Let’s be honest about it: from my point of view, Atwood + Greek myths = one enjoyable narrative; perhaps that is why I am happy to revisit it. Commissioned as a part of a series of re-told myths, the Penelopiad is a modern myth that presents Penelope’s version of the ancient story which Homer epically immortalised in his Odyssey. Millennia later, Atwood lends a timely voice to an often overlooked character who ‘Now I’m dead, I know everything.’
First of all, the novella is funny: a healthy mixture of satire, irony and observational humour. As the text opens with the central character’s dramatic monologue to address, and to appeal to, the imaginary chorus of its readers (this is a classic Greek story after all), one cannot help but indulging in a smile, a grin, a chuckle. Atwood’s Penelope, the wife of that Ithacan hero Odysseus who spent long years waiting for his return from Troy, is wonderfully self-deprecating and candid, if by nature of the narrative (much like the myth she retells) unreliable. After all, she ‘was smart, … very smart’. Nonchalant and witty, she is recounting such facts of life, prior to much of a notion of women’s liberation or equality was even born, as arranged marriages in which a woman becomes a mere ‘package of meat’ (‘in wrapping of gold, mind you’ in her case) and vies for male attention ‘like a prize horse on parade’. What a wonderfully worded mockery of human folly! (Like I said, this is the voice of ancient Greece across millenia: audience response is the holy grail of every performer.) An attack with a broad and well-practised (if somewhat bitter and defensive) smile. Penelope’s story of the faithful, perpetually waiting, ‘weaving’ wife whose posthumous fame and popularity by her own admission suffers by those very virtues is effectively reflected against the backdrop of the modern day world as she observes, and ridicules, the new meaningless beliefs, pursuits and idols.
Atwood judges the tone with fine ear: where the continual soliloquys would have been exhausting for a modern reader; excessive pathos perceived as insincerity and the physical imposing qualities of unified chorus misunderstood, Atwood opts for outwardly light-hearted, media friendly confessional and a mixture of forms reminiscent of West End. The post-modern experimenting with form itself reflecting the stories, the myths we prefer to keep us entertained. The depiction of hell as a ‘spectacular establishment … with fiery pits … and great many special effects’ is particularly diverting. One could almost feel as if it is not Penelope who should exclaim with the power of hindsight ‘What a fool he made of me’ when recapping Odysseus’ plentiful and fantastical adventures such as ‘a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops’(‘No, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper.’ ) It is us: the readers, the modern chorus indeed. Typically for Atwood, The Penelopiad gives voice to the voiceless, to ‘the other’, to women. Equally, typically for Atwood, this is not where the purpose of her narrative ends; Atwood’s world is not the world of clear cut polar binary opposites. Much as Penelope as the narrator reflects on Odysseus’ gift of persuasion and manipulation by realising ‘that everyone had a hidden door’ and using this to his advantage, she also openly includes a reflection of female jealousy and stereotypical notions of remaining deliberately blinkered, accepting and hoping for traditional ‘happy endings’.
Personally, the not so flattering portrayal of femininity by Atwood, who could be after all considered a feminist writer, is one of the strengths of the novella. This is not a text in which all women are ultimately victims and all men vilified. Atwood does not shy away from including traits (while not suggesting that they are stereotypically female characteristics) such as the propensity for gossip, female rivalry, passivity or attention seeking. It is indeed the eponymous heroine of the title, despite being repeatedly praised for her intelligence, who comments on the fact that Helen was ‘beautiful, of course’ and not only calls her ‘the septic bitch’ but also keeps to herself the thought ‘that Helen should have been kept in a locked trunk in a dark cellar because she was poison on legs’ due to ‘her deranged lust’. Similarly, whilst Penelope is shown as repentant over her miscalculated actions towards the twelve hanged maids which could be said to have been driven by self-interest as much as isolation and frustration, Atwood does not decisively defend, nor excuse her.
This unashamed reflection on female interaction and sense of self is also one of the main elements to create a profound effect on the reader. In her own pursuit of happiness in the face of adversity, Atwood presents Penelope as at the very least partially blind to the realities of the existence of her maid servants. She may lovingly call them ‘My snow-white geese. My thrushes, my doves,’ the triplet accentuating their innocence as well as implying her assumed (and established) ownership of the slave girls due to her status; in her loneliness, in hindsight, referring to them to be ‘almost like sisters’. Yet, while the Penelope’s dramatic monologues may be defensive, they also irrevocably suggest guilt. Bitter guilt over self-serving motives which led the character to befriend and look after the maids; nightmarish guilt as ‘several of the girls were unfortunately raped’ in the process of fulfilling Penelope’s plans; the maternal guilt of failing to protect the innocence of the girls who ‘too were children’, children born to and removed from the ‘wrong parents’ due to their standing in the society.
Beyond a doubt , the marginalisation of ‘the other’, a frequent theme in post-modern literature, dominates Atwood’s novella. Ultimately, Penelope’s version of Odyssey is a story of an archetypal woman living in a world that makes decisions around and about her but whoever’s decisions they are, they are ‘not mine’. This image is extended through the maids to present people who ‘had no voice … had no name’. Even though the humour makes the text entertaining, the inescapable fact is the criticism of society and the historic as well as the modern modes of its operation. Atwood’s use of intertextuality could be seen as simply giving a voice to a historically underrepresented ‘other’: the women. However, I would argue that The Penelopiad comments on the state of the world as such and its ‘trademark hypocrisy’. The (unreliable) myth of Odysseus and Penelope becomes a ‘stick used to beat other women with’ to shame and control; the idealistic symbol of Helen of Troy pigeonholes the perfect woman as the epitome of beauty, sex, and ominous end; the vulnerable an opportune scapegoat. Perhaps it could be seen as cynical but it does seem somewhat convenient for Penelope to be repentant in the underworld and reflective over the ‘actions [which] were ill-considered, and caused harm’; especially as she is isolated and forgotten, more than in her assumed human life, to epitomise simply Atwood’s intent of female representation.
Nevertheless, however flawed the human race may be, the awaking voice of societal conscience and justice is looming. The voiceless masses ‘demand justice,’ albeit through aggression of ‘blood guilt’ and calling upon ‘the Angry ones’. The (ancient) gods and idols are ‘bored’ or dead (have we killed them?) and if we perpetuate obsolete belief systems, or keep on buying into new fabricated ones, ‘you’ll believe all sorts of nonsense’. I guess the modern Greek myth aims to remind us that it really is up to us, all of us. The twenty-first century this may be but the Angry ones are watching us and they are not coming ‘down from the ceiling’.