Penelope has been hailed throughout history as the loving, devoted, clever and faithful wife of Odysseus who waited patiently for twenty years for the return of her husband. She has her loom or sits by the window, waiting for her husband’s return. Published over fifteen years ago, and before the recent trend of retelling the Greek myths from female perspectives, Margaret Atwood’s 2005 work, The Penelopiad turns around everything we think about Penelope, whilst remaining true to the character written in Homer. Atwood collates a great many tales into one place to give the meek and patient Penelope a three-dimensional character. Rather than simply being Penelope, wife of Odysseus, she is revealed to be just as wily as her husband. We see her in relation to many people: her indifferent parents, her beautiful and insufferable cousin Helen of Troy, her unimpressed mother-in-law, her rambunctious teenage son, Telemachus, and most importantly, the twelve hanged maids.
The narration is from the perspective of Penelope – but not in her perpetual state of awaiting her husband’s return. Instead, she recounts her life from beyond the grave. There seem to be two characterisations of Penelope in the book: the clever but quiet Penelope as portrayed by Homer and worn by the living Penelope in the book, and the spirit of Penelope, our narrator, who is cynical and bitter. There always seem to be two sides of Penelope throughout the book, in every situation. As a reader we get her internal thought processes and the goings-on behind closed doors, but also the front she shows to the outside world – the front of the quiet, patient wife and the true, tactical queen.
No matter what happens to Penelope, the twelve maids are her constant companions, travelling with her from Sparta to Ithaca after her marriage. Besides being a frequent presence in Penelope’s recollections of her life, the maids form a chorus line, breaking up the sections of the narrative with songs, often with a cheerful tone but dark meaning. Their first chorus is a skipping song about their execution. They ironically skip over a rope while singing of how they hung from one, irksomely blasé about the topic. Atwood frequently distances the reader from the gruesome topics of The Penelopiad, having Penelope dismiss them as an inevitable fact of life, completely desensitised to the horrors. Conversely, this draws the reader’s attention to the violence women faced, and how normalised it was.
In the introduction, Atwood explains how she wished to explore the reason for the maids’ deaths towards the end of Book 22 of Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, the maids are hanged by Telemachus under the orders of Odysseus because they have been slandering Penelope and cavorting with the crowd of suitors. Atwood points out that the suitors, here the pinnacle of toxic masculinity and unpleasantness, were probably sexually assaulting the maids in the name of xenia (the laws of hospitality in Ancient Greece). She also makes their insults part of a plan masterminded by Penelope herself, further acquitting them of any crime. It is interesting to note that in the Odyssey, Odysseus explicitly tells Eurycleia not to wake Penelope to tell her that the maids will be hung.
Atwood has made a very interesting choice by making the maids into a chorus. It is of course a reference to the famous choruses of Greek plays which would comment on the action of a play. The maids’ interludes are mostly in verse, whereas Penelope’s narrative is prose. This seems reminiscent of the fact that the chorus lines of Greek plays were written in a different dialect and metre. The various songs the maids sing – a skipping song, a sea shanty, a lament, a ballad – develop into role-playing, videotapes, and a lecture as the book progresses, heightening the tension as we read on.
Atwood’s work brings together ancient and modern literary styles and completely revamps the image of Penelope. She is no longer two-dimensional and perfect, but a rounded, flawed human being. The book is engagingly structured to keep you turning the pages to uncover layer after secret layer of intrigue. For those who have enjoyed reading the works of Natalie Haynes and Madeline Miller, this is a perfect read.
Written by Fiona Macrae
Atwood, M. (2005), The Penelopiad, Edinburgh: Canongate Books.