The Penelopiad (2005) is another in the Canongate Myth Series, in which well-known writers retell a well-known myth. I’ve already reviewed two of these – Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, by AS Byatt and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman. I admire Atwood’s writing, as I do Byatt’s and Pullman’s, and was interested to see what she would make of it.
Atwood has chosen to retell the story of Odysseus from the perspective of his wife Penelope. All that Homer’s version tells us is that during Odysseus’s long absence from Ithaca, his wife Penelope remained faithful to him, and repulsed the advances of numerous suitors who, assuming Odysseus to be dead, sought her hand in marriage. Atwood is also interested in an incident in Homer’s version in which, after the suitors have been dispatched, Telemachus, the son of Penelope and Odysseus, hangs twelve salve girls who are said to have consorted with the suitors. ‘I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids,’ she writes in the Introduction. And in The Penelopiad,’ so is Penelope herself.’
Penelope says she wants to set the record straight. Now that she is in Hades – the land of the dead – she can give her own version of events – ‘do a little story making’. She feels that Odysseus made a fool of her, and that later, there was ‘scandalous gossip’ about her that she now wants to refute. This retelling starts with Penelope’s childhood, then her marriage to Odysseus, then her struggle with the suitors and the return of Odysseus. The story is frequently interrupted by the twelve maids, who form a chanting and singing Chorus, which as in Greek theatre, comments on the action. Their interruptions take a variety of forms, including a rope-jumping rhyme, a lament, a sea shanty, an anthropology lecture and a trial. These commentaries focus, Atwood says, on ‘two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?’
For me, two main themes emerged from this retelling. The first is feminism. The Penelopiad, in its conception and content, is a feminist creation – telling from a female point of view a story previously told from a male one. Not surprisingly, sexual double standards abound. The story gives a voice (a variety of voices actually) to the previously voiceless maids. But Atwood can’t quite be satisfied with this. She also has to send up academic feminism, suggesting in the anthropology lecture that the death of the maids represents ‘the overthrow of the matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshiping barbarians’, the chief of whom is Odysseus. At least I think she’s sending it up. Some readers may recognise the reference at the end of the lecture to Claude Levi-Strauss – but I certainly didn’t.
The second theme is the unreliability of narrative. As Atwood points out, Homer’s story of Odysseus is only one version of several similar stories where Penelope’s role is somewhat different – hence her reference to ‘scandalous gossip’. The story Penelope tells here is a bit different to that in Homer – Odysseus doesn’t fool her quite as completely. And Atwood weaves in some of the allegations about Penelope’s conduct that Robert Graves includes in his book The Greek Myths. Penelope makes it clear that Odysseus is a liar and a trickster, and suggests that some of the stories about his exploits might be much exaggerated. For example, the one-eyed Cyclops that he blinded might have been no more than a one-eyed inn keeper he fell foul of. But there is no reason to believe Penelope either. ‘I’ll spin a thread of my own,’ she says, reminding the reader that weaving by day and undoing it by night was the way she tricked the suitors. ‘The two of us were – by our own admission – proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said.’ Quite so. I’m not sure Atwood ever establishes what Penelope was ‘really up to’, either.
The novella was mostly greeted with acclaim, critics praising its ‘wit, rhythm, structure, and story’. A few disagreed, one calling it ‘a piece of deliberate self-indulgence.’ I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but I was a bit underwhelmed by it. I found there was something a bit too clever by half about it. One of the things I really like about Atwood’s writing is her dry humour, but it just doesn’t work for me this time.
You can read more about Margaret Atwood here.