My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Length: 198 pages
Release date: 5 October 2005
In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids.
In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.
But I’ve always been of a determined nature. Patient, they used to call me. I like to see a thing through to the end.
When considering favourite characters from classical mythology, it’s rare to gravitate to Penelope. After all, she’s passive and bland at best, more a paragon for Ancient Greek wives (your husband might disappear for twenty years and shag every goddess he sees, but make sure you keep your head down and your mouth shut while you await his return!) than an actual personality you can get behind. Margaret Atwood’s job then is of course to give this neglected figure her own quiet depth, to make Penelope the star of her own show.
As far as reclaiming a misogynistic tradition, I’d call this novella quite successful.
Simply put, there were a lot of things that spoke to me. That I thankfully live in a very different world from Penelope’s didn’t impede my empathy for her measured resilience. She feels frustratingly powerless even as she gives her own side of the tale. Even in a novella that borrows its name from her, Penelope is so little allowed to be herself, always painfully aware of the constraints placed on her as queen of Ithaca. I wanted to scream for her. Which, I guess, is the point.
Then there were the maids’ chapters, in the style of a Greek chorus, arguably even better than Penelope’s narration. The way that Atwood links Penelope with the twelve hanged maids sheds light on a detail of the Odyssey that’s always eschewed in favour of battles with cyclopses and face-offs with Circe when the story’s told to kids. Despite the extent to which classical mythology is sanitised in various ways, Atwood doesn’t hesitate to remind you that there’s no justice in Penelope’s world.
At less than 200 pages, there is a brief feeling of ‘is that it?’ by the novella’s stoic conclusion. I was left wanting more rather than less. Working with a style of retelling that can easily become dragged out, Atwood’s Penelopiad amounts instead to a quick, insightful read cutting straight to the soul of its heroine. If only Penelope could have been more than what they made her.