Adventures in Reading

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
January 10, 2008, 12:37 pm
Filed under: book reviews, fiction
Now that I’m dead I know anything.”

I am rather rapidly making my way through Canongate’s Myths series and just concluded another: Marget Atwood’s The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus. I was particularly interested in this one as my own experience with Homer’s The Odyssey left much to be desired. The first time I read The Odyssey I was a sophomore/junior in college and my course instructor was very traditional and not at all open to alternate interpretation of the text.

That is, my instructor embraced a patriarchal interpretation that was at least sexist if not misogynistic. This was difficult for me as it regularly butted against my blooming feminist awareness and I had just concluded Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman. Stone’s text very briefly comments on Helen and when I brought this information to my instructor I was more or less told that these modern ideas were silly. I took this, particularly as I was so excited about a different interpretation, as being called silly myself.

Atwood reinterprets The Odyssey through the eyes of Penelope and her twelve maids. While Odysseus was having his adventures on the way back from war at Troy, Penelope had her hands full at home. Through a historical lens, Penelope is often viewed as the perfect wife and she diligently waited for her husband to return while doing her best to preserve his property and raise his son. During Odysseus’ absence, scores of men move in to do their best to marry Penelope.

Penelope often seems almost pathetic but certainly passive. Atwood’s The Penelopiad encourages a more invigorating reading of The Odyssey on the behalf of Penelope. Penelope tells her story from the Underworld, but in a modern period. She has watched her story develop and be told and retold through the centuries and finally tells her take on the story. However, despite the subtitle of The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus, Atwood’s retelling is far more about Penelope and the twelve maids that Odysseus and his son hang at the end of The Odyssey.

When Odysseus returns he has the nursemaid from his childhood point out those slaves that were disrespectful in his leave. Odysseus’ and Penelope’s son hang all twelve of the women. Now, in Penelope’s retelling she spends a great deal of time in discussing her relationship with the maids. Atwood takes this opportunity to represent the nameless maids who were cold bloodily killed.

The Penelopiad was a delightful read and a terrific addition the Canongate’s Myths series.

Also another review of The Penelopiad from Books I Done Read.


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