Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Marget Atwood

I'm always fascinated by retellings of existing stories, especially when the story is told from the perspective of a minor character. When I heard about The Myths series, "where some of the world's most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing," I was intrigued. Marget Atwood's The Penelopiad seemed like a great starting point.

I had initially expected the novel to be set in a modern time, based on one of the descriptions I read, and part of it is. Penelope is the main narrator and the novel opens with a dead Penelope reflecting on her life. The chorus is composed of the twelve maids who were hung by Telemachus for being involve with suitors and insulting Penelope and Telemachus. (If you're rusty on the plot of The Odyssey, the relevant parts occur in Book 22. Odysseus and his son, Telmachus, kill the suitors while a god makes Penelope sleep. Odysseus summons his old nurse, Eurycleia, who tells him about the maids that have gone along with the suitors and insulted Penelope and Telemachus. He forces the maids to clean up after the slaughter and dispose of the bodies of the suitors, then tells Telemachus to kill them with a sword, but Telemachus decides to prolong their deaths and hang them from a ship.) In the introduction, Atwood says that she was "always haunted by the hanged maids" and so in her retelling of Penelope's story, Penelope is haunted as well.

I think it's fair to admit that when I read The Odyssey, the fate of the maids didn't really bother me. Or, more accurately, it didn't bother me any more than any other part of Odysseus's homecoming, including slaughtering all of Penelope's suitors and the mutilation and castration of Melanthius, the goatherd who served the suitors. When it was brought to my attention, the treatment of the maids did seem fairly brutal and sadistic (especially since, as Atwood points out in the novel, the maids probably weren't given a lot of choice by the suitors), but Book 22 is basically one big gorefest otherwise.

Atwood also focuses on other mythology, including the fact that Penelope was the cousin of Helen of Troy and that Helen's father helped Odysseus marry his niece, Penelope, in exchange for his role in preventing a war between Helen's suitors. Helen plays a significant part in the story and is an overall unsympathetic character. Atwood's treatment of Helen seems a bit hypocritical, but I suppose that there's only so much room to revise characters and between making Penelope more proactive and less oblivious and portraying the maids as sympathetic, a sympathetic Helen just wasn't an option.

Using the maids as a chorus helps to make them more sympathetic, especially when their side of the story is given alongside Penelope's. In some cases, the technique does a great job of putting Penelope's side of things into perspective. For instance, Penelope seems very sympathetic when she talks about how Helen ruined her life by running away with Paris and causing the war that took Odysseus away. However, when the maid chorus follows and tells about how sleep is their only refuge from spending their days cleaning and working while being at the mercy of any man in the castle... Well, Penelope's problems seem bad, but not that bad. The fate of the maids also makes Penelope less sympathetic, since she was the one who instructed the maids to get close to the suitors to spy on them and her instructions led to their death. As much as Penelope grieves the maids and feels guilty about her role in their fate, she seems to have trouble seeing the maids as individuals rather than extensions of herself.

Atwood uses some interesting techniques in The Penelopaid, including the chorus of maids and a modern trial at the end of the novel, where the judge understandably a few issues with the fate of the maids, but refuses to pass judgment on Odysseus because he doesn't want to impose modern values on a hero from an ancient story, which is probably an interesting commentary on the fact that the fate of the maids is frequently ignored in modern discussions of The Odyssey.

Despite the subject matter, the book was a fast read and thought-provoking. I didn't necesarily agree Atwood on everything, but it definitely influenced my view of The Odyssey a bit. When I finally get around to rereading The Odyssey (and The Iliad...and The Aeneid...and, well, you get the picture), I'm curious as to how it will change my reactions and opinions of the overall work. Of course, I never found Odysseus to be terribly sympathetic, so I don't expect a major change.