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The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood


Penelope and the Suitors,  John William Waterhouse (1912)

“I don’t want
to take these women’s lives with a clean death.
They’ve poured insults on my head, on my mother,
and were always sleeping with the suitors.”

He spoke, then tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship
to a large pillar, threw one end above the round house,
then pulled it taut and high, so no woman’s foot
could reach the ground. Just as doves or long-winged thrushes
charge into a snare set in a thicket, as they seek out
their roosting place, and find out they’ve been welcomed
by a dreadful bed, that’s how those women held their heads
all in a row, with nooses fixed around their necks,
so they’d have a pitiful death. For a little while
they twitched their feet, but that did not last long.

Homer’s The Odyssey

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a literary interpretation of The Odyssey, told from the perspective of Penelope and her twelve maid servants.

Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, was abandoned on the island for twenty years, awaiting his return from the Trojan Wars.  For the first ten years he was away fighting. However, it took him another ten years to reach home.  In this time, Penelope raised their son, Telemachus, and was besieged by suitors, who ate her out of house and home, raped her female servants and plotted to seize Odysseus’s throne.

I have never read Homer’s The Iliad or The Odyssey, but this certainly whetted my appetite for the story.  At only 196 pages, this is a easily accessible introduction to the tale, which Homer told through epic poetry; The Iliad focusing on the Trojan War and The Odyssey on its aftermath and Odysseus’s subsequent adventures, featuring characters such as Cyclops and the sirens.  Although not explicitly Feminist, this retelling focuses on a female point of view, giving voice to a character who was renowned for her faithfulness and shrewdness in the original, in an attempt to set the record straight.

The story as told in The Odyssey doesn’t really hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.

Introduction, Margaret Atwood.

The twelve hanged maids feature in the novel as a Greek chorus and Atwood’s story plays with the idea of scholarly interpretations, the nature of mythology, and the veracity of storytelling in her typically witty and enjoyable style.  The Odyssey itself emerged from an oral history tradition, which here is referred to by Penelope as “gossip”. This makes for an interesting read, which is more than just a straight retelling of Penelope’s life, but also an examination of the nature of mythology itself.