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Wolf's Cassandra shows the influence of Wolf's childhood upbringing in Nazi Germany and her subsequent rejection and abhorrence of fascist ideology. Cassandra can be read as a veiled account of a state turned fascist, and Cassandra herself as a person of humane decency who (like Wolf herself) utterly rejects the "heroic" patriarchy of a warrior society.

Wolf spent much of her adult life fearing a return of Nazism. She stayed in East Germany when much of her family fled West (when that was still possible in the 1950s) because she felt a strong socialist East Germany was the only bulwark against the return of Nazism. She opposed German reunification, feeling it was too dangerous to risk given Germany's violent past.

As with Nazi Germany, Cassandra's state of Troy uses war to break down the joint male- and female-run state and establish an aggressive patriarchy that diminishes women's rights. As does Nazi Germany, Troy lies about the reasons for the war: it becomes clear to Cassandra that Helen, the ostensible cause of the fighting, is not even in Troy. Also like Nazi Germany, Troy suffers a terrible defeat.

Having seen the devastation a war can bring, Wolf was strongly anti-war in her personal life, as described in her autobiographical novel, Patterns of Childhood. She was annoyed at many Germans she knew for not facing their complicity with Germany's holocaust and war crimes, instead complaining "why do they always blame us?" Cassandra, in contrast, is famous as the figure in classical literature who knew the truth but to whom know no one would listen: Wolf often felt that way in her own life as she spoke out fearlessly against patriarchy, war, and injustice.


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“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 the subsequent musings of the author consists in the utter helplessness and hopelessness of the former, balanced against the slim margin of optimism which Christa Wolf continues to project for herself and her world. Cassandra’s resignation to her impending fate, which she has foreseen along with all the disasters that were to befall her native city, is signaled in her placing the following sentences in the past:I still believed [early in the war between the Trojans and Achaeans] that a little will to truth, a little courage, could erase the whole misunderstanding. To call what was true, true and what was untrue, false: That was asking so little (I thought) and would have served our cause better than any lie or half-truth. For it was intolerable (I thought) to base the whole war—and our whole lives, for wasn’t war our life!—on the accident of a lie.

The sense of purpose and commitment which these words project are no longer possible for Cassandra, as she is enslaved and bound for certain death at the hands of her captor’s vengeful wife, Clytemnestra.

Wolf still believes, however narrow her faith, in the possibility of truth telling, of evading the impending disasters of war and destruction by speaking about them candidly and critically. For she is, as numerous passages in the second half of the book make plain, Cassandra’s modern counterpart. If she does not quite yet feel herself in the same double bind as her ancient precursor (to be cursed with a gift of prophecy no one will believe), this does not diminish the precariousness of her situation nor her consciousness of the difficulty of her task. Sprinkled with references to and quotations from contemporary European politics, including the strategic and diplomatic imperatives which have generated yet another arms race on European soil (Wolf was a young girl when this mania last overtook Europe in the 1930’s; her experiences growing up in Nazi Germany are chronicled in A Model Childhood), the second half of the book draws a reasonable parallel between the current crop of Priams and Agamemnons and the venal, foolish, and proud Greek and Trojan men who brought destruction on themselves and their peoples for motives too complicated and obscure to admit of completely rational explanation: “But in Troy, I firmly believe, the people were no different from us. Their gods are our gods, the false gods. Only our devices differ from theirs.” Each individual strategic or tactical calculation makes perfect sense within the limited context of its formulation, but taken together the entire logic of the process looks simply mad. This, E. P. Thompson has suggested, is the logic of exterminism that governs the nuclear arms race; it was, equally, the exterminating angel which led to the sacking of Troy and the bleeding of the Achaean warriors. Didactically considered, this is what Cassandra is all about.

The parallel between preclassical antiquity and the modern world is the primary subject of the book’s nonfictional sections, but these disparate pieces of travelogue and confession also encompass a variety of topics and observations that cannot be fully treated in a short review. For example, Wolf’s account of her travels through Greece and Crete, with its splendid descriptions of the inhabitants of primitive life in remote villages and lively narration of a Greek Easter feast, contains as well such tart retorts to contemporary pastoralism as the following (which one surmises is aimed primarily at such members of the Green Party as former East German dissident Rudolph Bahro): “Those who dream today of turning the clock back to the benefits of agrarian societies have never lived in one.” The nonfictional portion of the book is, if anything, richer and more compelling than the fictional narrative, no less personal, possibly more palatable because it is wittier and less of a lament. Christa Wolf might herself take issue with one’s judging her Cassandra too harshly (for reasons this reviewer will detail in a moment), but it is difficult not to prefer the voice of the author, cutting in so many different ways, to the comparatively univocal plaint of the prophetess.

