It’s is Alicia Ostriker, in her wonderful collection of essays Dancing at the Devil’s Party, who writes “the true poet is necessarily the partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire, and is opposed to passivity, obedience, and the authority of reasons, laws and institutions.” Daring to deconstruct one of the most dearly held myths of the Western world, Margaret Atwood’s 2005 The Penelopiad is certainly a tango step or two with the one with the pitchfork tail. Taking The Odyssey and turning it on its head, from comedy to tragedy, Atwood gives readers Penelope’s side of the story.
Narrated from Hades, The Penelopiad is a recounting of Penelope’s life from beyond the grave. Atwood utilizing not only The Odyssey but also Robert Graves’ monumental The Greek Myths as well as other historical material, the woman’s recollection of her life covers not only her time with Odysseus (or at least waiting for him), but her childhood, demise, marriage, relationship with her son Telemachus, relationship with her father, and relationship with her maids—maids hung by Odysseus and Telemachus. So while a sympathetic character arises from the shadows of history, there remain others whose light is diminished.
A brief work, Atwood does not dwell on the legendary journey of Odysseus, instead presenting story through Penelope and the twelve dead maids’ point of view. The two-decade wait not a drawn out affair, his absence, return, and unmasking all receive equal stage time alongside her youth, death, and reflections on society as seen from Hades. Featured between the chapters of Penelope’s narrative, the twelve hanged maids, also in Hades, sing, perform theater, and write poetry—their victimhood foremost on their minds, which spices the story with a variety of delightfully dark humor.
A sparkling on water, The Penelopiad is written in beautiful, brisk prose. Deliciously poetic, Atwood’s skills as a stylist are on full display. In the early going Penelope describes her communication situation in Hades:
“The difficulty is that I have no mouth through which I can speak. I can’t make myself misunderstood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongues and fingers; and most of the time I have no listeners, not on your side of the river. Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams.”
There are a couple holes in The Penelopiad, however. The copious weeping is never explained. If Penelope’s love for Odysseus was so common, i.e. not burning a hole in her soul everyday even when he was around, why then two decades of tears while he was away—two decades? Also, some bits that defy the female-with-agency are conveniently legerdemained. Case in point: Penelope is miraculously drugged amidst authorly hand waving by her elderly housekeeper, and therefore unable to prevent Telemachus’ hanging of the twelve maids. And there are a couple of other events glossed over that may have interrupted Atwood’s thematic outlay.
In the end, The Penelopiad is a brash deconstruction of the Odysseus myth—Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus, even Helen not immune to Atwood’s cutting wit. The Iliad and The Odyssey commonly held as the classic tragedy/comedy dichotomy, Atwood subverts the latter until it too is a tragedy. The agenda apparent in the offing, the commentary is politicized along gender lines and calls into question Odysseus’ status as intelligent, caring husband. Cleverness a two-edged sword, he is portrayed as a deceiver who lets his ego get the better of him, the women in his household suffering directly and indirectly as a result. Written in wonderful prose, the book comes highly recommended.