Cassandra (Magill's Literary Annual 1985)
“My overall concern is the sinister effects of alienation, in aesthetics, in art, as well as elsewhere.” Thus does Christa Wolf, whose previous writings have often been in the mode of memoirs and lightly disguised autobiographical fiction, begin a series of reflections on the genesis and composition of her most recent fiction translated into English, Cassandra. The English subtitle, “A Novel and Four Essays,” obscures slightly both the nature of these reflections and the stature of the fiction, which in German appeared in 1983 as Kassandra und Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung, and which translates as “Cassandra and the presuppositions (or conditions, as the more literal internal subtitling of the English version has it) of a narrative.” Cassandra is a tale, a story, nothing more—certainly not a fiction with the ambition suggested by the honorific “novel”—and the nonfictional prose pieces which accompany it are only “essays” in the scarcely current etymological sense of the term. They are, rather, a series of documents related to the novel’s genesis and writing: an account of the author’s travels, a diary, and a letter to a friend. The relationship between these nonfictional documents and the fictional narrative poses the key formal and thematic problem of the book.
First, there is the question of the text’s voices. The major difference between the fictionalized first-person narrator of the tale and...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
In 1982, East German author Christa Wolf agreed to deliver a series of lectures on poetics at Frankfurt University. She surprised her audience by presenting not the expected scholarly analysis of poetics, but rather a series of four talks including two “Travel Reports,” “A Work Diary,” and a “Letter,” which explain how she became interested in the figure of Cassandra. Her fifth “lecture” was the narrative Cassandra itself. This refusal to play by the expected academic rules shows Wolf’s attempt to break the boundaries of literary genres and to incorporate more intimate and personal, first-person literary forms into the canon of high literature.
The first four lectures, entitled Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: “Kassandra” (conditions of a narrative), and the novel Cassandra were published as a single volume in East Germany. In West Germany, the narrative and essays were sold separately. Jan van Heurck’s 1984 English version rejoins them under the title Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays but ironically places the “Voraussetzungen” (conditions or “presuppositions”) after the narrative.
Wolf’s novel revises the story of Troy as told from the point of view of the ignored seer, Cassandra. Like Euripides in his play The Trojan Women (415 b.c.), Wolf narrates from the perspective of the vanquished survivors of war. The novel begins with...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Christa Wolf seeks to remake thousands of years of literary tradition, to displace the hero from its center and to make a place for women in it. She clearly attempts to return women to the position of subjects rather than objects, to make them tellers, singers, and seers again rather than characters in a male plot. She is faced, however, with the problem that people do not live in a world that is whole and balanced between men and women; patriarchy has dominated for thousands of years and defined narrative in its wake. If Wolf is to narrate at all, she must do so within a tradition determined by patriarchy. She cannot rewrite the patriarchal myths without invoking and inscribing them anew in Western culture. This painful irony is the recurrent and unavoidable problem of all women “re-visionists.” Wolf counters, however, by demystifying myth, laying bare its rationalizing pragmatism. She does not want simply to inscribe new female myths; she wants reasonableness to replace the need for myth entirely. Ironically, Cassandra’s “madness” is the constant insistence on truth and reason.
Writing in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), where 90 percent of the female population was in the workforce, Wolf displays a wider range of active female roles than patriarchy has traditionally suggested. Her women participate in political and religious power, as well as fulfilling the more traditional role assignments of mothers or exploited sex...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Booklist. LXXX, June 15, 1984, p. 1432.
Fries, Marilyn Sibley, ed. Responses to Christa Wolf: Critical Essays. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989. A collection of essays by twenty-one critics covering many of Wolf’s texts from a variety of critical perspectives. Not only includes essays from a feminist perspective but also gives some idea of the varieties of literary methodologies applied to Wolf’s work. Contains an index and an extensive bibliography.
Herrmann, Anne. The Dialogic and Difference: An/Other Woman in Virginia Woolf and Christa Wolf. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Insightful feminist analysis of the construction of the female subject in the works of Virginia Woolf and Christa Wolf. An index and a bibliography including many references to feminist theory are provided.
Kirkus Reviews. LII, June 1, 1984, p. 530.
Kuhn, Anna K. Christa Wolf’s Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. An insightful analysis of Wolf’s development from her early works to Storfall (1987; Accident, 1989). Kuhn traces Wolf’s movement from a reliance on Marxism as an ideology to a later development of a more feminist position. Includes an index and an extensive bibliography of primary and...
(The entire section is 347 words.)