Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Christa Wolf developed the novel Cassandra in homage to the powerful heroines of Greek drama and the real-life women of ancient times, especially in the Trojan War era. Among the novel’s models are The Trojan Women by Euripides. Like him, rather than emphasize the glorious victories of Athens, Wolf uses the perspective of the vanquished people of Troy. The novel’s primary themes are the importance of historical context, feminist interpretations of political economy, and the recognition that female power has declined, rather than increased, since ancient times.

Cassandra, a daughter of Priam (who was once the king of Troy), has been imprisoned for failing to aid Achilles, which the Greeks believe led to Paris’ killing their great hero. But Cassandra’s real “crime,” Wolf maintains, is speaking truth to power and refusing, as a female, to play a subordinate role. As both a prophetess and a magician, she has visions and magical powers that are a double threat to the patriarchy, and so she has been condemned to death.

Although Wolf also cautions against the overuse of historicism, she urges the reader to contextualize interpretations of Cassandra’s role in light of the patriarchal values of those who recorded the events of the Trojan War. The emphasis on male heroics and female infidelity, she reveals, distort the picture of ancient society. Such distortion applies not only to gender relations, especially the slighting of female agency, but also to social continuity through matrilineage and the political and economic causes of war. Notable in this reinterpretation is the decentering of Helen’s abduction.

Cassandra, in Wolf’s hands, becomes a powerful symbol of female strength and its subordination by the patriarchy. These feminist themes strongly emerge from the play’s beginning, as the doomed heroine reminisces about her early life. Wolf portrays Troy as strongly, if not completely, matriarchal, with Hecuba, Cassandra’s mother, wielding power almost equal to that of Priam, her father. The war accentuated, but did not ultimately cause, the destabilization of that balance. Wolf encourages the reader to believe that militarization and aggression support the expansion of patriarchy; once a system that glorifies violence and conquest is established, it is almost impossible to dislodge.

Cassandra is particularly suitable to convey Wolf’s messages because she is history’s most famous seeress. In her own time, however, rather than occupy a central place, she was demeaned and bound in servitude—including sexual servitude—to male priests, especially the head priest Panthous. The women’s gifts for foretelling the future, although similar to the oracles’ abilities, were decried because they were female.

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