In a much-forgotten episode at the end of Homer’s Odyssey, twelve maids are mercilessly hanged for doing what they had to in order to survive. Penelope, unraveller of shrouds and refuser of suitors, who patiently waits twenty years for her husband Odysseus to finish fighting and shagging his way around the Aegean, tells their story, and hers, in this radical feminist reinterpretation of The Odyssey.
From the Greek underworld of Hades, Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, recounts all the regrets of her virtuous, lonely life. After a miserable childhood in Sparta, during which her father tries to drown her and her Naiad mother is too busy splashing about in fountains to notice, Penelope marries Odysseus and is packed off to Ithaca to be a queen in name only. The Trojan War happens, and Odysseus’ ten-year-long dilly-dallying in reaching Ithaca leads to the invasion of an army of suitors who proceed to eat Penelope out of house and home. When Odysseus returns, he purges his house of the suitors who have spent the past decade trying to coerce his wife into marriage. He also murders Penelope’s twelve maids, whom he accuses of collusion with the suitors. Serving as a ghostly chorus in the manner of Greek theatre, these same maids routinely interrupt Penelope’s story to sing Gilbert and Sullivan-esque songs of Odysseus’ sexual exploits, and condemnatory reflections on their own gruesome, unjust fate.
Penelope’s life and situation resemble those of many women, both ancient and modern. She is a plain, intelligent woman in a country full of men who are only interested in the sultry beauty of her bitchy and unbearable cousin, Helen of Troy. Incapable of believing any potential husband’s talk of her beauty, Penelope resigns herself to being seen as a disappointing version of Helen. This pattern repeats itself throughout her life. Isolated in childhood, she is undermined, in her married life, by her in-laws, Odysseus’ formidable old nurse, Eurycleia, and eventually, by her own son, the petulant and unimpressive Telemachus. The only person that she feels some kind of affinity with is Odysseus. He treats her kindly; he doesn’t fall asleep after they make love, preferring instead to tell her stories of his adventures…then disappears for twenty years. Then the suitors arrive, and Penelope is unable to get rid of them. It is in telling us why that Atwood departs the most dramatically from Homer and gives The Odyssey its vital infusion of feminism.
Homer presents Penelope as a woman with loyalty and a certain degree of cunning. What she doesn’t have a lot of, however, is agency. She likes sitting around crying, and weaving things, a brief interlude in the adventures of her more glamorous husband. Homer does not allow her to be good for much else: she is a woman. In Atwood’s vision, however, Penelope takes some time off from weaving and crying to learn about governance, trade and farming, and to run Odysseus’ country for him until he returns. A lesser writer might have seized the opportunity to turn Penelope into Cleopatra and make her avenge the restrictions placed on women, using sex as a political weapon and showing all those old-fashioned dudes that women can rule too. Instead, Penelope’s power and desire to use it do not come from self-confidence, but from her deep-set insecurities about her marriage.
Before competing in the games for Penelope’s hand, Odysseus was one of the many suitors of Penelope’s cousin Helen (her again!). This fact causes Penelope much anguish despite her husband’s questionably sincere claims that she is enough for him. Thus, when Odysseus goes missing, Penelope takes over his kingdom not to show the boys how it’s done, but in order to see her husband come home, take her in his arms and murmur ‘You are worth a thousand Helens’. This intelligent stroke of the pen reminds us that feminism does not come from a place of power, but of powerlessness, and that it is not only the girls with swords who are fighting. Penelope, for example, lacks the political power to get rid of the suitors herself and thus has to undermine them in any way she can. Her solution lies in the twelve maids whom she has raised from childhood. While their previous role was to succour and wait on their mistress, and to provide solace in her time of need, they now work as spies who pretend to support the suitors in order to steal information from them. With this development, Atwood effectively blasts the myth of resigned Penelope out of the water and turns her into a woman of considerable political acumen, if not power.
Atwood is masterful in her portrayal of the deep bond between women. Penelope’s anguish is palpable when some of the maids, throwing themselves into their new spy role with gusto, are raped for no better reason than their gender and their social standing. Penelope cares for the raped maids herself, with a great deal more solicitude than other women expect of her, and she does not depart on a revenge mission against those maids who find themselves falling in love with the people they are meant to be spying on. The maids’ care of Penelope is also heartwarming in its evident sincerity. The episode when the maids help Penelope to unravel Laertes’ death shawl every night in order to avoid her choosing a new husband is a genuinely touching portrayal of sisterhood, and coloured with just the right contrast between fear of discovery and joy at their deceit. It is this care for their mistress, however, that signs the maids’ death warrant, and all Penelope’s care of them, and theirs of her, is swept brutally away beneath the tide of men who are thirsty for blood and are never made accountable for that thirst. In this way, The Penelopiad can teach us much about the pandemonium that always results in season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale whenever women try to break out of any kind of patriarchal mould. Torture, disfigurement, and death are the inevitable consequences of non-conformity, no matter how noble one’s intentions.
Written in delightful modern English, with such apt chapter titles as “The Suitors Stuff Their Faces”, The Penelopiad is a worthy feminist destruction of The Odyssey‘s quiet and resigned Penelope. It is a dark, yet funny book that sweeps away the myth of the sword-wielding “strong, female protagonist” and replaces it with a much more human story of a woman transformed by hard necessity and the women who are the unwilling casualties of men with a talent for violence.