Margaret Atwood’s short novel The Penelopiad, a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope. With the help of the Twelve Maids, the story becomes a delightful romp. Atwood offers a quasi-Greek drama, with the narrative split between Penelope and the Twelve Maids, who serve as a chorus. Penelope’s voice is deeply ironic, which offers the reader a whole new perspective on the hero Odysseus and on Penelope herself as the archetypical faithful wife.
Characters and Irony
Atwood uses not only Homer’s Odyssey but also certain critical issues that surround that work, along with her own questions about Homer’s treatment of Penelope and the Twelve Maids, to mine the ancient material for a wide range of humorous possibilities. The son, Telemachus, is a spoiled brat. The faithful old servant, Eurycleia, is an interfering busybody, referred to as “the trusted cackle-hen.” The chorus of maids enters regularly, performing in a different genre each time—a rope-jumping rhyme, a lament, a popular tune, an idyll, a sea shanty, and so forth. And though Penelope maintains her iconic role as innocent and faithful wife throughout, the truth of her narrative is undercut by her own ironic tone and by various accusations made by the chorus along the way.
A View from Hades
One of the most enjoyable moves Atwood makes is to place Penelope in Hades while she tells the tale. The opening line of the book is “Now that I’m dead, I know everything.” This allows Atwood to make two additional narrative moves that add humorous layering to the tail. In Hades, Penelope meets various other characters from The Odyssey, including Helen, the cause of all Penelope’s troubles, one of the suitors slaughtered by Odysseus, and the Twelve Maids. Additionally, she narrates the story from current time, contemporary with the reader, a fact the reader only gradually becomes aware of, which allows her to make ironic comments about our times, her times, and times in between.
For readers who are familiar with Homer’s Odyssey and who enjoy an ironic and iconoclastic voice, The Penelopiad will be a fun read. It’s quite different from Margaret Atwood’s better known and more serious work, but it’s vintage Atwood nonetheless.