Jen Banning graduated summa cum laude from Ball State University with majors in history and anthropology in 2010. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in general English with a focus on creative writing. In the latest installment of our “Recommended Reads” series, Jen recommends The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood.
As a history and anthropology undergrad-turned-English grad student, I find it hard to resist a good retelling of Greek mythology. Though the myth of The Odyssey has been told and retold countless times, Margaret Atwood takes on the tale in an irreverent and thought-provoking manner by breathing life into Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful and patient wife. A part of Canongate’s Myths Series, The Penelopiad reinterprets the familiar legend from a woman’s perspective, exploring issues of justice, gender norms, and storytelling.
In myth, Penelope is generally relegated to the sidelines as she awaits the triumphant return of her husband from Troy. After a decade at war, Odysseus takes another decade to return home to Ithaca and his wife—and along the way finds himself engaged with cyclopes, Sirens, and scads of sparkling, lustful goddesses. In the meantime, Odysseus’s palace is besieged by nobles seeking his (presumed) widow’s hand in marriage. Though she manages to hold off a swarm of suitors and keep his kingdom running during her husband’s absence, Penelope has never been given a spot on center stage—until now. Yet Atwood’s The Penelopiad is more than an account of Penelope’s life. It is an exploration of womanhood and oppression with a central question: what about the maids? As Atwood reminds the reader in her introduction, Odysseus did not only kill the suitors at the end of the story, but he also passed sentence on twelve of his household maids who had slept with these men. As slaves, these women undoubtedly had little choice in the matter—and in fact, would normally have been offered to male guests as a form of hospitality. So why did the maids have to hang?
The narrator of The Penelopiad is Penelope herself, who is currently roaming the lonely realm of Hades. Entering into conversation with the reader, Penelope explains that it is finally time to set the record straight and tell her side of the story. Beginning with her birth, Penelope guides us through the story of her life: the daughter of a naiad and a king, Penelope survived a murderous attempt on her life (by her father, of course), and at only fifteen left her home in Sparta to become Odysseus’s bride. When her son, Telemachus, was still a babe in arms, Odysseus was called away to fight in the Trojan War. Penelope explains that she was not idle during her husband’s twenty-year absence: she oversaw his kingdom, kept the palace running, and, when the suitors began to eat her out of house and home, ordered her twelve prettiest maids to cuddle up to her enemies in order to learn their plans.
Penelope paints a picture of herself not so different from the myth: she is long-suffering, ever patient, and faithful to Odysseus—just a little more observant and active than she is usually given credit for. Yet interspersed throughout Penelope’s narrative is a chorus composed of the hanged maids. Reminiscent of the chorus of Greek plays, the maids variously sing, give lectures, and even videotape a trial of Odysseus in order to tell their side of the story and demand justice. Ultimately, Atwood leaves the reader with no definitive answer as to what really happened during Odysseus’ absence, for the chorus of maids serves to undermine Penelope’s trustworthiness as a narrator. Particularly disturbing is Penelope’s treatment of the maids, several of whom are raped in their attempts to spy on the suitors; furthermore, Penelope does not attempt to save them from Odysseus’s vengeance upon his return. Was Penelope asleep during the mayhem, as she claims? Or did she allow the maids to hang in order to keep her own secret—that she had, perhaps, been unfaithful to Odysseus?
Penelope notes at the beginning of her story that her legend of the faithful wife has become “A stick used to beat other women with” (2). She goes on: “Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears—yes, yours!” (2). What Penelope does not explain is why we should not follow her example. Is she simply advocating disobedience in the face of injustice, or is she hinting at the part she played in the rapes and deaths of the maids?
As a novella, The Penelopiad is a quick read—but its fresh perspective and witty narration, as well as the provoking gaps in Penelope’s story, serve to keep the reader thinking long after putting it down. I know that I have often come back to this story and wondered: who is Penelope, really? And what about the maids?
Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2005.