Why, then, the interest in this character? Surely there would be other modes in which to allegorize the contemporary political world than in the thoughts and memories of a Trojan seeress whose suffering and fate offer such a gloomy prospect for political thinking and action. The answer lies in the book’s second overarching theme (the other being the senselessness of war and the absolute lack of progress among humankind in controlling its course): patriarchy. Wolf’s interest in Cassandra is nicely summarized in this sentence near the beginning of her work diary: “Cassandra is one of the first women figures handed down to us whose fate prefigures what was to be the fate of women for three thousand years: to be turned into an object.” There follows throughout the diary, and extending into the long letter to her friend A., a series of reflections on the nature of “women’s writing” (the quotes are Wolf’s) and on the situation of women generally in a patriarchal culture that has systematically dominated and suppressed their experiences. Nowhere has this domination and suppression been more evident than in the canonical traditions of Western literature. As Wolf observes acutely:As for the Iliad, it was the first known attempt to impose a standard of human emotion on a bare chronology ruled by the law of battle and carnage. That standard: the wrath of Achilles. But the line the narrator pursues is that of male action. Everyday life, the world of women, shines through only in the gaps between the descriptions of battle.

Cassandra’s imprisonment in a pyramid (according to one legend, which is incorporated into Christa Wolf’s fiction) on orders from her father, King Priam, is an emblem of the repression of women which Christa Wolf decries at the same time that she is trying to alter it. That she is probably the best-known East German writer in the West is surely one measure that the barriers which she identifies as the historical heritage of European women are beginning to crumble gradually. Also, the fact that she herself can travel relatively freely suggests that the state to which she continues to profess allegiance recognizes, in some measure, the necessity of supporting a woman and a writer whose lucidity and passion, even critical intransigence, are viewed as a more valuable asset than the Trojans thought Cassandra, with her perpetual calling to court of the failings and blindnesses of politicians and warriors. It is more than trivially true, this reviewer believes, to say that Cassandra could not have written Cassandra, that the voice of the author and the voice of the fictional narrator could never finally coincide.

In opening the lectures which make up the substance of the second half of this book, Wolf professed to have no “poetics,” that is, no systematic exposition of her concept of art and its structure. This is not to say that she has no concepts of art and its formal properties or that her writing simply grows like Topsy, but her poetics, if it can be called such, consists more in reflections on the purpose and function of art works, their political and social significance, as well as their limitations and failures. At this point, when she reflects on the subterfuges art must necessarily practice, particularly on the ideology of aesthetics as a discipline, she comes closest to reproducing the skeptical wisdom of her fictional narrator. It is an odd moment, as the author of a tale about a woman who tells unpopular truths renounces the ultimate claim (from the point of view of correspondence to reality) of her own creation to speak truthfully:Aesthetics, to the extent that it is a system of categorization and control, and especially where it advocates certain views about the subject matter of the various genres, namely “reality” (I notice this word appearing between quotation marks more and more often in my writing, but I can’t help it)—aesthetics, I say, like philosophy and science, is invented not so much to enable us to get closer to reality as for the purpose of warding it off, of protecting against it.

One could, naïvely, take this passage as a denunciation of art in the tradition of apparatchiki whose only respect is reserved for the most vulgar forms of Tendenzliteratur. More productively, it can be read as a recognition by a writer who has everything personally to gain from thinking otherwise that that hardest of the lessons of historical materialism applies equally in the domain of art as in that of politics: To wit, the reach of ideology is infinite; there can be no end to it, ever. In an era in which neither of the parties currently divided by the Elbe holds a monopoly on perfidy and rhetorical evasion, it is heartening and chastening at the same time to hear a voice utter such difficult truths, as it were, “from the other side.” After the sack of Troy, Agamemnon, had he been capable of listening to and comprehending Cassandra, might have been spared his bloody fate. Cassandra foresaw not only the future of her own people but also that of her oppressor. What she divined, above all, was the common destiny linking both sides.

Form and Content

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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 Cassandra in Mycenae at the gates of Agamemnon’s fortress. Cassandra’s interior monologue as she awaits her death takes her back in memory to Troy.

Cassandra remembers peaceful scenes of the pregnant Queen Hecuba discussing Troy’s administration with her attentive husband, King Priam. These scenes give Cassandra a glimpse of society at a moment of balance between matriarchy and patriarchy. In the early days of Troy, there is no conflict between politics and family, no social wall between men and women. This fleeting moment of political and gender balance attracts Wolf. She is looking not for a moment of nostalgia but for a model of a different kind of social arrangement.

Cassandra recalls the destruction of that delicate balance. Hecuba’s close ties to Priam and to political power disintegrate during the war, and she is finally barred from the political conference chamber. Matriarchal vision and patriarchal political power are pitted against each other—and patriarchy eventually wins.

