The first Greek myth I was ever aware of was The Odyssey – aged seven, I went on a long car journey with some family friends who had it on an audiobook. Having come in halfway through, I remember sitting in a kind of confused rapture as I heard about the sirens and Circe and the crew turned into pigs. Penelope was only ever an extremely marginal character, barely considered while the action was actually going on and only important as an end goal. The archetypal dutiful wife, Penelope sat at home patiently waiting twenty years for her husband to return, running the kingdom, fending off suitors, sewing, and weeping, weeping and weeping. On its publication, many hailed The Penelopiad as a feminist retelling of Penelope’s story, but Atwood herself objected, pointing out that granting a voice to someone long unheard does not need to be an inherently feminist act. Still, in casting light on the tale of the One Who Stayed At Home, The Penelopiad does have a somewhat subversive feel – when Odysseus came home and cleared his home of all the suitors, he also hanged all twelve of his wife’s maid – just what exactly had the ever dutiful Penelope been up to?
Speaking from the afterlife as she wafts through a twenty-first century Hades, Penelope recalls her early family life in Sparta. With a detached kind of puzzlement, she details how her father was so very kind aside from the time he tried to drown her, moving on to her adolescence when Odysseus was able to trick his way into gaining her hand. Penelope was pleased with him, although her glamourous cousin Helen made fun of his comparative poverty and lack of height. Going against tradition, Penelope is taken back to her husband’s kingdom of Ithaca upon her marriage where she finds herself ignored and patronised by both her mother-in-law Anticleia and Odysseus’ old nurse Eurycleia. Still, she finds happiness in the birth of her son Telemachus – until of course Helen ruins everything.
There is a distinctly theatrical feel to this novel – very fitting of a story that is quite literally a Greek tragedy. Alternating chapters have the chorus of Penelope’s twelve slain handmaidens speaking in verse, and then Penelope’s own monologues to the reader would also not be out of place onstage. It did not surprise me to discover that such adaptations had indeed taken place – somehow I would imagine this being more effective than any attempt to take it onscreen. Not only are there numerous meta-fictional scenes featuring the maids but a major theme is about the unreliability of memory and the narrators themselves. Penelope is aware that her husband was a trickster and that little of what he said could be trusted and she has her own views on what he has been doing while ostensibly making his way home. She has had to play a dangerous double game to keep ahead of the suitors and manage the maids and has had to lie even to those close to her. As they speak in their chorus, the maids disagree with some of what is said and refuse to forgive Penelope for her complicity in their deaths. What is the truth of what has happened? Presenting this onscreen would lose the ambiguity. This is a story best fit for the theatre.
Like so much of Atwood’s fiction, Penelope’s main source of tension is with another woman – even in death, she is bitterly jealous of Helen, who wafts through the afterlife with a cluster of admirers still chasing after her. It is interesting that Atwood has chosen to reanimate Penelope – one would think that femme fatale Helen or bloodthirsty Clytemnestra would be more appealing – even melodramatic Cassandra. Penelope is the one who stayed home, the epitome of modesty, keeping the home fires burning, yet even this most domestic of women but Atwood makes it clear that her adventure has been no less than that of her husband. She has told no fewer lies than he, been no less deceitful or manipulative – far from being the saintly wife, Penelope is gossipy and spiteful, calling Helen ‘poison on legs’ and muttering snide asides. From the afterlife, she tells Helen that modern theories have it that the Trojan War was in fact over trade routes, while Helen snaps back that she should have gotten over her jealousy by now. Yet Penelope’s sorrow for the deaths of her maids and her constant pursuit of them across the afterlife, desperate to make amends, seems genuine.
A significant theme of the novel – novella? – is that of justice. The maids point out that they were the lowest of the low, that they had nobody to speak for them and that men did what they would. At one point, Atwood even conjures up a courtroom scene where the maids put their killers on trial. Penelope’s defence is questionable. They haunt Penelope and Odysseus across Hades, their deaths are something of which the great man can never cleanse himself, repeatedly fleeing his wife to be free of them. We sense Atwood’s sympathy for what the lives of their real-life counterparts must have been – raped with or without their master’s permission, disrespected, slaves all their lives, and then murdered. But yet, there still remains the suspicion over what was at the truth of matters. Emphasising that mythology was passed on via oral tradition and that definitive answers are impossible to find, Atwood has clearly done her research, never quite making explicit whether or not Penelope was unfaithful, or what was in the truth of her heart.
But some of the theories which flutter past within The Penelopiad are fascinating. The dream Penelope had immediately before her husband’s return, of the white geese being slaughtered, Atwood suggests that in fact her forboding was for her maids rather than the suitors. There is even the theory that the twelve maids represented a lunar cult, with Penelope at its head. Yet, the notion of the women as a feminist sisterhood rings false – the maids do not trust Penelope – Atwood is always suspicious of females in her work and this is no different. So much of the action of The Penelopiad mirrors what has happened within The Odyssey. Odysseus was never a conventional hero, relying on trickery rather than physical courage. Penelope was no less typical a heroine and may indeed have been more culpable than she admits here, but her story is well worth the hearing and the pondering. A mixture of poetic and playful but with shades of the piteous, The Penelopiad is a modern myth to remember.