Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

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...

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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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800

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 second essay describes a journey to Mycenae and Crete, the center of the ancient female cults. There, Wolf makes a brief traveling acquaintanceship with two American feminists, who are eager for any evidence of the ancient preeminence of women in Minoan Crete. This hunger for vanished glory strikes Wolf as sad and ironic:What is proved by the fact, authenticated though it seems, that women led the early clans who lived by agriculture; that the children they brought into the world belonged to them; that they continued to determine the inherited succession even in later, highly organized kingdoms; that they were the originators of all cults, of taboo and fetish, dance, song, and many early crafts? Doesn’t this harking back to an irretrievable ancient past reveal more clearly than anything else the desperate plight in which women see themselves today?

The author’s suspicion that the feminists’ veneration for the ancient cult of the mother goddess may reveal more about the present suggests that interpretation of the past often reflects the unconscious desires of the interpreter. She illustrates this tendency by pointing to nineteenth century attitudes toward ancient Crete as a peculiarly peaceful, therefore idyllic, culture brought down not by human error but by natural disasters such as catastrophic earthquakes. The novel suggests that people destroy cultures and that victims (that is, the Trojans) may contribute to their own destruction.

In another sense, the past exists in the present but is reinterpreted by the storyteller. Wolf illustrates this with the Greek Easter celebrations she witnessed, which center on the sacrificial lamb. She notes the similarity of the ritual to ancient fertility cults of Demeter and Dionysus. She points out that the ritual may have originally involved a human sacrifice, a young man representing the god’s son, Dionysus; then, the lamb, as scapegoat, was substituted for the human being, and only with Christianity did the victim again become a man. Mythic patterns may govern history as well as literature—or perhaps only one’s interpretation of history.

The third lecture is a work diary, much of it devoted to historical dilemmas, old and new, and the self-destructive course of history in the modern world. Here, Wolf suggests that male technological genius is coupled with an unrecognized irrationality and blindness about outcomes. She discusses the writings of Thomas Mann, Karl Kerenyi, Lewis Mumford, and Stefan Zweig. The latter, living in a complaisant England when Hitler was invading France, wrote, “The old Cassandra feelings have come alive again.”

While this diary may seem disorganized, even chaotic, its sheer range of thought does, in fact, suggest the “Conditions of a Narrative.” All these observations on current events, political and moral realities, the history and subjugation of women, and men’s pretensions to rationality and persistent pursuit of war relate to the dilemma of the truth sayer in a disintegrating society.

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