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Thursday, November 26, 2009

"The Penelopiad" by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (2005, 198 pages)


Last week I read my very first Margaret Atwood novel, The Hand Maiden's Tale.  I loved it and at once began to look for a second Atwood novel to read.  I wanted to read either Oryx and Crake (I have a fondness for dystopic visions at times) or Alias Grace as  it was suggested as my second Atwood by long time readers of her work.   I went to the second biggest shopping mall in the world, SM City North Edsa to see what books I could find.   I did not find either of the books I wanted but I did find The Penelopiad, the back cover said it was a retelling of the story of Odysseus from the point of view of his wife Penelope and her maids.     It seemed like it would be fun and creative at the very least.  It also looked like it might be an interesting book for The Women Unbound
Reading Challenge.   It turned out to be a very good purchase.

Everyone knows about Odysseus, the central character of the Odyssey.   He married Penelope, cousin of Helen, when she was 15.       The Odyssey is considered, among many other things, to be perhaps the first  the story of the use of human intelligence to deal  with and solve problems.   Odysseus was the king of a minor country in ancient Greece, who may or may not have existed.   In an arranged marriage that was basically a business deal he married  the then 15 year old Penelope, cousin of Helen.    The Penelopiad told from the point of view of Penelope with her maids as a kind of Greek Choir commenting on the story.    It has been a long time since I  studied Greek Drama but the Chorus is sort of allowed to say the unsay-able, to tell the audience the "real story".

Penelope is none to happy about going to Ithaca, Odysseus's kingdom as it is a remote backward place compared to the home of her father, King  of Sparta.    She is only 15 and her maids have given her very confusing accounts of what will happen on the wedding night.   She is consumed by jealousy over the beauty of her cousin Helen.   She leaves Sparta with Odysseus and take up residence in the palace at Ithaca.    She has brought along one of her maids, a slave of course, for company.   The slave soon dies.    Penelope and Odysseus develop a close relationship.   She has issues with her mother in law who does not want to lose her position as the most important woman in her son's life.  There is an old maid, another slave, who in her youth wet nursed Odysseus, who really runs the house hold.   When ever Penelope tries to do anything or learn anything about running the household the head maid tells her basically "don't worry your pretty head about this just contemplate what fancy clothes you want to wear tonight".   

A son is born of the union, Telemachus.   The event is celebrated as a wondrous happening and all care is given to the son and the mother.   The maids see it a bit differently.

For his birth was longed-for and feasted, as
ours births were not.
His mother presented a princeling.   Our various mothers
Spawned merely, lambed, farrowed, littered..
We were animal young, to be disposed of at will,
Sold, drowned in the well, traded, used, discarded when bloomless.
One of the chapters is entitled "Helen Ruined My Life".   A prince of Troy, Paris, a notorious womanizer and his brother are on a state visit to Sparta.  Odysseus has sworn loyalty to the king of Sparta.   Paris seduced Helen, sounds like an easy thing to do as Penelope lays out her super vain character, and takes her back to Troy with him.   The king of Sparta declares  war  on Troy when Paris will not return her.   Odysseus leaves to fight at Troy.    The war lasts ten years.   The Trojan horse was the idea of Odysseus.   The trip back to Ithica takes ten years.    During these twenty years Penelope learns to run the kingdom.   She learns everything from bargaining with other kingdoms to how to raise swine.   Her son Telemachus grows to be a teenager and become rebellious.    She has no idea if Odysseus lives or not.   Sometimes she hears news of him.   Some times she hears he has been eaten by a monster, then next week she will hear he is living with a Goddess on an exotic island.    In the mean time an army of suitors for the presumed widow descend on Ithaca.   They begin to deplete the resources of the kingdom.  Penelope picks her 12 favorite maids, young girls who have been her slaves since birth, to spy on the suitors.   Some of them end up being raped by the suitors.  (Rape is defined in the world the maids are in as having sex with a slave woman without permission of her master.   Rape was a crime against the property of the male owner of the slave women, not against them.    It was common for visiting dignitaries to be given female company but any contact without permission is a great insult to the master or mistress of the slaves.)   Some of them end up in love with the suitors and some remain loyal to Penelope.   We see Penelope begin to assert herself for  the first time.    We see how women are seen as property.   We hear the suitors, many in their late teens and early twenties, joke about the prospect of sleeping with Penelope.   The basic idea is marry her and do what you must then you get all her property and can have all the slave girls you want.  Penelope at first had  a hard time ordering the slaves about.   Her mother likewise had problems with directing the work of slaves but was not above killing them when they annoyed her.   

