September 18, 2015
by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 Graduate Fellow
IRWGS’ “Feminist to the Core” series kicked off its fall programming with Professor Julie Crawford’s lecture on Homer’s The Iliad. The series aims to not only explore Core Curriculum texts from a feminist perspective but also to introduce feminist interpretive frameworks, which can be carried over to other Core readings and courses outside of the Core Curriculum.
In her talk, Professor Crawford, Mark van Doren Professor of English and Chair of Literature Humanities, considered the ideological premises which we might assume structure The Iliad: the privileging of warrior masculinity and the exclusion of women from the values and practices central to this definition of masculinity. Crawford troubled this reading by focusing on the formal elements, which gradually develop alternative principles (namely that of “care” and co-feeling) across the arc of the poem.
Crawford began her lecture by performing the feminist move of looking for evidence of female voices and agency in a text reputed to largely exclude them. The Iliad is one of the Western Canon’s most famous stories of the traffic in women: the event which catalyzed this narrative of the Trojan War, is, of course, Paris’s abduction of Menelaus’s wife Helen. The exchange of women for material and immaterial gain is thought to be foundational to patriarchy because it consolidates bonds between men, although Crawford qualified that in Ancient Greece the traffic of women also puts them in competition with each other. Yet, Crawford used the rubrics of narration and female artistry in order to challenge the reading that characters like Helen and Chryseis are merely objects or chattel. Crawford moved from discussing how men in the poem authorize themselves to speak of Helen’s desire to demonstrating how Helen asserts her presence as a narrator of her own story. Through the figure of Helen, Crawford illustrated, references to social and political bonds between women (such as the Amazons) encroach upon the narrative’s apparently male homosocial world.
Crawford emphasized how the poem exposes the tremendous amount of labor necessary for creating warrior masculinity. Not only does the poem displace warrior masculinity by locating it in an idealized past, but the constant imperatives to “be a man” also show that this ethos is something that is produced through threat and discipline. Crawford pointed out that even the narrator of the Homeric poem takes on the labor of reproducing this ideology by saying, “be a man, dear friend.”
In demonstrating evidence of female agency, Crawford offered a way of reading The Iliad that can easily be transported to analyses of a much wider range of literary texts. She rounded out her talk by considering elements of The Iliad which, to me, felt more specific to the epic poem itself. She listed the many ways the poem analogized warriors to both mothers and children and noted the parallel between Andromache’s ignorance about the fate of her husband and Achilleus’ ignorance about the death of his beloved friend Patroclus. Crawford’s concluding remarks emphasized that The Iliad gradually develops an alternative ethos of “co-feeling” typically associated with female nurturers.