Last week, I wrote a book review for Life Before Man, a Margaret Atwood novel that, to say the least, I didn’t exactly get on with. I also mentioned that I had started reading The Penelopiad, another Atwood novel that I have wanted to read for a long time now.
For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, running a kingdom while her husband is off fighting the Trojan war is not a simple business. As if it isn’t bad enough that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must also bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep more than one hundred lustful, greedy, bloodthirsty suitors at bay… Perhaps not surprising then that it all ends in murder.
Margaret Atwood has given Penelope her own voice so that she can tell her story at last and set the record straight for good. – The Penelopiad, blurb
I’ve read The Odyssey twice now (if you’re unfamiliar with the epic, check out my review here), once during my A-Levels, and once during my first year of university. Both times, one of the most apparent things that I noticed, was that it would be almost impossible to apply modern values and ideals to the narrative, as it depicts events that supposedly took place around 1200BC. So, when Homer talks of rape, murder and sacrifice, I didn’t judge the acts too harshly; in Ancient Greece, these brutal events were just a part of the culture, unquestioned and unrivalled.
Margaret Atwood, however, does just this, placing not only a contemporary lens around the events of The Odyssey, but also a feminist lens, as she makes Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, her story’s primary narrator. The Penelopiad is part of The Myths series, which unites several authors, including Atwood, as they retell notable myths in a contemporary way, changing perspectives as they unpick some of the more complex ideas within the myths. This text clearly does this, as Penelope, merely a minor character in the original epic, reveals her own thoughts behind her marriage to and relationship with the king of Ithaca.
‘Oh, that’s only Odysseus,’ said one of the maids. He was not considered – by the maids at least – to be a serious candidate for my hand. His father’s palace was on Ithaca, a goat-strewn rock; his clothes were rustic; he had the manners of a small-town big shot, and had already expressed several complicated ideas the others considered peculiar. – My Marriage
One of the main strengths of Atwood’s writing, is how the story is actually told; I get the impression that Atwood herself acts as a vehicle for Penelope, as she speaks to us today, from the underworld; indeed, her main narrative is interjected with not only songs and dances from her maids, but with her descriptions of the underworld, as she wanders about the asphodel, still fighting with her infamous cousin, Helen.
Atwood keeps the story contemporary by making subtle references to the modern day, such as through her descriptions of museums:
Some of it [her people’s possessions] made its way to enormous palaces that have – strangely – no kings or queens in them. Endless processions of people in graceless clothing file through these palaces, staring at the gold cups and the silver bowls, which are not even used any more. Then they go to a sort of market inside the palace and buy pictures of these things, or minute versions of them that are not real silver or gold.” – My Marriage
Yet one of the key differences between The Odyssey and The Penelopiad lies in how a female protagonist is able to highlight the faults of other women. In the original epic, Helen of Troy (or Sparta, depending on the moment in time) was always presented as a mere object to be passed around between men – the Trojan war was Paris’ fault, not Helen’s, yet Penelope reveals the rivalry between herself and her beautiful cousin, placing almost the entirety of the blame on the woman, not the man. Here, she is actually capable of having started the war.
The sad fact is that people had praised her so often and lavished her with so many gifts and adjectives that it had turned her head. She thought she could do anything she wanted, just like the gods from whom – she was convinced – she was descended. I’ve often wondered whether, if Helen hadn’t been so puffed up with vanity, we might all have been spared the sufferings and sorrows she brought down on our heads by her selfishness and her deranged lust. – Helen Ruins My Life
However, it is my opinion that, despite the novel’s title, narrator and story, it’s not really about Penelope, at all. I mentioned earlier that Penelope’s narrative is interjected by the songs and dances from her maids. In this, Atwood alludes to a very small scene in The Odyssey, where Odysseus, after slaughtering Penelope’s suitors, proceeds to punish the maids. In The Penelopiad, Penelope asks these maids to see to her suitors’ every need so she can gain secret information from them.
She “even instructed them to say rude and disrespectful things about me [Penelope] and Telemachus [her son], and about Odysseus as well, in order to further the illusion” (The Shroud), yet Odysseys doesn’t know this, and so, when he finds out that the maids betrayed his honour by sleeping with the suitors (although many of them were raped), he first makes them clear up the massacre, dragging dead bodies from his courtyard, scrub up all the blood, and then has Telemachus hang them.
Penelope has a famous dream in The Odyssey that depicts her beloved geese being slaughtered by a powerful eagle. Odysseus, in both stories, interprets the dream to mean that he is going to slaughter her suitors. Penelope, however, argues that he’s got it wrong – the dream wasn’t about him killing the suitors at all, because she didn’t love the suitors. In reality, it was about him murdering her maids.
I can still remember reading the scene in The Odyssey about the maids, and feeling absolutely horrified, even when I didn’t think them innocent. I didn’t believe Odysseus would treat women that way, as, in these ancient myths, women are not generally murdered – they’re kept for rape and abuse, instead. Atwood does, however, leave her readers with some satisfaction over these deaths. Penelope explains how, once a person has died, they may be reborn into a new body, to live a new life. Whilst she has never done such a thing, she tells of how Odysseus has, many times, and how, each time, the spirits of the maids find him, and punish him.
He’s been a French general, he’s been a Mongolian invader, he’s been a tycoon in America, he’s been a headhunter in Borneo. He’s been a film star, an inventor, an advertising man. It’s always ended badly, with a suicide or an accident or a death in battle or an assassination, and then he’s back here again. – Home Life in Hades
Overall, The Penelopiad exceeded my expectations. I’ve always loved stories like The Odyssey and The Aeneid, and to view one of these stories in such a new, individual way, made me love it all over again. I enjoyed the story, adoring Atwood’s writing style and the way that she interjected such different opinions into such a classic tale.
It’s not a long book, and it won’t take you long to read, so if you’re a fan of The Odyssey, why not check it out? In the meantime, I might try out some of the other stories from The Myths series.
I have also written a review for Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, which you can read here.