Reviewed by Lucia Bernardo firstname.lastname@example.org
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is a novella which re-tells the story of Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’ dutiful and faithful wife who waited in Ithaca for twenty years while Odysseus fought in the Trojan War and voyaged back home. The novella also takes on the perspectives of twelve of Penelope’s maids, who were raped by Penelope’s suitors and were eventually sentenced to death by Odysseus and Telemachus for their “disloyalty.” The novella is divided between a first-person prose narrative of Penelope’s experiences – from her marriage to Odysseus as a girl to the years spent waiting for Odysseus’s return to Ithaca to her afterlife in the Underworld – and a selection of poems, songs, and dramatic sketches, all told from the perspective of and “performed” by the chorus of the twelve hanged maids.
As a book, The Penelopiad is an entertaining read. Atwood writes the character of Penelope in a witty, contemporary voice while incorporating historical aspects of the original Odyssey and of ancient Greek culture and religion. Because the story is recounted by a present day Penelope while she is in the Underworld, Penelope is given access to contemporary language, references, and cultural perspectives while telling the story of her distant past. This means of recounting the story gives us as readers a unique insight and access point into the story of Penelope and the Odyssey and asks us to view an ancient myth through a modern feminist lens. This lens also allows us to look at the original story with a highly critical eye. Never is this critique more apparent than in Atwood’s retelling from the perspective of the twelve unnamed maids. In one of the novella’s first chapters, the maids tell us, “We too were children. We too were born to the wrong parents[…]If we wept, no one dried our tears. If we slept, we were kicked awake” (11). Atwood presents a stark contrast between Penelope, a princess of Sparta and the eventual queen of Ithaca, and the twelve maids, women who are enslaved by Odysseus’ family and who go unnamed in the Odyssey, being referred to only as “disloyal” and “whores” by Telemachus.
In Atwood’s novella, the maids form a Greek chorus, and Atwood intersperses prose chapters written from Penelope’s perspective with chants, songs, and reenactments performed by the chorus of maids, paying homage to the traditional storytelling role of the chorus in ancient Greek dramas. Atwood’s maids often seem to form a singular entity of the chorus: frequently, they speak in unison, and their stories are not told from individual perspectives but rather from a communal perspective using the “we” pronoun. They remain unnamed, except for one, Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks. While this could be read as Atwood’s recognition and critique of the way the maids are stripped of all individuality and identity in the Odyssey, and the upper classes’ failure to recognize the humanity of the poor and working class, I wish Atwood had committed to “retelling” the story of the maids as much as she did with the story of Penelope. While Penelope is given the voice, perspective, and autonomy that she is denied in the Odyssey, the maids are still denied individual identities and are instead reduced to the role of “chorus,” the tellers of other people’s stories. Although Atwood takes steps to acknowledge the vast differences that class, status, and privilege afford women – Penelope is remembered as a successful heroine and perfect wife, while the maids are known only as a group of “whores” – and even holds Penelope somewhat accountable for her role in enslaving these women, I wish that she had spent more time delving into the perspectives and stories of individual maids instead of reducing them to a singular chorus entity.
The Penelopiad also details the apparent rivalry between Penelope and her cousin Helen, who is the more beautiful of the two, but, in the novella, comes across as vapid, vain, and straight-up bitchy – a clear foil to Penelope’s quiet, intellectual, and modest persona. In her review for Quills and Quire, Heather Birrell writes, “But while it is true that Atwood never shies away from staring down terrible acts of misogyny, she has always refused the notion of a de facto sisterhood between women[…]If Atwood’s Odysseus comes off as a bit of a dope, Penelope’s cousin, the ravishing homewrecker Helen, emerges as the more villainous of the two, described as ‘poison on legs’ and ‘that septic bitch.’” Throughout the novella, Penelope blames Helen for going to Troy with Paris and starting the war which would lead to Odysseus’s long absence. The chapter in which Odysseus goes to war is even titled, “Helen Ruins My Life” (The Penelopiad 55). However, the novella never mentions that in the myth, Helen is actually abducted and raped by Paris. This omission makes Penelope’s disdain for Helen seem warranted, instead of problematic and incredibly misguided, which it actually is, considering Helen was a victim of kidnapping and not, as Penelope believes, a homewrecker.
On top of this, while I usually found Penelope’s character intriguing and thoughtful, her disdain for Helen came across as judgmental “not like other girls” syndrome. Penelope punished Helen for being beautiful and openly sexual and for subscribing to traditional “feminine” stereotypes, but she (Helen) never actually did anything wrong or villainous. I wish that Atwood had at some point acknowledged the misguided nature of Penelope’s hatred for Helen, perhaps near the end of the novella. But instead, the author seemed to take Penelope’s side throughout the entire novella, creating what seemed to me to be an unnecessary and not-so-feminist feud between two women, neither of whom had done anything all that wrong to the other.
While The Penelopiad was an entertaining read and a mostly successful feminist reimagining of an ancient patriarchal myth, it missed the mark on certain points, especially when detailing the experiences of women who are not Penelope. It is also important to note that the novella was published in 2005, and that in 15 years the mainstream discourse surrounding intersectionality and the inherent sexism of many imagined women-on-women feuds has changed drastically. I might recommend this book to a class of high schoolers learning about Greek mythology, as it is wholly entertaining, accessible, and humorous, and an easy read, and it offers an important and refreshing alternative perspective to the myths that we already know so well, the viewpoints of which are outdated (by thousands of years) and sexist. I would include a trigger warning for rape, execution, and general misogyny and violence – which is enacted by pretty much every male character in the novella. I would also use this novella as a jumping off point for discussions about feminism and gender roles, and, in a class of high schoolers, would use it to have a discussion of not only where the book succeeds in offering a feminist perspective, but where it misses the mark, and what we can learn from that.
Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. New York, Grove Atlantic, 2005.
Birrell, Heather. “The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus.” Review of The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Quills and Quire, 21 Oct 2005. https://quillandquire.com/review/the-penelopiad-the-myth-of-penelope-and-odysseus/