THE PENELOPIAD by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s entry into the Canongate Myth series, The Penelopiad, seemed like an obvious addition to my reading list given my recent reading of Homer’s Odyssey and current reading of Joyce’s Ulysses.

From the book jacket:

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 rumours, 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?’.

Before I read Atwood’s book, I was curious about her contention that they killing of the maids was mysterious. It is clearly stated in the Odyssey that the maids who are killed were sleeping with the enemy, and possibly spies.

What Atwood does is simple, but brilliant: she gives a background and history to the maids, gives backstory and motivation for Penelope, and fills in the “she said” of a historical story taken for granted. It hadn’t occurred to me, I’m abashed to admit, that the supposedly treacherous maids who were sleeping with suitors might have been doing so without consent. Odysseus treated them like property, not people. Atwood, giving voice to these women, is a sort of posthumous, fictional justice.

I also appreciated the voice Atwood gives to Penelope. While Penelope appears as a strong, vocal presence in The Odyssey, she is given even more agency, even more power, in Atwood’s take.

Cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.

This is a short but powerful complement to The Odyssey.

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