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Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad was first published in 2005 as part of the Canongate Myth Series. The idea was for contemporary authors to reimagine famous myths in a modern way. Surprisingly, The Penelopiad was close to not making a feature due to so many failed attempts.
As the title suggests, Atwood adapts Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, as well as her twelve maids who are hung, speaking from the dead. As Coral Ann Howells states, The Penelopiad expands ‘Homer’s text, giving voice to this group of powerless silenced women.’ By reframing the epic story in this way, Odysseus’s actions lose their grandeur and we look at them in a more moralising way. Nowhere is this more true than when Penelope tells of how she had heard of Odysseus with other women, namely the goddess Calypso: ‘she’d fallen in love with him and was feeding him unheard-of delicacies prepared by her own immortal hands, and the two of them made love deliriously every night’. The focus no longer rests on Odysseus’s captivity and his inability to return home, but instead on his promiscuity and lack of loyalty to his wife. We now sympathise not with a man at conflict with Poseidon, but with a woman who has to deal with the jealousy induced by being replaced with a goddess.
Gabrielle Neethling has stated that Atwood’s Penelope has a voice of ‘a woman waiting at home.’ However, this seems more apt of a description of Homer’s passive, distressed Penelope than Atwood’s. It seems more appropriate to say that she is, as Atwood herself says, ‘holding the fort’. Penelope tells us that ‘Now I was running the vast estates of Odysseus all by myself’ and that, after gaining a certain dexterity, it ‘was a source of pride to me when my swineherd would come to me for advice.’ . Here, Atwood taps into a feminist viewpoint that has existed throughout history: in the absence of men, women are capable of the same work, and can find fulfilment within such work.
However, The Penelopiad is not just a revisit of ‘The Odyssey as ‘herstory’’. It is equally concerned with our attitudes towards narrative. Not only does this stem from Atwood reclaiming the epic genre from its usual adherence to masculine hero stereotypes – Penelopiad (derived from Iliad) as opposed to Odyssey – but also in her reflections on which narrative we specifically adhere to. Parts of Odysseus’s story come through the medium of ‘songs’ and ‘rumours’, each with more stories which conflict. Had his men eaten a ‘magic plant’ (the lotus flower in the original) and lost their minds, or ‘got drunk’ and ‘had mutinied’? These conflicting rumours run throughout The Penelopiad and force us to question, as with other works of Atwood, how the dominant narrative came to be, and whether we can trust it.
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