Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Wolf’s realistic reinterpretation of the prophetess who told the truth but was never believed speaks as much to the present as to the past. An outline of the story was presented in 1982, when Wolf was awarded a guest lectureship at the University of Frankfurt. She delivered a series of five lectures relating to her Greek travels and studies, entitled “Lectures on Poetics.” The four introductory lectures are published with the novel, which was expanded from a draft of the fifth lecture. She calls these essays “Conditions of a Narrative”; they throw considerable light on the genesis of the main character and the philosophic and psychological implications of the novel.

How does the past determine the present and the future and, conversely, how does the present determine the story one tells about the past? Though it includes no actual reference to modern times, the novel suggests not only the blindness of the Trojans and the Greeks to their own fates, but also the blindness of Germans to the consequences of the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II. The novel also suggests an equal or worse failure of the contemporary world in foreseeing and forestalling the possibility of nuclear war. Men of every age seem to pursue death with blind abandon.

The first and second essays are travel reports about a trip to Greece that Wolf and her husband took in 1980. A chance mix-up about planes caused a day’s delay—a day the author spent reading Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the trilogy that begins with the murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra by Clytemnestra. The play illustrates one of Wolf’s observations: that history and art are probably both reinterpretations of the past, distorted in one way or another by the storyteller. The Oresteia is a classical Greek’s reinterpretation of a more ancient legend of blood revenge; the story is designed to glorify the Greek system of government of Aeschylus’ time.


(The entire section is 800 words.)