My rating: 4 stars
Being a retelling of an Ancient Greek Myth, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood features various characters whose names are well-known. Penelope assumes the role of storyteller after her death and reminisces about the events of the Odyssey from her perspective. This novella lends itself to various interpretations. My main take on it is that it exposes how a patriarchal society puts women in conflict with each other. Some women are so used to live under the power and influence of male figures that they don’t even realise that they have been engulfed by it.
Penelope was the daughter of King Icarus of Sparta and a Naiad. Her father ordered her to be thrown into the sea because of a prophecy. Luckily, a flock of ducks rescued her. From then on, her father became much more affectionate. Her cousin was the beautiful Helen of Troy, whom she describes as vain, ambitious and an attention-seeker. She is snarky in her descriptions of her behaviour, as Helen was of her appearance. At the age of 15, Penelope was married to Odysseus, after he cheated to win a race for her hand. He managed to convince her that they were friends and that he reciprocated her loving feelings.
Although she is remembered for her fidelity to Odysseus during the time he was away fighting in the Trojan War, Penelope doesn’t want other women to follow her example. She never contradicted her husband and nor asked questions. Her outlook on life has changed after death. She was never as blunt when she was alive. So, she has decided to reveal her version of events.
“And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been?”
The narration of events by Penelope is enthralling. It feels like a real woman is telling the story of her life to people younger than her. She focuses on the main events and doesn’t stray too much from the topics at hand. However, at times, the book lacks details and dialogues to make it feel more substantial. The sarcastic tone of Penelope’s social commentary, particularly about arranged marriages, compensates for that negative aspect. Through funny remarks, she also conveys that, despite inhabiting the underworld, she is aware of the changes in the world of the living.
“In your world, you don’t get visitations from the gods the way people used to unless you’re on drugs.”
While Penelope is the main narrator, this novella benefits from also presenting the points of view of the Twelve Maids. They provide a different image of Penelope, helping to convey that she has flaws and that she still gives too much credit to Odysseus. Their perspective is shared through poems, prose with poetic rhythm and scripts for plays. They weren’t as content and well-treated as Penelope believes. A written lecture also establishes a connection between the creation of myths and the patriarchal society of Ancient Greece.
The Penelopiad is a short read, but it still manages to raise interesting questions. It doesn’t shy away from portraying a conflicting relationship between Penelope and Helen, which shows how women can be tremendously judgemental about each other, and gives a voice to the less fortunate Maids.