The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is the third book in the Canongate’s Myth series which calls on engaging writers to re-imagine or re-tell classic myths of their choosing. I have previously covered Weight by Jeanette Winterson and A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.
The Penelopiad tells the story of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife Penelope; sort of. Obviously, Penelope doesn’t fight in the Trojan war or follow Odysseus on his trials and travails as he seeks to get back to Ithaca. Instead, Atwood tells the story of the wife who was left behind and the twelve maids who were hung upon his return. Both Penelope and the maids look back from the grave – or the afterlife in Penelope’s case – to tell their side of the story.
The twist Atwood brings to the story centers around what really happened during those twenty years Odysseus was gone and what role the maids played. In her introduction she makes clear she doesn’t trust the official version told in the Odyssey and that the hanging of the maids always “haunted her.” It seems clear that Atwood is trying to provide a more well-rounded portrait of Penelope than the simple patient and long suffering wife of legend or the devious slut of gossip and rumor.
In telling her side Atwood’s Penelope assumes the style of a celebrity tell all, but one with a good natured tongue-in-cheek tone. Penelope isn’t bitter but rather resigned to the reality of the way the world works.
And this is where the story breaks down to a certain extant. Atwood’s retelling of the story from a different perspective is breezy, witty, and interesting. Atwood leaves behind the gravity and epic adventure of the Odyssey. Penelope doesn’t take herself to seriously and she doesn’t hold out much hope that her side will get a fair hearing; but what the heck she’s dead and has a lot of time on her hands, right? This Greek myth meets People magazine style gives the story a comic dimension that the original version lacked
Beside making for an easy and enjoyable read, the change of perspective is illuminating. It is interesting to see things from the other side; to think about the impact Odysseus’s absence has on the people left behind. It is fun to speculate on what might really have been going on behind the scenes.
If this is all there was the Penelopiad would be a light hearted comic twist on a classic story. But Atwood seems to want to weave in a more serious element in the story of the 12 maids. This part really didn’t work for me.
Alternating between Penelope’s side of the story are interludes from the maids in the form of poetry, a Greek Chorus, an anthropological lecture, and even a modern day trial. In telling their side of the story Atwood is pointing to the unjust and often cruel nature of life in ancient Greece; particularly for a female of low birth. The maids call out from the grave for justice, accusing Odysseus, Telemachus, and Penelope of murder. At her introduction, and in the anthropology lecture, Atwood hints at some sort of feminist argument but it wasn’t really clear to me what that point is.
Instead, I found the the material surrounding the maids distracting. It is one thing for Atwood to include an alternate explanation for the maids behavior, and one that implicates Penelope, but it is another to try and combine a sort of comic re-telling of the myth with a morality tale about the maids. Some might find the various interludes creative and insightful – and some of them are – but I don’t think it adds anything to the central story while its tone conflicts with it.
But as I noted in my review of Weight, I don’t think this minor flaw detracts too seriously from the work. All in all, The Penelopiad brings a sharp wit and a fresh perspective to this classic tale. It is a quick and enjoyable read. Given what I have read so far, I will continue to follow Canongate’s thought provoking Myth series.