The Descent Of Cassandra Into Madness Through Her Denial Of Symbols

Through every era, man has looked to the distance for an explanation, hope or justification for events. Many people look to symbols to find faith, even when the symbol is derelict or clearly false. In Christa Wolf's Cassandra, Cassandra accepts these symbols in her youth, but as her prophecies grow stronger, she denounces the falsehood that encumbers them. She plays the role of society's foil mad woman character and the protagonist of Cassandra, dynamically changing from a sheep in the crowd who blindly follows these symbols to being ousted by society for seeing through them. Only through constant berating, does Cassandra, and her society, realize that she is crazy.

Christa wolf's usage of the setting of Troy for this novel allows the search for faith-producing symbols to be portrayed. The story of Troy is bursting at the seams with such symbols: the Oracle, Helen, the Trojan Horse and the ship launching ceremonies are just a few Trojan society's false symbols. Wolf utilizes these symbols in Cassandra's progression to madness, beginning with her acceptance of such symbols.

In Cassandra's youth, the launching of the second ship portrays Cassandra's acceptance of a symbol. Through choice of words, Christa wolf plants Cassandra herself as one of the sheep. During the ceremony, “all the Trojans had cheered just as I did when the Second Ship set sail.” (Wolf,36) Although she refuses the usage of “we,” choosing instead to still keep distance from everyone by referring to “the Trojans” and “I”, her choice to include that she cheered as well shows her admittance that at one point she was no different than everyone else. As well, Cassandra simply explains “We swiftly varied our mistaken judgments to avoid seeing the sinister reality behind the glorious faade.” (Wolf,36) In other words, the people ignored the truth, that the journey would undoubtedly be fruitless, just to spur faith and courage from the ceremony. Overall, this event, with Cassandra's confession and her connection to the crowd, Cassandra is characterized as a believer of these false symbols. Her opinions begin to change thus forth.

Helenus, Cassandra's twin brother who lacks the ability to prophesize yet is believed by all, is one symbol in Trojan culture that Cassandra silently refutes. Culturally, the Trojans look to the oracle for “lame conventional bullets about sun and rain, good and bad harvests, the breeding of livestock and children.” (Wolf,29) Ironically, Helenus has no actual power of foresight, contrasting Cassandra who is fully endowed to see the future. Helenus is only believed because of his office's authority. To place these two completely contrasting roles as twins adds to the irony as well. The fact that the population listens to Helenus and not Cassandra drives Cassandra to anger. The irony behind the situation is prolific. Cassandra asks herself, “Did I want to tear the people out of their familiar round where they felt comfortable and looked for nothing else?” (Wolf,29) Cassandra knows that the populace looks to Helenus for faith and for comfort, yet “nothing else.” They do not look to him for truth, as he does not tell it. This would be Cassandra's role, but sadly Apollo's curse leads to no one to believing her. Cassandra, in a moment of devilish intent, shows her malice towards the people who accept these false symbols through her urge to discomfort them. This thought, now separating herself from “the people,” shows her descent towards separation from her family and society. Cassandra only refrains from ruining the faade because Panthous demands her of it. Unfortunately, Cassandra's voice of reason is not always held back so easily and it bursts out uncontrollably, causing Cassandra's society to see her as mad.

Cassandra's first iteration to control this voice is her shriek of “woe, woe, woe, do not let the ship depart!” (Wolf,59) Cassandra cannot control this “ultimate estrangement from myself and from everyone.” (Wolf,59) Thus, Cassandra becomes the mad woman. Only now, as she held her voice previously, “lightning swift the rumor spread among my brothers and sister that I was mad.” (Wolf,59) She is ousted for denouncing the son “who will fetch the king's sister back from the enemy” (Wolf,58) and she is “gripped...under the shoulders and dragged...out of the hall.” (Wolf,59) There is no other course of action, as she went as far as to shatter the comfortable round that the dinner guests resided in.

In this case, Cassandra speaks as if she does not consider this voice to be who she is. She describes the voice separately from herself: “A whistling at the end of its rope,” (Wolf,59), “which as it swells,” (Wolf,59) “forced its way out of me.” (Wolf,59) Cassandra refuses to accept this voice as one with her. She refuses to accept this is who she is. She is yet to accept that she is becoming a mad woman.

