Feminist at the Second Glance: Alice Oswald’s Memorial
In her famous essay The Poem of Force, Simone Weil’s states that in the Iliad “no man is held either above or below the common level of all men,” and that “[t]he victors and the vanquished are shown equally near to us, in an equal perspective.” While these claims overstate the evidence of the ancient epic, Alice Oswald has made them come true in Memorial. An Excavation of the Iliad. This book-length poem, which was first published in 2011, consists of a series of names and/or short biographies of the men who get killed in the Iliad, interspersed with Homeric similes. By stripping away the narrative, Oswald renders it impossible for the reader to distinguish between Greeks and Trojans, or between famous heroes and lesser warriors: “And Hector died like everyone else” (68). Her defiance of established polarities extends also to the narrative voice. Although the speaker shows a deep emotional engagement with the events depicted, repeatedly calling somebody “poor” (22, 29, 32, 34, 35, 39, 51) or exclaiming that a particular killing was “horrible” (25, 31, 47), the viewpoint is not gendered. This neutrality seems all the more remarkable in view of the fact that Oswald believes the Iliad to contain recollections of a tradition of lamentation, in which women “offered personal accounts of the deceased” (Oswald ix).
Clearly, Memorial does not belong to the group of recent retellings of Homeric material that adopt an overtly feminist approach. Unlike Christa Wolf’s Cassandra (1983), Barry Unsworth’s Songs of the Kings (2002), Alessandro Baricco’s An Iliad (2004), and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (2005), no part of her work is told from the perspective of a female character, and she never hints at the existence of a peaceful feminine way of life as a suppressed alternative to masculine war-mongering. While Wolf, Unsworth, and Atwood all focus on the slaughter of an innocent woman by having their plots build up to the murder of Cassandra, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and the hanging of the maid servants respectively, Memorial is full of killings throughout, and all the people who die are men.
In this paper I will demonstrate that Memorial, too, shifts attention from the male to the female realm, but in ways that are more subtle and sometimes defy stereotypical gender roles. For example, when Dolon’s “Five sisters at the grave ... keep asking him why why / He gave away... / Every Trojan weakness every hope of their allies / Even the exact position of the Thracians” (30), they step outside the traditionally female role of mourners, commenting on military affairs (like Andromache in Iliad 6.431-439) and denouncing his selfish cowardice. Since Oswald took a degree in Classics at Oxford, it seems possible that she is here implicitly contradicting the assertion of the scholiast that Homer mentions the five sisters to shows that Dolon “was a fool-hardy coward because he had been raised in a female-dominated household” (T on Il. 10.317).
Memorial also negates the male ethos underlying the Iliad as a whole. Homeric heroes seek to achieve immortality in two ways, by doing glorious deeds that will be celebrated in song by later generations (kleos) and by begetting a line of equally heroic sons and grandsons. Oswald, however, precludes the former by stripping away the plot of the Iliad and the latter by depicting each casualty as standing the end of his blood line: in Memorial the men killed leave behind parents and widows but no sons. This omission is especially striking in the case of Hector, who is the subject of the last biography. While in the Iliad his relationship to his infant son Astyanax is very important, Oswald gives center stage to Andromache, making no reference to the baby at all. Thus Memorial certainly constitutes a feminist rewriting of the Iliad, even though it may not seem so at first sight.
Responses to Homer’s Iliad by Women Writers, from WW2 to the Present