Posted on August 17, 2018
30. ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood
Have you ever wondered what life was like for Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, when he went off on his epic odyssey? Margaret Atwood will tell you. The Penelopiad is her reimagining of this classical myth, and it is rich with symbolism, magic and feminism. I adored it.
(This books was sent to me by Canongate, as part of their #TheMyths series, in return for an honest review.)
The Odyssey is one of the world’s most influential classical texts; it is the second oldest work of Western literature (after the Iliad). The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, who leaves Ithaca, the kingdom he rules, to fight in the Trojan War. After the war ends, it takes Odysseus ten years to get home, as he is waylaid by sirens, storms, monsters and magical seductresses. When he gets home, he finds that his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, have been dealing with a group of persistent suitors, desperate to marry Penelope, Ithaca’s queen, and gain her riches for themselves. In Odysseus’ absence, Penelope has been steadfastly loyal, so when he returns he kills the suitors and also hangs twelve maids who led the suitors on. Peace returns and The Odyssey ends.
Now imagine that story from the women’s point of view.
The Penelopiad is told from the afterlife. Penelope is there, and Odysseus (when he isn’t getting reborn to live another life), and the twelve maids. We are in Penelope’s head, learning about the afterlife: there’s not much to do, fewer people come here now, and she can watch everything happening on Earth in the modern day. Penelope is an absolutely delicious narrator. She is delightfully sarcastic, and her voice is modern and cutting. We learn about her past and how she learned to be quiet and pleasing, while observing (and judging) everyone around her. If she is portrayed as the paragon of feminine virtue in The Odyssey, Atwood presents a much more human woman here. Everything Penelope does is for her own survival – and, yes, she did love Odysseus too – but she’s no fool, and she doesn’t believe the magical stories about her husband’s adventures for one minute. She’s a smart and well-intentioned observer, very aware of her place in the world and willing to do what she can to maintain the image of ultimate purity that protects her. For this reason, Penelope is wonderfully likeable: she’s not some unattainable ideal, she’s a normal, frightened, kind, cautious person.
Helen of Troy, on the other hand, is a snake. Atwood clearly enjoys depicting this historical beauty through Penelope’s eyes. Penelope is jealous of her cousin’s beauty, and infuriated by her manipulation of men. Helen constantly barbs Penelope with insults, and while Penelope bites her tongue, she thinks in wonderful descriptions like this one: “Helen the lovely, Helen the septic bitch, root cause of all my misfortunes.” Helen and Penelope have a great dynamic and they’re just a delight to read.
And then there are the maids. Not given much attention in The Odyssey, Atwood transforms these twelve servant women into a Greek chorus for Penelope’s story. There are chapters throughout The Penelopiad in which the maids sing, recite poetry, act out plays – all to demonstrate their own hard lives and the injustices that the rich and powerful have inflicted on their helpless bodies. Penelope uses the maids to help fend off the suitors, but she’s horrified by what Odysseus does to them. The maids harbour this betrayal long into the afterlife.
In The Penelopiad Atwood effortlessly weaves different styles and voices to create a beautiful, patchwork retelling of a classic story. She is as masterful as she’s ever been in her creation of compelling characters, a captivating plot, and a mixture of themes and ideas that stretch beyond the pages of this (very short) book. I really can’t recommend The Penelopiad enough.
“And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy The Penelopiad here.
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