Analysis of Christa Wolf’s Cassandra

Cassandra was the fifth and final lecture of a series Christa Wolf (1929–2011) presented in 1982. Shortly thereafter, the draft was reworked and published in 1983 with Jan Van Heurck’s English translation appearing in 1984. Cassandra is a retelling of Homer’s prophetess and the last moments before her execution by the Greeks. Narrated by Cassandra, the novel is a reflection on her life, on Troy, and on the long war that leads to Troy’s destruction. The novel appealed to readers in East Germany, where reprints quickly sold out, and in West Germany, where the novel remained on the best-seller list for a year. German Democratic Republic (GDR) critics, however, gave the novel mixed reviews when it was first published in German.

Except for the opening and closing passages, Cassandra is a first-person interior monologue. The opening and closing passages take place in present-day Greece, and the third-person narrator muses that this is the spot upon which the mythical Cassandra stood. When the novel switches perspective, Cassandra is a prisoner of war and is awaiting her execution. She is in front of the Mycenaean palace with her servant and her sons. As she awaits her death, she reflects on her city and civilization and the sequence of events that led up to the war and happenings during the war. Since she tried to shape what happened to her city in foretelling its destruction, she was not only ignored but also left out of the decision-making process. As a result, Cassandra narrates from both inside and outside of her culture.

In 1982 Wolf served as guest lecturer at the University of Frankfurt and gave series of talks entitled “Lectures on Poetics.” These lectures were based on a trip to Greece that she had undertaken in 1980 with her husband. Since Wolf was a celebrated writer and a “loyal dissident” of the GDR, she was allowed to travel abroad, a luxury not afforded the general public of East Germany. The first two lectures were travelogues, the third a work diary, and the fourth an open letter. The fifth lecture was a draft of the novel Cassandra, which was published a year later. Only the GDR publisher Aufbau-Verlag kept Wolf’s original sequence of lectures, which is then followed by the novel. The West German publisher Luchterhand published the essays and novel separately, and the English translation (published by Farrar, Straus) contains the lectures and novel in one volume but places the novel first. However, the latter two publishers’ choices are confounding since the lectures give the reader an insight into the creation and themes of the novel.

In 1980 Wolf won the Büchner Prize, and during the address accepting the award, she claimed that the survival of mankind depended on women since men have an inclination toward self-destruction. This theme is expressed in Cassandra, in which the main character warns her fellow citizens about Troy’s doomed future, but no one listens to her predictions.

Although Cassandra is set in mythical Greece, the novel reflects present-day concerns through allegory. It explores the threat of nuclear war, self-destruction, war mongering rather than peace negotiations, and women’s lack of importance in society. Critic Dieter Sevin has observed that the male power structures in the novel, which exclude not only women but also any dissenters, reflect Christa Wolf’s need to speak out on world events and GDR politics, but he notes that her warnings, too, were not heeded. Feminist critics continue to value the novel as an important contribution to German-language literature and as an examination of the failure of male power structures.

Baumer, Franz. Christa Wolf. Berlin: Colloquium, 1988.
Böthig, Peter. Christa Wolf: Eine Biographie in Bildern und Texten. Munich: Luchterhand, 2004.
Finney, Gail. Christa Wolf. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.
Resch, Margit. Understanding Christia Wolf: Returning Home to a Foreign Land. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.

Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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