What could I do? Lamentation wouldn’t bring my lovely girls back to life. I bit my tongue. It’s a wonder I had any tongue left, so frequently had I bitten it over the years.
The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of the hero’s long suffering wife Penelope. Left on the island kingdom of Ithaca to fend for herself while her husband contends with a Cyclops, vengeful gods and witches, Penelope tells of her efforts to confound the many suitors who seek to usurp Odysseus during his ten year voyage. This, after having already waited ten years for the costly Trojan War, fought to secure the return of her stunningly beautiful cousin Helen, to end.
This is also the story of Penelope’s twelve maids and their murder by Telemachus and Odysseus upon his return. The myth describes them as having caroused with the suitors besieging the palace of Ithaca, indirectly making them responsible for the long hours of cavorting and rutting within its halls. Penelope reveals that her maids were in fact spying on the men, delaying their attempts to kill her son Telemachus and forcibly marry her, seizing her husband’s kingdom in the process. The ‘carousing’, the maids died for was in fact rape.
All of this is narrated by the long dead Penelope, now a spectre wandering through Hades. She has been observing the progress of human history and has developed over time a certain arch sense of humour, picking up a few idiomatic phrases over the years. I was startled to see this figure from Ancient Greek myth use the word ‘factoid’ just three sentences in, but there you are. This is Atwood using the character of Penelope as her mouthpiece, with The Penelopiad intended as a corrective to the chauvinism of Homer’s epic.
By having the narration itself take place in the present day, Atwood mocks the pretensions of Homer’s characters, all of whom are still wandering around the underworld. She jokes that the gods have vanished ever since a much more spectacular establishment down the road – fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks – a great many special effects opened up. Penelope herself never really believed in the gods, as all she observed in her life was random misfortune and callous violence.
Her life was spent in a state of passivity, a quality that is lauded within Homer’s tale, her patience and forgiveness of her husband’s indiscretions elevated as virtues. Atwood reverses this by showing how Odysseus won her hand and took her to Ithaca as his bride in order to weaken her father in any future conflict between Sparta and its neighbours. That she could always see through her husband’s lies and omissions, but chose not to speak up as she knew he enjoyed fooling everyone. In fact, most of her dignified silences from Homer’s epic are retold by Atwood as Penelope furiously trying to repress her laughter at the foolishness of people around her.
Three women rule Penelope’s life. Her mother-in-law, Anticleia, is stern and unloving, treating her son’s wife at all times as a necessary inconvenience. Eurycleia, the palace wet-nurse, replaces her as mother to her own son Telemachus. And finally there is Helen, her cousin, who ruined her life, having ignited the conflict that took her husband away for twenty years and set in motion the events that would lead to the occupation of her home and the murder of the twelve maids. Atwood uses these three women to represent the clichéd archetypes of female identity in mythology – the matriarch, the crone and the whore. By doing so she exports any of these traits from Penelope herself. However, I’m not sure what character her heroine actually possesses, beyond the arch present-day voice we are offered in the narration, as Atwood-manqué. I feel this is an error on the author’s part, as Penelope is reduced to a mere cipher as a result.
There is anger here, with the twelve maids acting as a chorus throughout the book. They speak in verse initially, but later resort to a parody of a mock-feminist academic paper and even a ‘video-trial’ in the style of Judge Judy. Overall I feel the story should have been told solely from their point of view, as Penelope’s sheltered upbringing and passivity made her an aloof narrator (never mind a sarcastic ghost).