There is something about old stories that keeps us going back to these same wells: stories build on legends which are built on myths, which are themselves built on archetypes. So it is not surprising that this trend of retelling and reinterpreting our oldest tales through our own eyes has continued into the twenty-first century.
The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s rereading of the Odysseus cycle through the eyes of his wife Penelope. Her research took her beyond the text of Homer’s Odyssey, which has taken on a ‘canonical’ status it certainly never would have in ancient times. She drew on other ancient sources and tellings, which provide her not only with additional information and backstory, but also some intriguing stories which cast the familiar characters in quite a different light from what we are used to.
The Penelopiad‘s greatest strength is the clear voice of its protagonist, narrator and namesake. From the opening pages, Atwood has provided her heroine with a genuine and fully fleshed-out personality: strong, vital, vulnerable, and as quick-witted and clever as depicted by Homer. Telling her tale from her perspective today, thousands of years after the events she relates, Penelope is wise yet still haunted by her mistakes. She deeply understands and loves her husband but remains indignant at his slights and seems frustrated at herself for putting up with his wandering ways even still. It is this depth and nuance of character that makes Atwood’s Penelope so engaging.
The mistakes which haunt Penelope even four millennia later surround her twelve servants who are slaughtered with the suitors upon Odysseus’ return. These are the locus of the second story Atwood is trying to tell, which she does not only through Penelope’s eyes but also through the girls’ own voices, in periodic choral interludes. If Penelope’s tale is one of the sadness and regret of one trapped by her circumstances, the maidens’ is one of those completely powerless and voiceless; their only recourse is the good favor of their mistress, which itself becomes their downfall.
With the two stories taken together, The Penelopiad becomes the tale of those left behind, those whose stories were not thought important enough to remember. This is of itself interesting. As a male, I must admit that, having read The Odyssey on two occasions, I never noticed that Penelope’s story was missing, and I simply chalked up the awful treatment of the maidens to “the times” and didn’t give it much thought otherwise. Thus for me, Atwood’s drawing attention to Penelope — whose treatment in Homer is sympathetic, praiseworthy but still ultimately an afterthought — and her humanizing of the maidens was very helpful and thought provoking, making me wonder whose stories might we also be missing through the veil of male-dominated literature. At the same time, towards the end — particularly in the maidens’ so-called anthropological lesson — the tone became forced and ultimately counterproductive. I believe the story she tells is powerful and evocative enough to stand alone. Like so many other writers, it would seem Atwood was not content to create thought-provoking literature but felt the need to tell her readers how to think about it.
In all, this was a very enjoyable read, and one that will keep me thinking for years to come about the stories which aren’t recorded or remembered, the stories of those who, like Penelope and the maidens are left behind by the “real” story.