Original Pub. Date: 2005
Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making.
In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids.
In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.Greek Mythology was one of my first passions and The Iliad and The Odyssey were probably the first major cultural cornerstones that I attempted. Later on, I studied Greek in school and translated passages of both and, what I'm basically am trying to say is that, Greek legends have always informed my reading. Oblique mentions of heroes, myths and gods were what made Romantic poetry palatable to me, while I love finding references to these myths in contemporary fiction as well. This novella is a part of Canongate's 2005 Canongate Myth Series for which, amongst many others, Jeannette Winterson and Michel Faber also worked their literary magic. Adaptations and twists on myths and legends can be very hit and miss. On the one hand they have a source material that has proven to be interesting, but on the other hand there is an expectation that the adaptation will add something new, truly make a difference in how the reader sees the "original" story. Atwood's The Penelopiad takes on of Homer's most famous women, Penelope, and gives her a voice. Atwood revives this woman, so often reduced to the silent caricature of "the faithful wife", and asks her what her childhood was like, how it felt to be so alone and abandoned, and how she ever managed to keep 150 suitors at bay.
The Penelopiad turns the story as we know it upside down. Rather than men standing at the centre of it, with women only providing the occasional impulse to action, women are what keeps Atwood''s novella going. Penelope as a narrator is direct and to the point, finally telling her side after centuries in the Underworld. She is almost blase about some of the injustices that she and the other women have faced, but there is also a constant edge to her desire to bring them to light. Atwood contrasts the demands that life makes of an upper-class princess, with those made of the working-class maids. Whereas Penelope comes to understand she only means as much to her family as the treasure she receives as a bridal gift, so the maids very quickly come to realise their lives are not their own. A kind of kinship grows between Penelope and her maids, but the difference in position always remains. Atwood also expresses this through the difference in their narration. Whereas Penelope speaks in first person narration, allowed to jump around in time and describe different moments as she sees fit, the maids form a typical Greek Chorus. They are largely anonymous, speaking with one voice, and constantly performing. They interrupt Penelope's story with bitingly ironic songs, never quite letting the reader or Penelope forget how they have been mistreated. Something that slightly irked me was the one-dimensional nature of Helen (of Troy), who comes across as the quintessential Mean Girl who knows she's beautiful and loves the destruction she causes. In the way that Penelope has been typecast as safe and boring, so Helen has been typecast as beautiful and destructive, both becoming emblematic of the opposing ideals women nowadays are still told to meet. Although Atwood brings in some class awareness with the Maids, I think she does slightly miss the boat when it comes to Helen.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer. Her writing in The Penelopiad is very simple without being bland, descriptive without overloading the reader, and purposeful without being obvious. Atwood clearly has a few points she is trying to make throughout the novella but she doesn't browbeat the reader with them. The novella also experiments with the form of her novel moving between straightforward prose and songs, with a detour to court transcriptions. With Penelope's narrative she sticks relatively close to Homer's own, but actually giving Penelope a role in her own life. Where she is a side-character in The Iliad, Atwood gives her a central role which presents her as a much more human character than Homer manages to. Atwood doesn't set out, I think, to revolutionise or overthrow the story as we know it, but rather make us aware of how much perspective matters. Where The Penelopiad really differs and becomes really interesting is in Atwood's take on the maids. Not only does she engage with the style of the Greek text, she also engages with class, as mentioned above, the idea of honour killings and the difficulty of female sexuality. Penelope doesn't necessarily come out of this novella better than she went into it, but Atwood manages to establish her as an actual human being than a cardboard cut-out of the Good Wife. Although Atwood doesn't push out the boat very far, she asks a lot of interesting questions in The Penelopiad which will definitely inform a reread of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
I give this novella...
Overall I really enjoyed reading The Penelopiad. If you're new to Atwood it's perhaps not the best work to start with, since she doesn't employ all of her capabilities. However, this novella is an interesting take on one of the texts which underlies so much of Western culture and Atwood's women come out as more human, with all their good and bad aspects, than they were before.