My mother always laughed off library fines as a donation to a good cause. She knew that it would have cost her a ton of money to buy all the books she’d checked out from the library over the years.
I’ve been told they’ve recently upped the CPL fines. Whatever. The Penelopiadwas well worth it. It’s a retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as several other myths. This version is told by Penelope with the twelve maids who were dispatched at the end of The Odyssey serving as the Greek Chorus – a Greek Chorus that chimes in with a ballad and a shanty, a play within a play, and a jump-rope rhyme.
I believe it was my junior year of high school in which we read The Odyssey and I think studying The Penelopiad alongside it would have been a tremendous idea. Far from being redundant, the two texts would have gone very nicely together. Because of the shift in perspective there is very little overlap between the two, and Atwood’s work might actually make The Odyssey more accessible to first time readers of Homer’s text. At the very least it provides some additional context for the story by drawing from other myths about some of the characters found in The Odyssey. Not to mention how interesting it might be to compare literary techniques from a text dating back to the advent of western literature and something rather contemporary.
I have a friend who thinks The Odyssey is sort of like Kill Bill Vol. II in that it is the better story of the two installments and can more or less stand on its own. While I’m not saying I disagree, I do remember being in class and thinking, “So what, we don’t have enough time to first read about the battle from which he’s returning?” Don’t get me wrong, I generally prefer a travelogue to a war story – I just don’t like feeling as though I have skipped a step.
In Atwood’s telling, Penelope credits Odysseus with his usual claim to fame of cunning and craftiness and talks up his story telling ability. Atwood gives us a Penelope that is his equal in both wit and narration. Penelope is ‘the smart one’ to her cousin Helen’s ‘the pretty one’. Sure, being ‘the smart one’ might not get you a TV miniseries, but I’d rather be the protagonist of an Atwood book any day.
Much of The Penelopiad focuses on the underworld. Penelope walks us through some of the routines in Hades and we get to see a few afterlife interactions between Penelope and some of the other major players from the story. Even in Hades Penelope and her hottie of a cousin Helen remain in conflict with one another. It is because of Helen that Penelope’s husband was called off to fight and their interactions are filled with backhanded compliments and sharp retorts.
There are those who keep their distance from Penelope in the underworld, like the twelve maids who were hanged by Penelope’s son Telemachus upon Odysseus’s orders to kill them. While they vengefully chase after Odysseus in Hades, they won’t get too close to Penelope who shouts after them with pleas to leave her husband alone. As distraught as she was over the murder of the maids in this telling of the story, she feels Odysseus has done his penance.
Atwood utilizes these maids to explore class issues and sexual violence, as well as bringing up the divine feminine in one of the Greek Chorus interludes which is titled “An Anthropology Lecture”. As difficult as it would be to find oneself in Penelope’s situation of relative isolation and powerlessness, life for the maids was about drudgery, rape, and real powerlessness. Through Penelope’s narration Atwood explores some of what wealthy women’s struggles have in common with the struggles of impoverished women, and through their Greek Chorus segments Atwood uses the maids to shed light on the differences between those struggles.
While familiarity with Greek mythology is not necessary to enjoy this book it is certainly an excellent choice for anyone who tends to nerd-out to myth, fables, and folklore. With a bit of history and myth and a lot of imagination Margaret Atwood has given us yet another wonderful read.
 Not to be confused with Pineappole, my pineapple plant. See image above.