of crafting a true ending but didn’t. I hypothesize that this novel was written with the intention of a sequel. In fact, the next book will be released this summer. 

Although I felt conflicted about the book, it was thought-provoking and had instances of beautiful writing. For example, the use of shadow imagery when foreshadowing was clever and elegant. I considered all of these aspects when speaking with my on-site mentor, Sammie Smith. Through Columbia Teachers College, we are working to craft a curriculum using these novels. The curriculum seeks to diversify the voices of focus in classical education and make classics more accessible. With this novel, there are many points that I think would be useful in the classroom. For instance, this is a wonderful novel for teaching and developing skills in debate and argumentation. This week I’ll continue to develop ideas for the curriculum while also beginning to read the Penelopiad.

One Reply to “Week 4: Silence of the Girls Analysis”

  1. Jacob H. says:

    I love how you describe the end of the novel as “an ending that has existed for centuries”. Your writing is super enjoyable to read and it’s clear how the dual perspectives of the reader and the critic are informing your analysis. That’s amazing that you are working on a curriculum based on your research, also.

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