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25 April 2006

The Penelopiad (2005)

By Margaret Atwood

From the dust jacket: "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 suits - 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?'"

First: the description curiously reads "the abduction of Helen" - she ran away willingly, as I have always understood the myth. Second: I selected this book for the May meeting of our MOMS Book Club.

The Penelopiad, the distaff counter to last night's Sin City, is a quick little thing, packed with shards of mythology, feminist revisions, and dubious truthfulness from two independent narrative voices: Penelope, and a chorus comprised of her twelve slain maids. Atwood's decision to (re)tell the story of Penelope's faithfulness to the long-absent Odysseus and the consequences of his return from two points of view serves to create a dynamic variance of perspectives. It also makes this brief 200-page novel dense with opportunities to discuss the nature of gender, power, and authority, particularly with regard to the historical record.

Atwood's integration of various mythological elements was both successful and accessible. Perhaps I base my definition of success on its accessibility, as I am not an aficionado of all things ancient and Greek, and a reader with more knowledge of the subject matter may have been disappointed by descriptions of legendary characters that merely skim the surface of their import. But for my taste, the smattering of detail was just enough to ground Atwood's Penelope in a mythological foundation and remind me of the details I have lost since reading The Odyssey in high school.

For example, Atwood's description of Menelaus, Helen's cuckolded husband, is succinct, draws from Homeric language, and fits nicely with the voice of this Penelope:
"That was what got her into trouble with Paris, later - he was so much better looking than Menelaus, who was lumpish and red-haired. The best that was claimed of Menelaus, once they started putting him into the poems, was that he had a very loud voice" (34).
Atwood's references to mythological elements were by no means encyclopedic, in that she was not trying to demonstrate any fantastic command of the material, but they served the best possible purpose: story-telling.

As for feminist revision, that was Atwood's raison d'etre for (re)telling this tale. Within these pages, she included numerous discussions about the state of marriage (an institution devised to insure lines of inheritance), the unfathomable duties of female household servants, and the obligations of women who were constantly entangled in male disputes over money, power, and honor. The chapter entitled "The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture" is particularly interesting with regard to the conflict between cults of the Goddess, which would have existed in Neanderthal times and down to proto-Greek societies, and the patriarchal system of gods favored by the Mediterranean cultures of Homer and his contemporaries. In this chapter, the twelve maidens and their mistress, Penelope, are said to represent the thirteen lunar cycles of the year. When Odysseus slays the maids and (re)takes their mistress as his wife, he confirms the superiority of masculine power over women. The chorus concludes with the maids reconsidering their theory, however, in that the symbolism of their deaths within a larger of male over female actually does their memory a disservice:
"Never mind. Point being that you don't have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don't have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol" (168).

Finally, I found the issue of (unreliable) narrators to be the most interesting aspect of this novel. Purportedly, Atwood intended to retell Penelope's story. So why does she include the chorus of the maids? Penelope's story should be her own to reconstruct and fabricate to her own contentment, but Atwood's decision to include the chorus offers two additional interpretations of Homer's famous poem. As a result, we understand that Penelope cannot be trusted entirely, indicating that Penelope's protestations and descriptions may be as (latently) abusive, privileged, and unjust to the maids as was Odysseus to Penelope.

Evidence for Penelope's deviousness abounds. She repeatedly emphasized others' claims to her cleverness (as opposed to snooty cousin Helen, who was beautiful). The trick for which she is best known - unraveling, each night, the shroud she wove so as to delay her promise to choose a suitor upon its completion - is an example of her adroit mind. She recognizes Odysseus upon his return, seeing through his disguise, but keeps secret her awareness. She protects herself from the taint of scandal, and upon their reunion, Penelope's stories are as fantastic as her husband's:
"I told him how very many tears I'd shed while waiting twenty years for his return, and how tediously faithful I'd been.... The two of us were - by our own admission - proficient and shameless liars of long standing" (173).
By this, are we supposed to believe that she was faithful, that she merely forgot to let Eurycleia - Odysseus's influential maid - know that the maids were in on her plot to spy on and pacify the suitors, and that she was drugged and sleeping while Odysseus hanged the maids? No. The sympathetic voices of the maids is too strong, and Penelope's contradictions - she is at once very clever and very, very... inadvertent - are too damning. "Dead is dead," she thinks after she learns of the hangings. "I'll say prayers and perform sacrifices for their souls. But I'll have to do it in secret, or Odysseus will suspect me, as well" (160). Her impetus for self-preservation - a skill she learned at the hands of her alternately abusive and neglectful parents - is strong and quietly ruthless.

Are the maids blameless or entirely honest? Probably not. After all, who would refuse the opportunity to bad mouth a former employer when given a legitimate venue in which to do so? The intrigue, motives, and perspectives are well worth pondering, particularly in contrast to that of Homer's work. Penelope, as a woman in a stridently patriarchal society, has much in common with her enslaved maids, but as a noblewoman with ample resources at her disposal and the benefit of respect and custom accorded to discrete members of the ruling class, she has the persuasive opportunity to be heard much more clearly than do her dead slaves.

I feel a little rotten siding against the heroine and protagonist, but if Atwood had wanted purity and certainty, she would have written a different novel. As it stands, I liked this approach very much. The novel was fast, fun, and provocative, and I will never again be able to consider The Odyssey so innocently...

Vocab: raconteur, asphodel, chacun à son goût (French: each to his own taste), epical, gourmand

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