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Book Review of ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margret Atwood

Recently, I read ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margret Atwood and found myself captivated by Atwood’s use of Penelope’s perspective in this feminist retelling of ‘The Odyssey’. Homer’s infamous epic was written by men and for men and so often ignored its female characters, giving them little depth. However, The Penelopiad is centred on one of the most influential women in ancient literature and her story. Much like The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood’s most famous work, The Penelopiad isn’t one-dimensional and the reader finds themselves sympathising with Penelope and her maids whilst simultaneously being tormented by their circumstances.

Throughout the Odyssey, Penelope is a passive character who is defined by her relationships with men (known as the wife of Odysseus and mother of Telemachus) and idealised as a good wife. Perhaps what is most exasperating about the myth was that to an ancient audience Penelope was revered as the “perfect woman” due solely to her fidelity in marriage. Within the Odyssey, Homer continuously highlights the double standards for men and women: “you [gods] are outraged if a goddess sleeps openly with a man even if she has chosen him as a husband”. Women (even goddesses) were not allowed to sleep with men outside of marriage, whereas married men were excused to sleep with women. This concept is reflected by Penelope’s fidelity and Odysseus’ infidelity which remains heroic rather than disgraceful. In ‘The Penelopiad’ Margaret Atwood utilises a contemporary vantage point to expose the powerlessness of ancient women, who were marginalised by their male counterparts, exploring agency and injustice.

Interestingly, the novel takes place in the Underworld with the deceased Penelope as narrator. Penelope frequently mentions herself observing the modern world which could be interpreted as Atwood’s way of suggesting a timelessness to the powerlessness and injustice in patriarchal societies. She is often a character who observes injustice but doesn’t have the means to rectify it (she can’t do anything about the suitors and can’t help Telemachus), and Atwood ensures that this lack of agency is echoed in her novel as the only thing she can do is a narrate her side of the story. This not only evokes sympathy from the reader but also a sense of empowerment as she is a major key figure of mythology that is finally gaining agency. The narrative of this momentous piece of literature is vital as it steps away from a male dominated viewpoint, bringing a breath of fresh air.

It could be argued that the only lacking aspect of the novel is how the relationship between Penelope and Helen was presented. Although they are cousins, the novel frames their relationship as toxic: Penelope envies Helen’s beauty and demonises her promiscuity whilst Helen dislikes Penelope’s modesty and willingness to conform to the role of obedient wife. This characterisation exemplifies degrading labels given to women as being either prudes or whores. Certainly, Atwood is pointing out the difficulties of women’s existence in patriarchal societies as they pit them against one another to literally compete in order to gain any standing in a male dominated world. Nevertheless, this relationship was a chance for Atwood to form a connection and present a sympathetic friendship between these characters who are both objectified and belittled. In Greek mythology Helen is similarly misunderstood and confined as she is blamed as the“face that launched a thousand ships” and is characterised as the gera (prize) of war. I wish that Atwood would have included at least one female friendship in the novel, but instead our solitary female protagonist has to battle with another woman who shares her degrading experiences as a woman.

However, there is no denying of Atwood’s talent as seen by her astutely interrupting the storyline every few chapters with a chorus sung by the maids, reflecting the structure of Greek plays. This creates an eerie but intriguing atmosphere as it reminds the reader of the sad, unjust deaths of the

maids. This chorus features different genres of songs each time including: a lament, a jump-rope rhyme, an idyll, and a ballad. In ‘The Odyssey’, the maids death were justified by their complicity to adhere to the suitors violation of xenia such as indulging in sexual relations with them. Significantly, Atwood challenges this injustice by incorporating their helplessness in the narrative and stating that “[the maids] were not royal queens, but a motley and piebald collection, bought, traded, captured, kidnapped from serfs and strangers”.

For ancient audiences heroic justice is justified, so Odysseus was correct in killing the suitors but Atwood questions whether this heroic justice can be applied to the maids. This draws attention to the fact that most of the relationships that occurred between the maids and suitors were a result of rape and therefore were unfairly enslaved and objectified. Atwood encourages the reader to sympathise with their plight as their maltreatment is a result of their lower social strata. Atwood portrays the differences in class as a factor that limits female agency and friendship with higher class, more privileged women like Penelope.

Overall, I would really recommend this novel as it gave me a fascinating insight into Penelope’s character as it forces you to question Odysseus’ morality and think about how we (as a modern audience) can interpret ‘The Odyssey’. The Penelopiad is just one example of a modern feminist reading of classical literature and other authors such as Jenifer Saint, Madeleine Miller and Helen Morales are great to get stuck into.

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