The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s “The Penelopiad” is the retelling of the infamous epic tale “The Odyssey”, told through a different lens. Not only was it a great read (I read it twice!), it gives the reader a lot the think about.

“The Odyssey” tells the story of Odysseus’s decade long journey home after fighting the Trojan War, where his eternally faithful, loving and ever patient wife, Penelope, awaits his return while taking care of his kingdom and fending off several suitors who would do more than kill for the chance to gain Odysseus’s riches. Upon Odysseus’s return, he slaughters the suitors, hangs Penelope’s 12 maids and reclaims his kingdom. And that’s the end of that!

Winston Churchill was quoted to have said: “History is written by the victors”. By now, we are quite aware that history has shown to give priority and power to the male figure (and in many cases, it still does). Considering the two statements, one can deduce that in history the male is the dominant victor. So, one can also assume that “The Odyssey” was written by the victor leaving out the other side of the story. Atwood tells us Penelope’s side of the story.

With Penelope as the narrator and her 12 slaughtered maids her ‘chorus’, Atwood gives voice to the faithful wife and her support group, who’s own journey in “The Odyssey” is far from considered. Her feminist approach to the age-old tale challenges the reader to contemplate other key characters in the tale. By doing so, Penelope and her entourage are humanized and the nature of their characters that is better known as being frail and passive is completely restructured to reflect strength and intelligence.

Penelope begins her narration from the fields of Asphodel in the underworld stretching into the 21st century where Odysseus is made to stand in front of a jury to answer to his crimes; actions which in his time were within his rights as a slave owner. However, the process is interjected by divine intervention and the reader is left to determine his/her own ‘truth’.

Atwood’s dry humour and feminist approach is tangible throughout the piece. Penelope’s frank comments bring wit to a tragic story moving it along in such a way that the reader follows the journey with ease. One can say that it’s a comedic tragedy with a very heavy undertone.

The telling of the maids’ life encounters are extremely melancholy. However, the way in which Atwood brings their recounts to life through song and child’s play creates certain contrasts between voice and tale where the reader is put in a place of unease. Singing a light-hearted rope-jumping rhyme about their murders, or being accompanied by a fiddle while singing about their unfair circumstances would make anyone question the unjustness of their realities (whether or not they want to). I think this is done for that very reason. The vast difference between the two allows the reader to think twice of the situation at hand. The eeriness of the concept of singing about rape makes it all the more potent.

It is clear that the idea of male supremacy is being questioned because of the nature of this book. However, I think that it can also be seen as a commentary about how hierarchy also plays a part in supremacy. Penelope uses her maids to help fend off the suitors by making them her eyes and ears among the enemy. To fulfill that role her maids are abused, raped and forced to spread rumors among the men that eventually lead to their being hung. So how is Penelope treating other women under her own care? Even though she sees her maids as her own children they are looked down upon. There is no mention of her attempting to stop the rapes. As stated, the maids are a source of information throughout the tale. To this Penelope comments that “telling tales is a low art” and that the maids are “the idol minds of gossip”. So, she loves them dearly, but in her eyes they are still below her.

Moving on to a general observation, I do see the tale as being a comment on all wars where the men leave the safety of their homes and it is up to the women to fend for themselves and keep everything running. Women are the silent heroes and survivors of any war.

A few quotes to ponder:

  • After describing the kinds of bad men to be found in the fields of asphodel Penelope says: “Like a lot of goody-goody girls, I was always secretly attracted to men of that kind.” – Are there good girls at all?
  • Commenting on the spreading of rumors with regards to a woman: “If she defends herself she sounds guilty.”
  • After running into Helen: “Why is it that really beautiful people think everyone else in the world exist merely for their amusement?”
  • Referring to ‘artifacts’ in museums after calling them “trash”: “Some of it made its way to enormous palaces that have – strangely – no kings or queens in them.” – it’s all a matter of perspective.
  • “All of this was play-acting: “the fiction was that the bride had been stolen, and the consummation of a marriage was supposed to be a sanctioned rape.” – Talk about male dominance and female humiliation!