[This page by Astrid Köhler]

Kassandra; Cassandra (1983)

Kassandra, consisting of a novel and four essays, was due to appear simultaneously in East and West Germany. However, the East German authorities feared that Wolf’s fictitious city Troy bore too many traces of the contemporary GDR and tried to have a number of passages removed or changed before publication. This led both to the delay of the book’s appearance on either side of the wall, and finally, the publication of two slightly different versions, whereby in the GDR-edition one some passages were removed with the deletion indicated by ellipses.

The story is set in ancient Troy in the context of the Trojan War. In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Greeks after Paris of Troy had taken Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Cassandra was the sister of Paris and daughter of Trojan King Priam and Queen Hecuba. Her beauty caused Apollo to grant her the gift of prophecy. However, when she did not return his love, Apollo placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions. While Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon, and her own death), she was unable to do anything to prevent these tragedies since no one believed her. Hence, she is a figure both of the epic tradition and of tragedy, and embodies a combination of deep understanding of, and powerlessness within, society.

Christa Wolf’s version of the myth of Cassandra is told by the protagonist herself: shortly before she is murdered and in the full knowledge of her forthcoming death.

The book was written in the early 1980s during a particular time of the Cold War in which a fierce nuclear arms race was being waged between NATO and the Eastern Block under the Soviet Union, and historical parallels were easily established by contemporary readers. The analysis of the causes and conduct of war is conducted through the prism of gender. Masculinity plays a particular role: both the world of politics at King Priam’s court and the waging of war are depicted as male concerns. While women like Queen Hecuba and her daughter Cassandra are tolerated by the state council as long as they offer no challenge to the politics pursued by the men, they are excluded from their circles as soon as they begin to question the need for the war and its conduct.

Wolf’s Cassandra comes to realize that both societies, the Greek and the Trojan one (i.e. the ‘enemy’ in this war), are structured according to the very same patriarchal principles. The discovery that the enemy and her own people are fundamentally alike, is both shocking and dispiriting for the protagonist. In the course of Wolf’s story, she gains access to an alternative world outside the city. Beyond the walls of Troy a counter world proliferates, including women from both camps (Trojan and Greek), and also some non-conformist men. In the words of the book, they prove that “between killing and dying there is a third alternative: living.”

Kassandra picks up on the strand of feminist thought that sees war as a feature of patriarchal society. The story gives an account of the interrelationship between war and patriarchal institutions, norms and values. It also offers an image of female resistance which incorporates alternative values and ways of living.

Wolf’s Cassandra project was deemed by critics as the author’s work on a female aesthetic of resistance, based on her refusal to accept the self-destructiveness of patriarchal societies. The story was accompanied by four lectures (held in Frankfurt am Main as her “Poetikvorlesungen”) in which she both elaborated on her historical exploration of the myth and on the aesthetic implications of her insights gained in this process. The question arose: How can one write a narrative that does not – wittingly or unwittingly – buy into the grand patriarchal narrative of Western history? Her response to this question is a narrative structure that refuses linearity and instead can be compared with a fabric that uses complex patterns and does not hide its tangled threads, protruding wefts etc.

In many ways, the project is taken up again in Wolf’s 1996 novel Medea. Stimmen (Medea. Voices / A Modern Retelling.), featuring another female heroine from the Greek myths. Here again, a canonized narrative is picked up and re-told in such a way that its ideological implications are undermined and its elements are re-evaluated.

Further Reading

Peter Arnds, ‘Translating a Greek Myth: Christa Wolf’s Medea in a Contemporary Context’, Neophilologus 85 (2001), 415-28

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of 20th Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985)

Helen Bridge, ‘Christa Wolf's Kassandra and Medea: Continuity and Change’, German Life and Letters 57:1 (2004), 33-43

Karin Eysel, ‘Christa Wolf’s Kassandra: refashioning national imagination beyond the nation’, Women in German Yearbook 9 (1993), 163-81

Peter J. Graves, ‘Christa Wolf’s Kassandra: The Censoring of the GDR Edition’, Modern Language Review 81:4 (1986), 944-56

Brigid Haines and Margaret Littler, Contemporary Women’s Writing in German: Changing the Subject (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), Chapter 4 on Kassandra

Clayton Koelb, Legendary Figures: Ancient History in Modern Novels (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), Chapter 7: ‘The Future of Antiquity: Christa Wolf’s Cassandra’, pp. 127-42

Stephanie West, ‘Christa Wolf’s Kassandra: A Classical Perspective’, Oxford German Studies 20-21 (1991-92), 164-85