The Odyssey has long been my go-to example for phallocentric literature in the high school classes I teach. The story of wily Odysseus and his crew wandering the high seas for a decade after the Trojan War prototypifies a literature of masculine fantasy full of adventure, intrigue, and romance. While Odysseus explores the world, bedding nymphs and witches and having every kind of adventure with his boys, his wife Penelope is at home, faithful and chaste, raising kid Telemachus and keeping the would-be usurpers at bay. In short, the story of Odysseus licenses an entire tradition of phallocentric literature wherein the clever protagonist is able to duck familial and social duty and have a great adventure in the process. Think of Huck lighting out for the territory. Same deal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But as Margaret Atwood saliently demonstrates in The Penelopiad, her reworking of The Odyssey, there’s always another side to that story of masculine escape–and a price to that adventure, as well.
As its title suggests, The Penelopiad tells the story from the perspective of Penelope, a plain but clever girl, who–like Odysseus–must learn to live by her wits. Atwood, working from several myths, details Penelope’s divine parentage (she’s half-naiad), and her upbringing as a young maid in her father’s home. In an early key scene, Penelope’s father supposedly (the details are fuzzy, she admits) tries to murder her by drowning her, after learning that she will weave his shroud. This infanticide echoes the story of Oedipus, and also serves as a dominant motif throughout the story (it’s also twinned with a motif of eating meat–Penelope remarks at one point that she is just “meat” to be eaten). As the story progresses, young, shy Penelope slowly transforms from a naive gal with a chip on her shoulder about her preternaturally beautiful cousin, Helen, into a woman as wily as Odysseus himself. Atwood treats us to Penelope’s inner thoughts on all sorts of subjects, and even though Penelope claims to love Odysseus, it’s repeatedly clear how angry she is at not only him, but also her son.
While Penelope’s story is dominant, Atwood is very concerned with Penelope’s twelve maids, orphaned servants slain by Odysseus and Telemachus after Odysseus’ return. The maids serve as a chorus, interjecting their voice in short chapters written in a variety of styles, ranging from epic poetry to sea shanties to short skits. One of the most fascinating choral sections plays as an anthropological seminar, in which Atwood’s maids suggest that the real story of Odysseus and Penelope is in fact the displacement of a matriarchy by a wandering warrior. There’s also an inspired court scene where Odysseus is tried for killing the suitors, and the maids sue for justice.
Ultimately, Atwood paints the maids, poor orphans and slaves, as the real victims in this ancient tale. While Penelope complains that she is treated as “meat,” Atwood makes it clear that it’s really the maids who are treated as mere flesh to be consumed–slaves forced to clean, bodies subjected to repeated rapes. And while Penelope repeatedly expresses sorrow and dismay for the murder of the maids, complaining that their deaths were a result of tragic miscommunication, the maids have a different story to tell–one that ironizes much of what Penelope has to say. As the story progresses, we are frequently reminded by Penelope herself that she is a liar and storyteller on par with Odysseus and because of this insight we begin to realize that there might be something to some of the slanderous rumors she’s been protesting in her narrative. It would’ve been simple for Atwood to give Penelope a straightforward and strong voice, a voice that communicated the virtue classically identified with Penelope along with a feminist slant of insight. Instead, Atwood’s Penelope is far more complex and human, gossipy and spiteful, sympathetic and ripe for contempt. The Penelopiad ironizes not only The Odyssey (and the phallocentric literary tradition after it), but also itself; its a book that complicates our notions of history, memory, and identity, and it does so in ways both playful and profound. Highly recommended.