While Odysseus was gone twenty years fighting the Trojan War and then trying to get home to Ithaca, his faithful wife Penelope deflected her many rowdy suitors by endlessly weaving and secretly unweaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Upon his triumphant return, he slays the suitors and hangs twelve handmaids who disrespected him by slandering him and sleeping with the suitors.
Little is said in The Odyssey about Penelope and the maids beyond their use as symbols demonstrating the virtues of womanly patience and modesty while condemning women and/or servants for demonstrating autonomy.
Wondering about the story of Penelope and the maids, Atwood has written The Penelopiad, a tale narrated by Penelope from Hades with a chorus provided by the maids. Penelope traces her life from childhood, when her father tried to kill her by throwing her into the sea, to Odysseus’s return, killing of suitors, condemnation of the maids, and to her dealings in the afterlife. The interactions she has with individuals from Ithaca in Hades are quite funny as are the rare comments she makes on today’s society.
The maids, functioning as a traditional Greek chorus, comment on Penelope’s narrative, and through their stories and poems present a different version of events leading to their execution.
Margaret Atwood is among my top five favorite authors, if not my very favorite, and here it’s taken me almost fifteen years to read The Penelopiad. I might have been avoiding it because I’m not that interested in Greek and Roman mythology. That attitude was unwarranted. Like all of Atwood’s novels, it’s a romp. I tore through the book, completely enjoying the reading experience, finding Penelope interesting, the writing exquisite, and the chorus constructions quite fascinating.
Given the two different accounts leading to the hanging of the maids–and the vivid image of their twitching feet–not to mention the separate account told by Homer in The Odyssey, the book opens a window on how inaccurate ostensibly authoritative accounts can be and casts doubt on the reliability of narrators. It also indicts class systems, showing the depravities the maids endured just because they were not born to wealthy or noble families. I wish there had been more about Penelope’s decision to remain faithful to Odysseus who was described as charismatic but not particularly trustworthy.
I would recommend not having the same attitude I did toward The Penelopiad; it’s a fun and quick read with intriguing themes. I should have known that Margaret Atwood wouldn’t have let me down!