The result of this is that Cassandra is locked in her room, physically separated from the ceremonies, faith-creating, launching of the third ship. “They crowded around to receive their portion of the sacrificial meat and bread,” (Wolf,60) portraying the populace's flock-like nature. Every person has a portion of the meat and bread because every person has a part in this self-deception bar the alienated Cassandra.

This physical separation is paired with mental separation when “not a sound penetrated the inner courtyard unto which my window looked out” (Wolf,60) even though “that night the city was noisy.” (Wolf,60) This is a metaphor symbolizing the complete separation between Cassandra and her society. All the faith, enjoyment and elation created by the launching of this ship is reflected in the noise of the city. The city encapsulates the Trojan society. The sound that does not penetrate represents the lost connection between society and Cassandra. Cassandra, being locked in her room, is now not part of this society. Between her and society, “all the entryways were barred.” (Wolf,60) This is the beginning of Cassandra's new characterization of madness.

This alienation only worsens as Cassandra shrieks again in repetition “Woe, woe, woe...We are lost, woe, we are lost!” (Wolf,68) Like when she denounces Paris' plan, she is again held by “the firm grip on my shoulders.” (Wolf,68) The grip of the shoulders is a synecdoche of the power of Eumelos[1], the representation of deception in Cassandra. Both times, the representation of deceptions, of false symbols, grabs Cassandra and separates her from society. Cassandra still is unable to destroy her society's hopes, as “The Eumelos inside me forbade me.” (Wolf,69) She states that “I avoided screaming their state secret out loud.” (Wolf,69)

Finally, the voice does not scream, but she does. Only now does Cassandra ultimately take the voice that denounces these false symbols as who she is. She accepts her characterization as a mad woman. Her separation from society coincides with society's increasing need for these symbols as a crutch, and thus her further distancing from it and her family.

Priam, her father, was already “blind and deaf.” (Wolf,70) Blind to not see the deceptions he believed in and deaf to not hear the reasons why they were false. Cassandra asks him to “at least deprive them of the pretext of Helen,” (Wolf,70) but he refuses. He is unwilling to give up the symbol, as “the honor of our house is at stake.” (Wolf,70) Cassandra realizes that “I want something different.” (Wolf,70) On this realization, Cassandra turns “apathetic and silent.” (Wolf, 71) “Everyone began to give up on” (Wolf,71) Cassandra, who only now understands the difference between her and her family. Her refusal to accept these symbols leads to her alienation. Even her closest siblings, Briseis and Troilus, “did not understand my apathy.” (Wolf,71) No longer can Cassandra even relate to her family.

Cassandra's inability to relate stems from the fact her society has been buried by the idea that “once something has become public knowledge, it is real.” (Wolf,85) The society can no longer function without the symbols to goad them. It is hard for Cassandra to survive in this society, where she does not fit in. Her alienation can be complete at this point. At a climactic point in the story, her characterization is presented to her from another view.

As the Trojans watch the Greek horse roll through the impermeable wall, the people “believed what they saw, not what they know.” (Wolf,135) They ignore the fact that the idea of this horse is ludicrous and ignore their own heeding. The society has become so bent on symbols that they can do nothing but accept the Grecian gift. Cassandra, of course, sees through this symbol, trying to reason with the people that it should be burned and cast aside. Finally, a person tells Cassandra the truth. The Trojans simply say “She's crazy, that one.” (Wolf,136) This line carries force, as someone outside Cassandra's self-acknowledgement has brought the truth upon Cassandra. Her society sees her as a mad woman. Even though Cassandra is the daughter of the king, she is so strongly alienated by her society that a common person is able to comment in such a rude way to her. She has finished her journey to madness and alienation.

Throughout Cassandra, Cassandra separates herself from her society with her denial of the necessary faith-creating symbols. At first, she accepts these symbols. Then, although she does not believe in them, she separates herself from the voice that yells denial. Her further separation from her family, and acceptance of this voice, chronicles her descent into alienation and characterization as a mad woman. Cassandra goes from being a sheep in the crowd to her finale as being crazy. She reaches her ultimate.


  1. Cassandra, Christa Wolf. 1984. translated by Jan Van Heurck
  2. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.
  1. Eumelos is the source of many deceptions in Cassandra. He propagates ideas such as that Troilus did not die when he was seventeen and Helen; in the end he becomes controlling of society through these false symbols, much like how the deceptions he represents do the same.

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