The war also perverts the Trojans in other ways. An effective propaganda machine (familiar to twentieth century readers) changes attitudes, moralities, and even vocabulary in order to fuel the war. Wolf’s antiwar message is evident in her portrayal of the real reasons for war. Rejecting the Trojan War as a battle over the beauty of Helen of Troy, Wolf depicts the war’s economic underpinnings. She also lays bare the lies that use women such as Helen as scapegoats. Cassandra learns that Helen is not in Troy; Cassandra’s brother Paris lost Helen to the king of Egypt when returning home. Paralleling Stesichorus’ alternative tradition of Helen being in Egypt rather than in Troy, Wolf implies that the war is fought for a phantom Helen. She goes one step further, however, than the ancient tradition. Wolf’s ruling family knows that neither Helen nor her phantom is in Troy. They fight for a bald-faced lie that they themselves sustain. Clearly, male egotism, and not female beauty, breeds the conflict.

The “heroic tradition” rapidly degenerates into bestial cruelty as Wolf indicts the major heroes of the Trojan War. She reduces the archetypal military hero, Achilles, to a sadistic coward who must literally be dragged into the war by the scruff of his neck. The most disgusting of his breed, Achilles becomes in Wolf’s text the sexually obsessed brute whose first “heroic” action is the perverse slaughter of Cassandra’s defenseless brother Troilus in a temple. Surrounded by the threat of total destruction and war in her own life, Wolf uses these earlier warriors and war images to warn her contemporaries.

The remainder of Cassandra’s reminiscences trace the degeneration of the government and people of Troy. The narrative ends as Cassandra recalls her rejections of Aeneas’ offer of salvation and a new life. She knows that Aeneas will be swept into a new heroic tradition. The reader is aware that the history of Rome bears out her fears. Cassandra goes to her death partly as a refusal to participate any longer in such a degraded “heroic” world.

Cassandra also recollects, however, a moment of hope for peace and community during the war. An alternative society of outcasts forms around the benevolent figures of Aeneas’ father, Anchises, and the wise woman Arisbe. This society, composed largely of women, cuts across class and national boundaries. Its members offer one another the human nurturing missing from Troy. Aeneas takes this society with him when he flees. A brief utopian moment in the text, this little band will nevertheless be entrapped in the bellicose currents of history once they found the new community that will become the Roman Empire.

Wolf’s novel makes both psychological and political use of earlier epics and dramas, which she weaves into a modern novel of impressive force and subtlety. By giving Cassandra a voice that can finally be heard in the twentieth century, Wolf resituates women as subjects in a history and community in which they were too often objects.


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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 objects. Wolf, in espousing the need for “women’s writing” and criticizing the male literary tradition, also questions both East Germany’s claim of sexual equality and the whole Western literary establishment. Her writing is thus subversive in both commmunist and capitalist contexts.

Wolf suggests within her text an alternative social possibility in the community of women devoted to the mother goddess Cybele. Wolf is careful, however, not to provide an easy Utopia. While her alternative society is attractive, history tells that it will eventually be swallowed up in the next major military patriarchy—Rome. Relentlessly honest, Wolf does not give her characters all the necessary knowledge or answers. Questions of future solutions and lasting alternatives to the unacceptable social and political structures depicted in the text are reserved for the reader’s reflection.

Wolf’s Cassandra stands out as a woman who is not only able but also willing to see political realities—and to voice her knowledge. This voice carries to the listener/reader the problems of political and sexual power, as well as women’s place in the patriarchal tradition. Yet Wolf does not simply repeat the tradition; she challenges its rules and underpinnings. She reasserts the female and the undifferentiated male/ female whole that has been suppressed. Wolf and her Cassandra provide the type of re-vision of history that Adrienne Rich and many contemporary feminist theorists suggest.


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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 secondary works.

Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1328.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 29, 1984, p. 1.

The Nation. CCXXXIX, September 22, 1984, p. 246.

New Leader. LXXVII, October 15, 1984, p. 14.

The New Republic. CXCI, July 30, 1984, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 9, 1984, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 18, 1984, p. 144.

Wolf, Christa. The Author’s Dimension: Selected Essays. Edited by Alexander Stephan. Translated by Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. A collection of essays by Wolf on a wide variety of political and literary topics. Provides useful insights into the author and her attitudes toward literature and politics. Includes an introduction by Grace Paley.

Wolf, Christa. The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf. Translated by Hilary Pilkington. New York: Verso, 1988. A collection of interviews with Wolf. Very useful for understanding Wolf’s process of composition, as well as her political concerns. A short bibliography of primary works is included. Contains an introduction by Karin McPherson.

World Literature Today. LVII, Autumn, 1983, p. 629.


Critical Essays