Recommended by my Classics teacher a while back, it’s taken me two years to finally get round to reading Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.
Atwood has become much more of a household name recently with the release of the hit TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, based off her book of the same name. She has been described recently as a feminist writer giving voices to the women of everyday and of history. The Penelopiad, too, fits into this description.
As the name suggests, it is the story of Penelope, the wife of the famous Odysseus, the man who fought in the Trojan War for 10 years and then wandered home for another 10, constantly beset by disadvantages. Homer and history gave us the Odyssey and the Telemachy (the journey of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, in the first 4 books of the Odyssey), and now Atwood gives us the story of the long-suffering wife, consigned to history, like most women of the time and many women now, without a voice.
In that sense, the book is excellent: it intends to show Penelope’s side, in a style which is simultaneously ancient and modern. Penelope is now in Asphodel, part of the Underworld, and is aware of modern life, but recounts her ancient experience. The novel is loosely written like a Greek tragedy, with chapters interrupted by the Chorus (a tragic convention), which is comprised of Penelope’s maids. The use of the maids gives another layer to the story, as the novel becomes not only the tale of Penelope, but of her maids, who meet an unfortunate end in the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus punishes them in a form of local, domestic justice, but Atwood offers another side to the story, giving the maids reasoning and justification which was denied them in a story focused on a central hero.
So, yes, the book is very good – it gives the women of the Odyssey a voice and dismantles some of the myths surrounding Odysseus, showing us what Homer did not. However, I don’t think it’s for me. I adore the Odyssey, and Odysseus, and I also love Odysseus’ and Penelope’s love story. I know it’s not all perfect (to say Odysseus was a bit of a player is an understatement), but I think that acceptance of his flaws come with understanding of the ancient world. Above all, the Odyssey is an epic, and epics contain heroic deeds and scenes of myth – that’s what made listening to them, and now reading them, so exciting. It was a taste of the extraordinary. But in Atwood’s The Penelopiad, she demystifies the Odyssey, the ordinary side of the myths casually explained. Penelope, instead of standing apart from other woman across time because of her patience and loyalty, becomes just another cynical wife.
I suppose that for me, The Penelopiad is all too real: the cynicism, the pain, the narration of Telemachus’s distrust of his own mother. And so, although it’s a good book, I don’t like it – I want myth and wonder and love. I want a little bit of escapism. (I suppose that’s why A Game of Thrones isn’t for me either!)