My senior year of high school, I took a class on Greek Mythology. I loved it and it introduced me to The Odyssey, my favorite of Homer’s ballads. The Illiad has a bit too much war for my tastes – Odysseus always entertained me on his adventures. Although I had to think he could have hurried home a little faster and dallied with the goddesses along his route a little less. But, since it was ancient Greece, I always gave him a little more leeway than usual.
Penelope has always been a fascinating character to me. I knew we weren’t getting the whole story. A woman that clever and brave deserved more than a faithful wife tribute and suspicion heaped on her by history. So I was excited when I discovered Margaret Atwood’s fairly recent The Penelopiad, The Odyssey told from the point of view of Penelope. I was not disappointed.
Atwood’s Penelope is finally telling her story from the underworld after centuries of time to reflect on her life and legacy. Her tone is cynical and resigned. She understands the world she lived in but resents it more now it seems. She paints a picture of a husband she could never trust, of a home that was foreign and unwelcoming to the young bride and of ten years of waiting for her husband to return after the war, during which the suitors torment her, her son turns against her and she unwittingly allows the deaths of her twelve most trusted maids.
I particularly liked Atwood’s use of the maids killed by Telemachus and Odysseus as a Greek Chorus throughout the story. It is clear these maids haunt Penelope in the underworld but they also haunt the story, as a sort of Greek chorus/vaudeville act. I laughed at the chapter during which the Maids are filming the ‘court case” of Odysseus and when he is found not guilty, they invoke blood rites, sending the modern-day judge into confusion. These are women who were doomed from birth because of their status in the palace and later because of the aid they give secretly to Penelope in thwarting the suitors. As the story closes, they have still yet to receive their justice.
Can I also just say I love that there is a chapter entitled “Helen Ruins My Life”? Helen has never been my favorite character from the myths – she was clearly a selfish, stuck-on-herself kind of woman if she was willing to incite a second war based on her beauty. Penelope also has never loved her cousin, the woman she would always be compared to and found wanting. She reminds the reader that Odysseus had first fought for Helen’s hand but had failed and, only through trickery, could he gain Penelope, a woman who would forever then wonder if her husband thought only of Helen when he looked at her, his wife. Helen was completely unlikable in this re-telling; it was delicious.
While this is more cynical than I would re-tell it as (I always kind of adored Telemachus and the fact that he comes off badly in this book is sort of heartbreaking), it is at all times interesting and thought-provoking. It reminds me of how male-focused the original was and by giving the story to the female character who was closest to it, how very different the story could be.