There is nothing like a good retelling of a canonical work. As arguably one of the most canonical works, Homer’s Odyssey has been adapted and retold many times in many ways, from the film O Brother Where Art Thou? to James Joyce’s amazing (and canonical itself) Ulysses. Margaret Atwood contributes to this tradition with The Penelopiad, a look at the events of The Iliad and The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope. As she wanders through the many levels of Hades and (often amusingly) encounters old acquaintances, Penelope gives us her take on the epic. She recounts how she felt about Odysseus, from the start of their arranged relationship through his long absence. She offers her own account of what happened at home in Ithaca over those twenty years without her husband, paying particular attention to the years the suitors descended and how, with the help of her servants and maids, she was able to keep them from overwhelming her. In telling Penelope’s side of the story, Atwood offers a completely new way of looking at Homer’s epic, making me question what I know and how I feel about this story that is so much a part of our culture.
The image of Penelope as put forth in The Odyssey and its countless subsequent retellings is almost invariably the same: she is the loyal, steadfast wife who patiently awaits her husband for twenty years while he wages war, makes a name for himself as the wisest king, battles monsters of land and sea, and beds nymphs and sorceresses galore. I always imagined (with the help of a TV movie or two) that the only thing that kept Odysseus going and Penelope from succumbing to her dangerous suitors was their undying love for one another. But, as most feminist retellings do, The Penelopiad completely changes the outlook of the original source material. Gone is the romance between Odysseus and Penelope, the image of Odysseus as the ultimate hero of wisdom and morality, the loving mother-son relationship between Penelope and Telemachus. Odysseus, though wise and brave to a degree, owes his heroic reputation more to his cunning and shrewdness than to deep wisdom. He uses these powers of persuasion and craftiness in their own marriage, which is certainly not based on the love and trust of Homer’s telling and the idealistic retellings. It is an arranged marriage of convenience in which Penelope will always only be the second place prize to her cousin Helen. Penelope does what she does not because of an undying love for Odysseus or a reverential obligation to her new kingdom, but because it is what is forced upon her as a woman.
Penelope’s is not the only voice we hear in The Penelopiad, however. Also narrating is the set of twelve maids who were loyal servants to Penelope throughout her husband’s absence, only to be murdered upon Odysseus’s return for liaising with (aka being raped by) the suitors. The hangings of these women are seldom discussed; with all the violent deaths and adventures of The Odyssey, how much do the deaths of these servant girls matter? Atwood, it seems, took issue with this absence of discussion and fittingly included it with her story of Penelope. These maids, in the tradition of the Greek Tragedy, act as the chorus collectively offering their thus far silent account of events through ballads, poetry, and plays. As Penelope is continually haunted by their violent hangings, the maids serve as a constant reminder of the place of women in their time – and, even more so, the place of women servants.
I often have a hard time reading revisionist works, especially when it comes to stories or books I love. Whether it is a reworking of a fairy tale or Jean Rhys’ reimagining of Jane Eyre, I don’t always want see my idealistic perception of the story or its characters changed (even if it becomes more truthful). And yet, I do read these reworkings and almost invariably enjoy them. Usually, despite my initial misgivings or natural aversion to changing my opinion, I end up better appreciating the original text and developing a much more well-rounded understanding of it. I think that is the importance of these kinds of works; to widen the conversation on classic texts by bringing certain aspects of them to the forefront and making us take a closer look. The fact that The Penelopiad does so much to change how I see these characters and the myth itself speaks to the power of Atwood’s writing – and her talent for shining light on the cracks in the epic that were hidden, but not invisible.