The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is an imaginative re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey told from the first person point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’ long-suffering and patient wife. Interspersed throughout Penelope’s narrative are the songs of the twelve maids (the chorus) killed by Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca.
Atwood delivers some interesting twists on the original story. Penelope speaks to us a few thousand years after her death. Her phrases and references are current, and include, for example, a commentary on the recent rash of steroid use by athletes. She engages in several snide conversations with Helen, fueled by her jealousy and Helen’s narcissism. The twelve maids who meet their deaths were only following her orders to cozy up to the suitors in order to spy on them. She recognizes Odysseus from the moment he enters the palace disguised as a beggar but feigns temporary ignorance of his identity to better position herself.
Atwood provides some intriguing insights. For example, the twelve moon-maidens suggest their rape by the suitors and subsequent murder by Odysseus is a metaphor for the diminution of the great goddess and her cult. Accordingly, the maidens demand justice for the crimes perpetrated against them during Odysseus’ mock trial for the murder of the suitors.
This was an engaging novel told in brisk, accessible language. I enjoy re-tellings of myths, especially those told in the first person point of view. Atwood adheres to the skeleton of the original while providing interesting twists and perspectives to flesh out its female characters. Although I appreciated the feminist lens and commentary threading its way intermittently throughout the narrative, I didn’t think it shone far enough. I was disappointed there was no evidence of sisterhood, the bond of mutual support women frequently forge while living in the throes of a patriarchal culture.
Before and after their deaths, all the women in Atwood’s interpretation align themselves either with men or children. Their loyalties are never to each other. Penelope is resilient, enterprising, and quick-witted. While alive, she is thrust into an alien culture as Odysseus’ wife where she has to fend for herself with no support from her sisters. Anticleia is hostile toward her; Eurycleia treats her like an incompetent appendage whose sole function is to produce male offspring for Odysseus; and Helen thrives on ridiculing her and fueling the petty jealousies that characterize women who vie for the attention of the all powerful male. Penelope’s only tools for survival are subterfuge, deceit, and the pretense of stupidity. The closest she comes to feeling the bond of sisterhood is with the 12 maids. Unfortunately, they end up paying dearly with their lives for the privilege.
It would have been refreshing to see some evidence of sisterhood, of women supporting Penelope during her ordeal both in life and beyond the grave. But it’s quite possible the absence of sisterhood is intentional, suggesting the tools available to women to counter the effects of a male-dominated culture will remain limited until women learn to support each other.