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The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Virtuous Wife Gets Her Say

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"Penelope at her Loom" - by Sidney Meteyard

Penelope, the faithful wife of shrewd Odysseus, is dead. 


Now she can tell her story. 


The woman glorified for her steadfastness to her delayed and philandering Trojan war hero husband tells the tale from her own perspective. 


It also tells the story of the twelve maids who were hanged (according to their ghosts, unjustly) when Odysseus returned. 


We meet Penelope in modern-day Hades, where she still wanders the Underworld trying to avoid the murdered suitors who courted her, and being avoided by the twelve maids who slept with the suitors to gather information (or were they raped?). The girls were served patriarchal "justice" upon Odysseus' return for their perceived disloyalty. 


The maids' stories are interspersed with Penelope's first-person narrative, and each chapter with the maids acts much like a Greek chorus in the ancient plays. The types of narratives vary in that their story is told in everything from a iambic pentameter poem to a sea shanty to a mock court trial. This unorthodox literary device might jar the reader a little, but given the maids' harsh treatment, I think that's part of the plan. The effect is a slightly trippy and phantasmagoric counterpoint to Penelope's matter-of-fact storytelling.


Penelope's story is more linear and direct, inasmuch as it's being told by a dead person. She resents being used as "a stick used to beat other women with" all these centuries. Her impetus is that she didn't much like how Homer portrayed her, and wants to set the record straight. She rejects the exalted role of the perfect virtuous wife that Homer saddled her with and shows that she was just a woman trying to survive in a time and place where that wasn't easy under the best of circumstances. 


And her circumstances were by no means the best. 


Married off at fifteen due to a rigged contest for her hand, she finds herself surprisingly happy with her clever and persuasive new husband at first. But he is soon called off to war, spending ten years fighting and another ten years trying to get back to his island of Ithaca. Along the way, the man lauded for marrying his virtuous wife manages to have a few sexual liaisons with minor goddesses, which holds up his progress home even more. 


Fidelity to one's spouse was a one-way street, apparently. 


Penelope's disdain for her cousin Helen, whom she calls "intolerably beautiful" and blames for ruining her life, arises from the fact that the Trojan War would never have begun had Helen not run off with Paris. Helen is portrayed by Penelope as vain and horrible; a cruel beauty who measures her own value by how many men died for her.  


But for Helen's insatiable thirst for admiration and her infidelity to her own husband, Odysseus would not have left Penelope to run Ithaca and raise their son Telemachus alone. The years of fighting off the drunken and avaricious suitors would never have happened. 


And mostly, she would not have witnessed the hanging of her beloved young maids ("For a little while their feet twitched, but not for long").


She puts a witty and completely different spin on many of the adventures in the Odyssey. She reminds  us that Odysseus was not just the cleverest of men, but an accomplished liar, too. She tells us that, for example, the fight with the cannibalistic Cyclops was really just a bar fight with a one-eyed bartender, spun into a heroic yarn that had little to do with reality. 


The prolific Atwood, famously known for so many great books like The Handmaid's Tale, produces a humane and entertaining retelling of one of mythology's most famous marriages. Acerbic, lighthearted and haunting by turns, The Penelopiad is both a satisfying and though-provoking read. 

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