The novel Cassandra by Christa Wolf essay


The novel Cassandra by Christa Wolf is a woman’s view on war much in the same way, as Iliad is a man’s stand on war by Homer. Cassandra is given high importance because of its feministic streak and its originality of concept. Divided into five parts, Cassandra begins with the end. The first part deals with the finals days of Cassandra and her views give a new dimension to the war story of Troy. The small novella that forms the first part is placed in the beginning because of its significance. The oldest daughter of Priam, Cassandra was also a prophet during Trojan War.

Homer’s Iliad has special place in historical literature. It may have fiction more than facts but it is considered one of the most engrossing accounts of Trojan War and Troy’s conquest and release. The male perspective is very clear and pronounced in the story and about the only woman that really matters in the story is Helen. Now Helen was the woman who literally triggered the war but she is not the one that Wolf was interested in. she instead wrote about a lesser-known character Cassandra. Why would she do that? McDonald feels, “Wolf is working toward a new kind of text” (269)

Helen was a very well-known character. To write a story through her perspective would have been both difficult and restrictive. Historians knew her and there was little room for creativity and original thought. With Cassandra however, Wolf could create anything she wanted. She could create her own characters, her own events and her own views on the happenings. Thus seeing war through Cassandra was a more creative way of writing down history than through Helen or any other important female character. Secondly Cassandra could be shown as a strong woman- a woman who could stands against male domination and who could speak about dangers of living in a male dominated world. The same would have been impossible through Helen. Cassandra is thus an unfamiliar viewpoint that adds freshness to an otherwise stale story:

There is an obvious fascination in the tension and interplay of tradition and innovation to be found in an old story retold from an unfamiliar viewpoint, and a peculiar interest in Cassandra herself, whose role in the Trojan saga is mainly a post-Homeric creation, so that we can observe her evolution from the rather dim distinction of being Priam’s only unmarried daughter to be mentioned by name in the Iliad to the intensely compelling figure who reveals invisible forces at work in Agamemnon’s palace in the Aeschylean scene that fired Christa Wolf’s imagination” (West 164).

Why was this viewpoint important? It was because Cassandra basically deals not with the war itself but with the war that takes place in a man’s world. “Through Wolf and Cassandra’s story we can observe how the power-structures become male-focused and regulated by men” (Russi 28). If this were a man’s world than who would mention the perils of such a world? Not men of course. And this is where Wolf’s Cassandra steps in. she writes about a world where men and women fight for power but males dictate the social norms. Cassandra believes that: “Men’s claim for absolute knowledge is nothing but rationalized domination” (McDonald 275).

Wolf is saddened by the truth of the Trojan war. In the end, we all knew this war was not even for Helen. It was for power and domination as wars have always been. Helen was only used as a pawn. Wolf could see through the facade that men had created to go to war. She argues that this constant desire to dominate has actually turned the world into a battle place that would result in destruction and bloodshed.

News Report: A conference of peace researcher, scientists of various disciplines, physicians, and former high-ranking NATO military officers has been held in the Dutch town of Groningen. All the participants are said to view the future fate of Europe with great skepticism, because in the opinion of the assembly the United States, ensnared by the notion that the development of weapons technology would make it possible to ‘win’ the next world war even if it is an atomic war, is aiming to make Europe the theater of this next war, and including the annihilation of hundreds of thousands Europeans and Russians in its calculations.” (Wolf 249)

Wolf doesn’t mince her words. She is clear that men are taking the world to death and destruction and not women. “It is men who make rigid categories and hierarchies among these modes of knowing, not women” (McDonald 275). Wolf is not writing randomly. She has experience and authority to write about war and destruction. So creating Cassandra and viewing the world through her was only a way of expressing her own beliefs and her own views that she had developed during her experience of war.

For Cassandra in Troy and Wolf in the DDR (German Democratic Republic), one fact especially galls: the arrogant claims of male narrators and male politicians to know, and to compel others to accept, their versions of who women are and what right government is” (McDonald 268). What she is thus writing must be taken seriously because it doesn’t spring from her random hatred for men. Instead it comes from knowledge. It would be wrong to categorize the novel as a feminist novel because it is not coming from a woman’s senseless hatred of men. It is based on her knowledge and her sensitive observation.

When men write about how men are destroying the world, no one talks of their hatred for males and everything is taken seriously. But when a woman does the same thing, she is categorized a feminist. In that sense, Wolf is not a feminist. Her work is based on experience and thus carries weight. Wolf could see a similarity between her own life and that of Cassandra’s and thus drew parallels. She argues that women bring happiness and life to the world while men are hell bent upon destroying the same. This is what Cassandra must have experienced too living in a patriarch society. The reason she differed from Homer and retold the story was because she felt they “promote the kind of value systems she opposes”(Russi 23). Through Cassandra, she has tried to bring an end to “corruption of literature and its forms which, following Homer, sustain what amounts to a metaphysics of male heroism.” (McDonald 274)

How Wolf deviates from Homer’s account is clear on many occasions. Her view on various male characters shows the marked difference. Take for example the character of Achilles. Wolf in Cassandra and Homer in Iliad both agree that Achilles’ main problem was his pride but Wolf comments on the destructive streak while Homer simply highlights it. This was done to show that Cassandra completely disapproved of Achilles’ blind pride. Wolf is as fond of Achilles as Homer but this doesn’t blind her to the faults and flaws of his personality.

When Homer talks of Achilles’ pride, it is usually through his own words. For example when Briseis is first taken away, Achilles decides not to fight and then says in his absolutely arrogant manner: “…let them be witnesses / in the sight of the blessed gods, in the sight of mortal / men, and of this cruel king, if ever hereafter / there shall be need of me to beat back the shameful destruction / from the rest.” (Homer, Book 1, lines 338-342, p. 68). Achilles knows his worth and Homer shows through his words and actions that Achilles was well aware of his position and power. In some ways, Homer was also impressed though he was brave enough to admit that Achilles had a serious problem. Achilles in Homer is still treated a lot differently than he is in Cassandra. In Homer, he can boast: “Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid / and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal?” (Homer Book 21, lines 108-109, p. 421).

In Cassandra however, he can still boast but doesn’t always get away with it. In a rather accusatory and insulting tone, Wolf referred to Achilles in this way: “A fiend in battle so that everyone would see he was not a coward, he did not know what to do with himself once the fighting was done…And this is the man to whom Calchas the seer later had to turn over his daughter.” (83) Cassandra believed that Achilles’ brave soldier act was but only a facade. While Homer mentions facts to capture the essence of Achilles’ personality, Wolf uses observation and perception to get her results. The bottom line was the same in both cases: Achilles was an arrogant fool. But Homer said it in much different manner than Wolf. And this is what sets Cassandra apart from male accounts of Trojan War.

Works Cited


McDonald, W.E. “Who’s Afraid of Wolf’s Cassandra-or Cassandra’s Wolf?: Male Tradition and Women’s Knowledge in Cassandra.” Journal of Narrative Technique. Ypsilanti, MI (JNT). 1990 Fall, 20:3, 267-283.

Russi, Roger Ph.D. Dialogues of Epic Figures: Christa Wolf’s Kassandra, Monique Wittig’s Les Geurilleres, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s the Firebrand. Diss. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1993. Ann Arbor: A Bell & Howell Company, 1993.

Wolf, Christa. Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays. Trans. Jan Van Heurck. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1984.

West, Stephanie. “Christa Wolf’s Kassandra: a Classical Perspective.” Oxford German Studies (OGS). 1991-1992, 20-21, 164-85.

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