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In the first four of her Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics, which make up the essays of the volume, Wolf places herself as the central subject. In the essays, Wolf reflects on her 1980 trip to Greece during which she explored materials for Cassandra, as well as on contemporary events such as the attempt on U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s life. She examines the historical Cassandra and conditions for the woman writer (or speaker) of the past and present. Wolf recounts simultaneously visiting Greece and reading Aeschylus’ trilogy Oresteia (458 b.c.), which helped trigger her writing of Cassandra. Wolf adds her own experiences to those of the Greeks, Americans, and Germans whom she meets in her travels to form a body of communal memories that make up the text as a whole. Wolf refuses to be bound by any genre definition, which contributes to her revision of the tradition.

Part of Wolf’s reconsideration of literary tradition focuses on the position of women. She asks, “To what extent is there really such a thing as ‘women’s writing’?” Wolf’s four essays and her narrative help to answer this question. She provides an explicit response in her third essay, in which she suggests that there is “women’s writing”to the extent that women, for historical and biological reasons, experience a different reality than men and express it. To the extent that women belong not to the rulers but to the ruled, and have done so for centuries. . . . To the extent that they stop wearing themselves out trying to integrate themselves into the prevailing delusional system. To the extent that, writing and living, they aim at autonomy.

Although Wolf investigates the dehumanization of modern and classical humanity in toto, she also focuses on those subjects who have been most excluded from history and buried in art objects—women. In addition to the general alienation of modern culture, women experience a secondary alienation within the culture. They find themselves silenced or missing from the historical record. This deletion necessitates a female revision of literary history and of the figure of Cassandra. Cassandra is mentioned only twice in Homer’s Iliad (sixth century b.c.); she gains a literary voice in Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Euripides’ The Trojan Women only after the war ends. The bulk of Wolf’s text focuses on Cassandra’s actions during those war years. Wolf restores Cassandra as a speaking—and protesting—subject where she is often only an object.

A strongly antiwar text, Wolf’s novel and essays investigate the roots of the military tradition in Western culture by taking a new look at “heroes” such as Achilles from the point of view of a woman on the losing side rather than of a man on the winning side. Her essays discuss modern wars in Vietnam and Latin America, as well as the threat of nuclear annihilation in Europe in the early 1980’s, while her novel investigates the obliteration of the people and culture of Troy in 1200 b.c. The parallels between these two historical periods reinforce her antiwar message.

Wolf is intent on giving voice to the different reality experienced by women, in seeing the world anew through a woman’s eyes. The figure of Cassandra, the prophetess whom no one believes, parallels the position of many women writers in Wolf’s own time. Her novel attempts to create a second narrative tradition that runs parallel and in opposition to the “heroic” narrative tradition of the epic. Wolf undercuts the roots of the Western heroic tradition by depicting it as a sham created by propaganda to save the “honor” of those involved. She opposes to it a glimpse of a different society dedicated to life rather than to killing. Wolf is too much a realist to imply that this utopian society will be easily achieved—or even that it is recorded anywhere in the historical record. Such a society can, however, be envisioned by a woman writer (or narrator) who is willing to question the very premises underlying the patriarchal tradition.

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Critical Context