The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
It is Alicia Ostriker, in her wonderful collection of essays Dancing at the Devil’s Party, who writes “the true poet is necessarily the partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire, and is opposed to passivity, obedience, and the authority of reasons, laws and institutions.” Daring to deconstruct one of the most dearly held myths of the Western world, Margaret Atwood’s 2005 The Penelopiad is certainly a tango step or two with the one with the pitchfork tail. Taking The Odyssey and turning it on its head, from comedy to tragedy, Atwood gives readers Penelope’s side of the story.
Narrated from Hades, The Penelopiad is a recounting of Penelope’s life from beyond the grave. Atwood utilizes not only The Odyssey but also Robert Graves’ monumental The Greek Myths as well as other historical material. The woman’s recollection of her life covers not only her time with Odysseus (or at least waiting for him), but her childhood, demise, marriage, relationship with her son Telemachus, relationship with her father, and relationship with her maids — maids hung by Odysseus and Telemachus. So while a sympathetic character arises from the shadows of history, there remain others whose light is diminished.
A brief work, Atwood does not dwell on the legendary journey of Odysseus, instead presenting the story through Penelope’s and the twelve dead maids’ point of views. The two-decade wait is not a drawn out affair; his absence, return, and unmasking all receive equal stage time alongside her youth, death, and reflections on society as seen from Hades. Featured between the chapters of Penelope’s narrative, the twelve hanged maids, also in Hades, sing, perform theater, and write poetry. Their victimhood is foremost on their minds, which spices the story with a variety of delightfully dark humor.
A sparkling on water, The Penelopiad is written in beautiful, brisk prose. Deliciously poetic, Atwood’s skills as a stylist are on full display. In the early going Penelope describes her communication situation in Hades:
The difficulty is that I have no mouth through which I can speak. I can’t make myself misunderstood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongues and fingers; and most of the time I have no listeners, not on your side of the river. Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams.
There are a couple holes in The Penelopiad, however. The copious weeping is never explained. If Penelope’s love for Odysseus was so common, i.e. not burning a hole in her soul everyday even when he was around, why then two decades of tears while he was away — two decades? Also, some bits that defy the female-with-agency are conveniently legerdemained. Case in point: Penelope is miraculously drugged amidst authorly hand waving by her elderly housekeeper, and therefore unable to prevent Telemachus’ hanging of the twelve maids. And there are a couple of other events glossed over that may have interrupted Atwood’s thematic outlay.
In the end, The Penelopiad is a brash deconstruction of the Odysseus myth. Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus, and even Helen are not immune to Atwood’s cutting wit. The Iliad and The Odyssey are commonly held as the classic tragedy/comedy dichotomy, but Atwood subverts the latter until it too is a tragedy. Atwood’s agenda is apparent in the offing; the commentary is politicized along gender lines and calls into question Odysseus’ status as intelligent, caring husband. Cleverness is a two-edged sword and Odysseus is portrayed as a deceiver who lets his ego get the better of him while the women in his household suffer directly and indirectly as a result. Written in wonderful prose, The Penelopiad comes highly recommended.
There has been a resurgence of retellings of classical myths told from new perspectives of late, from Madeline Miller‘s Circe and The Song of Achilles to Pat Barker‘s much darker The Silence of the Girls. And yet it was Margaret Atwood, the queen of speculative fiction herself, that told her own feminist retelling back in 2005, long before this recent movement began. The Penelopiad, the tale of Penelope’s life as she waits for her husband Odysseus to return, is an embittered and realistic account of how even one of the most lauded female figures from antiquity is still sidelined to an extra in a man’s story.
Penelope narrates her tale from a twenty-first century Hades, equipped with stock-brokers and politicians that Penelope deems so trivial they are not worth her time. “Who is this ‘Marilyn’ everyone is so keen on?” she asks. “Who is this ‘Adolf’?” This witty, acerbic voice is a far cry from the demure, sidelined extra in The Odyssey.
She begins by outlining her childhood in Sparta, detailing dryly that her father was a man of utmost kindness until he tried to drown her. Odysseus wins her hand in marriage by cheating. “And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat,” is Penelope’s take on the outcome. She is taken back to Ithaca by her husband, but not before her cousin (and bitter rival), the beautiful and glamorous Helen, remarks on his poverty and lack of height. Even now, as Helen wafts through the afterlife with a gaggle of suitors following her, Penelope is jealous.
The novella plays out much like a Greek tragedy. Interspersing Penelope’s narrative are chapter-long interjections from the chorus of Penelope’s twelve maids who were hanged by Odysseus, giving the book a fittingly theatrical feel. They speak in verse, a jumping-rope rhyme or a sea shanty. The story moves towards the inevitable tragedy of their demise and, despite the darkly humorous tone of Penelope’s narration, there is a sense of poignant regret and guilt that permeates the tale.
Atwood’s prose (naturally) feels effortless. She evokes the world of antiquity without fussy or burdensome description, the pleasure of which lies in the narrative voice of Penelope herself, who recalls the details of her past with a wry, dark detachment. Her ongoing obsessive rivalry with Helen borders somewhere between hilarious and tragic, and Atwood once again successfully explores the relationship between women and the mistrust that lies therein.
Drawing upon The Odyssey, The Iliad and a variety of other myths, The Penelopiad is a retelling like no other. The character of Penelope is marginalised no more, and readers will easily consume this short, razor-sharp tale in one sitting. Well worth a read.
Sounds a bit like that other subversive favorite, Tom Stoppard’s Ronsencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, which does the same for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Definitely I need to read more Atwood.
I have not read Stoppard’s novel. How does he subvert Shakespeare? Would love to see the olde man cleverly re-visioned.
And yes, definitely you need to read more Atwood. ;) Everybody should read more Atwood. She’s one of the greatest. As good as The Penelopiad is, she’s just playing around – with purpose, but still playing. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake trilogy, The Blind Assassin, and others are just superlative…
Actually it’s an absurdist play that subverts the Bard very cleverly. It’s also an excellent film with Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss. Give a try!