The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

    The Penelopiad offers a reimagining of The Odyssey, the iconic work of Homer that mothered

    Western literature as we know it. Published as part of the Canongate Myth Series, in which authors

    reworked traditional myths, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad offers a voice to Penelope, the faithful,

    abandoned and bereaved wife of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, whose action-packed homecoming is

    the main subject of The Odyssey.

     

    The chief characters in Atwood’s novella are, in a nutshell, rather disappointing. She depicts

    Penelope as spineless and Odysseus as conceited, attributes that were already evident in Homer’s

    original work. Although it is an innovative and plucky move to offer the narration from Penelope’s

    perspective, it would have been novel to have portrayed a more feisty and quick-witted heroine.

     

    Atwood importantly focuses on the hanging of Penelope’s twelve maids, who betrayed Odysseus’

    household by entering into illicit relations. In Atwood’s version, Penelope encourages the maids into

    these affiliations so that they might learn more about the household’s enemies and thus use this

    information to Penelope’s advantage. Yet Penelope never defends the maids before Odysseus, never

    scolding him for killing them without referring to her, never justifying their actions to her seething

    husband. It seems perverse that The Penelopiad offers a feminist adaptation of The Odyssey without

    a real spoken defence of the female cause by the protagonist. It is the chorus line of maids, however,

    who offer this vindication, as discussed later.

     

    One must recognise, however, that Atwood could not significantly modify the timeless text due

    to The Odyssey’s literary magnitude. By transferring the subjective ‘I’ to Penelope, Atwood simply

    offers a fascinating sneak-peak of what could have gone on in their home when Odysseus was both

    with Penelope and away at war. She is, therefore, brave in her choice of myth.

     

    Atwood does importantly offer an opportunity for the defenceless maids to speak by interspersing

    Penelope’s narrations with songs and skits performed by the maids. Atwood designs the novella

    to mirror the style and form of Ancient Greek literature and, specifically, tragedy. While treating

    Penelope as the main action, she transforms the group of maids into the Chorus, a traditional

    element in Greek performance. While Classics buffs would appreciate this literary relevance of

    Atwood’s form, and the Chorus providing the study of women’s inferior role in society, all readers

    can enjoy the interludes. This structuring gives the text a great variety and dynamic while exploring

    the recurrent theme of women’s role in a Patriarchal society.

     

    While Atwood is not entirely successful in offering a feminist defence, therefore, she does offer

    a wonderful rewriting of The Odyssey. Even if you haven’t read any Classical texts, this novella is

    a quick read, packed with action, interesting suggestions and nods at a variety of literary forms.

    Atwood writes in a modern style, giving Penelope the voice of a modern woman, thus giving readers

    a thoroughly modern read. I would, however, strongly recommend reading The Odyssey before or

    after The Penelopiad; what do you think of Atwood’s alternative?

     

     

     

    Reviewed by Lucy Richards

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