The Penelopiad

By Margaret Atwood. Published in 2005.

Some parents worry about whether reading the original Grimm fairy tales to children is appropriate. My mother was not one of those people. In fact, she went a step further: She read Greek myths to my younger brother and me. Greek myths match Grimm’s violence and add sex for good measure. We grew up on stories of young women fleeing lustful gods, children cut down to punish their irreverent parents, and unfortunate mortals turned into bears, stags and trees by vengeful deities — and we loved it.

I always gravitated to the myths and legends about strong women, so Penelope, wife of Odysseus, both impressed and frustrated me. Penelope stood up to the legion of suitors who sought to win her hand — and her throne — in her husband’s long absence following the Trojan War. She put them off with clever deceptions and sheer will, but Odysseus simply didn’t seem worth the trouble to me. He was unfaithful, selfish and smug, and I felt quite sure that wise, loyal Penelope could do better.

Margaret Atwood seems to have similarly mixed feelings about Penelope, whose story she retells in The Penelopiad. A long-dead Penelope narrates most of the book and provides a sort of alternate history of Homer’s Odyssey. She insists, for example, that she recognized her husband immediately upon his return and that, in his absence, she asked her twelve youngest, prettiest maids to ingratiate themselves to the suitors and act as her spies. This is a critical point because the returning Odysseus ordered those girls killed for consorting with the enemy. Penelope insists that she didn’t know about the death warrant until it was too late, but the girls’ fate clearly haunts her, and as a narrator, she isn’t entirely trustworthy.

The dead maids serve as the chorus of The Penelopiad, interrupting frequently to bitterly lament their fate. Using them, Atwood ponders not only the gender issues one would expect but also issues of class. Penelope can resist the patriarchal structure of her society because she is royalty; the maids have no such advantages, a reality Penelope willfully ignores.

Despite these weighty issues, The Penelopiad is savagely funny and clever, not at all a dry, overblown treatise. In one imaginative scene, Odysseus is put on trial for ordering the maids’ deaths. The modern judge considers the their hangings unfortunate but does not wish to be “guilty of an anachronism” and therefore dismisses the case, carelessly accepting the defense attorney’s argument that Odysseus had the right to put the girls to death because they were “raped without permission of their master.” The absurdity of that twisted logic is nightmarish but darkly amusing, typical of Atwood’s habit of making her point with sharp wit rather than a bludgeon.

For all its cleverness, The Penelopiad doesn’t really stand alone. It’s an emotional and intellectual response to the classic myth, so those who aren’t already acquainted with Penelope, Odysseus, Eurycleia, Telemachus, Helen and the rest of the company likely won’t get much out of Atwood’s novel. But for those who do know the story, The Penelopiad is as challenging and insightful as a great doctoral thesis but much, much more entertaining.