Penelope becomes a shrewd household manager and begins to intervene in the running of the country.   Her mother had taught her to behave like water, the water that will wear down a stone.   A lot of the story is taken up with class conflict.   When Telemachus sprains a leg numerous doctors are called in.  When a slave child is ill a business decision is made whether to drown him in the well or spend the funds to try to cure him.    The worse enemy of the attractive slave maids turns out to be the once beautiful but now aged former wet nurse of Odysseus.   Most people know the basic story of Odysseus and I do not want to give away much of the plot action.

The story is told from the world of the dead where Penelope and Helen both now reside.   A very funny scene occurs when Helen takes a public bath in order to show off her body to the men in the underworld.   Penelope says what is the point they cannot do anything now but Helen says she is just being kind to them.   

The Penelopiad is for me well suited for inclusion in the Women Unbound Reading Challenge.   It shows Penelope growing from a totally helpless 15 year old to a woman of 35 with many capabilities.   She must still act like she is deferring to men.   When Odysseus returns (this is not a spoiler as it is on the back cover of the book and many will know it anyway) he kills the suitors and slaughters the maids.    Why he feels he has the right to slaughter the maids brings out the central feminist themes of the book.   Just like as in The Handmaiden's Tale, there is a incredibly clever change of narrative mode in which the maids give a lecture to a modern audience of male Anthropologists which is an explicitly feminist reinterpretation of the life of the maids and their death.   It has to be read with an ear for irony, not as a statement of dogma.



I am not sure if I like this or The Handmaid's Tale more.    The Penelopiad is easy to read and a lot of fun.   I would really say read both of them.   I am very glad I read these books.   The Penelopiad is a very creative interpretation  of the Myth of Odysseus.   It is funny, perceptive, the chorus of the maids is a superb  device and is a great account of class differences among women in a world in which all women were property.    Even the treatment of Helen shows a woman using her looks to get what she wants.   She seems a slave to her own vanity which is validated for her by the number of men killed in her name.   That vanity is  the vanity of  a woman who gets all their self worth from the admiration of men.   Her husband did not start the Trojan war because he missed Helen but because his property was stolen.  

I have created a Reading Life Badge in honor of the Women Unbound Challenge.

I will be reading Atwood on a regular basis now.   I will look for Oryx and Crake or Alias Grace as my next read.  The stores here have Blind Assassin and Cat's Eye but that is all the Atwood I have seen so far.  

Mel u

10 comments:

The Literary Stew said...

So glad you are enjoying Atwood. She is brilliant! I haven't read all her books though. Besides Alias Grace, I also liked Cat's Eye which told from the point of view of a child. Fascinating!

Suko said...

I am very impressed by the Reading Life Badge you created for The Women Unbound Reading Challenge!

The premise of this book sounds interesting and you've published another excellent review. I hope to read some Atwood soon.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Table Talk said...

This is on my list of books I must read. I've had problems in the past with Atwood, but I really like the idea behind this series and hope it might be a way in to a (for me) difficult writer.

Thomas at My Porch said...

Mel, so far you have read one dystopian (Handmaid) and one retelling of a Greek myth. She has lots of non-traditional novels to choose from: O&C and The Year of the Flood are two more dystopian, Blind Assassin has a sci-fi book within a book, Alias Grace is historical fiction. It will be interesting to see what you think when you get to some of her more typically accessible novels like The Edible Woman and The Robber Bride. Although, come to think of it they are pretty unique as well, but the context makes them less "out there" than some of her books.

Madeleine said...

I just "LOVE" Margaret Atwood, she has never disappointed me and I read many of her books

claire said...

Definitely read also The Blind Assassin and Cat's Eye. Loved both.

ds said...

I enjoyed this book also; Penelope is a fascinating character. Glad you enjoyed it! My choices would be Blind Assassin and Alias Grace, to start--check out her short stories, too. Bluebeard's Egg is a great collection. Thanks for your review.

Aarti said...

Great review, Mel! I read Penelopiad when it first came out and really enjoyed it. It's the only Atwood I've ever read, though I also have Blind Assassin on my shelf to read.

I also really appreciate your explanation for how it fits into the Women Unbound challenge- a lot of people just say books fit into the challenge, but sometimes it's hard to see exactly why they think so. You make it quite clear- thanks for that!

Sakura said...

I've been intrigued by the Canongate Myth series of which Penelopiad is one. I've read Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin which I loved so am looking forward to reading this one which seems to turn a story we all know well into something new. A brilliant review.

JoV said...

Ok I changed my mind.

I'm going to ditch Cat's Eyes and Blind Assasin and zoom straight to Penelopiad as my next Atwood read!

Based on your review. I'm sold!