Genre: Myth, Feminist
Narrative style: first person with Greek chorus
Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2015 – genre rewriting myth
Synopsis: Penelope is left behind when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan Wars. He is then gone for ten years. Penelope has to deal with the rumours about his behaviour and all the suitors who try to convince her he is dead. She cleverly keeps them at bay by sewing and then undoing the shroud she is making. On his return, Odysseus slaughters the suitors and hangs Penelope’s maids, an act which haunts Penelope yet.
I have a fair understanding of The Illiad and know the story of Penelope fairly well. (I researched it when teaching the Carol Ann Duffy poem about Penelope in The World’s Wife, another fab rewriting of the story.) So I was quite excited to see what Atwood would make of it. I was not disappointed.
Atwood’s retelling starts in the fields of Asphodel with Penelope dead and haunted by the death of her maids. She still sees Odysseus (who is still able to trick her into thinking he will stay with her forever) and Helen who she hates. She then begins to tell her story.
Atwood’s Penelope is strong and clever but loses out to the stunning good looks of her cousin Helen. Intelligence in a woman is not appreciated. She has to deal with her mother-in-law who does not approve of her and Odysseus’s nurse, Eurycleia who thinks no one knows Odysseus like her. But she survives through her wit and with the support of her maids.
She sets them to work, like a spy network, to discover what the suitors are really planning. This leads to them being raped by the suitors and Penelope tends them kindly although she does not stop them spying for her. Some of them, she feels, are like her own children. She is closer to them then her son, Telemachus who is little more than a bundle of testosterone and muscle. Ultimately, this is their undoing. As when Odysseus returns he deals with them, second only to the suitors.
The Greek chorus is used to give a different side of the story. Often the chorus is made up of the maids who feel they know the truth of the situation. At one stage, the chorus becomes a modern day court room and Odysseus is put on trial for the crimes of killing the suitors. The maids then appear and demand justice for themselves as well. The scene quickly descends into chaos as the ancient legends mix with a modern court scene.
Finally, it is suggested that Penelope may have been part of a matriarchal goddess cult and so may actually be a lot more powerful than The Iliad gives her credit. Atwood addresses the double standards of the original story – Odysseus is adulterous but expects Penelope to remain pure, for example but the narrative is never merely preachy. Atwood’s women are always complicated and Penelope is not completely innocent, being herself complicit in the deaths of her maids. This is made apparent by her inability to lose them even in death. They follow her around, making forgetting impossible.
Overall, this was funny and clever, typical Atwood in a lot of ways. But really, I wouldn’t have chosen to read this if it was’t Atwood and while it was interesting, Greek myth isn’t really on my list of areas to read about.