The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus – Margaret Atwood
Canangate Myths, 2005
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I see what you did there, Margaret Atwood. You are slowly worming your way into my brain and convincing me that women’s stories deserve to be heard, especially those that have been doubly forgotten. (Um, as if I needed any convincing, but it is nice to see it “in action” so to speak). And you do it so eloquently.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
“Now that I’m dead I know everything”. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn’t know before. Death is much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.
Since being dead – since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, beastlessness – I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters. You think you’d like to read minds? Think again.
The Penelopiad is the story of Penelope and Odysseus – although I really feel that subtitle is deceiving; this is the story of Penelope – retold by Penelope, interchanged with a chorus of the twelve maids that were hanged when Odysseus returned, from the perspective of the afterlife, or, you might even say, from a contemporary perspective, as Penelope appeals to what the readers would be familiar with, when she tries to explain her story, the setting, and her decisions.
Atwood makes it pretty clear in the short introduction accompanying this retelling, that she did not want to offer the story of Penelope as the perfect and faithful wife, who waited for her husband to return from battle in the Trojan war, even when rumours kept reaching her that he was sleeping with other women on his way home. I imagine that in Atwood’s vision these stories cast both Penelope and the maids as women without agency, held up by men as examples of bad or good behaviour, but unable to tell their own version of the stories. Penelope as the victim of the stories told about her, while the twelve maids are the victim of their untold stories. Or am I oversimplifying things? I do not know, I have not read the”original” myth (it feels a bit weird to refer to one version of a myth as the original – I meant, of course, the version of Homer).
So what Atwood gives us is Penelope’s version of her story. She has watched her story being told and retold over the centuries, and now she’s given us her version. What stands out in her version is that it is as if she’s constantly defending herself, as to some unknown listener. She defends her actions, she feigns (?) or tells of (?) her innocence, her purity, her faithfulness. At the same time, the chorus of maids offer a counterpoint to Penelope’s version of events. They offer a less innocent picture of Penelope. They also offer a window into their own world, the world of girls who are not “royalty”. This is where class and gender intersect. This is where Atwood had me most interested.
Overall, The Penelopiad was interesting. It was a short read, and a read that kept me engaged the whole time. The change in format, especially the different formats used by the maids to get their version of events across, shook me awake from the overall rhythm, in a way that worked really well for the most part. Nevertheless, my engagement was no feverish turning of the pages, as it was when I read The Song of Achilles, but I enjoyed it well enough.
(Have you discovered a theme in my posts yet? It’s “let’s start with the retellings instead of the originals” – week)
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