Monday, May 21, 2012

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: A review



My daughter, the classicist, is always recommending to me books that are based on ancient texts. She is also a huge fan of Margaret Atwood. The Penelopiad then combines two of her main interests and she eagerly passed this short book along to me. It could be read at one sitting, although I read it over a couple of days. It was a pleasurable read, for Atwood is an excellent writer.

The story of Odysseus is well-known from Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey. The story of Penelope, the faithful and long-suffering wife to the unfaithful Odysseus, is less well-known. Her story is tangential to the adventures of the trickster and hero Odysseus as related by Homer. Here, Atwood undertakes to tell of the events of Homer's epics as seen through the eyes and experiences of women - namely, the faithful Penelope and twelve of her maids.

The story is told by Atwood in modern times. We find Penelope, nearly three thousand years after the facts of her story, in Hades, along with all the other actors in the epic. She encounters them from time to time as she wanders through the realm. The first line of Penelope's telling of her story is "Now that I'm dead I know everything." In the 196 pages that follow, she proceeds to tell us.

We learn her perspective of the contest which decided who would marry her. She was fifteen years old when Odysseus won her hand and her dowry in marriage and took her away to Ithaca from her home in Sparta. He treated her gently and won her love. 

Her mother, a Naiad, had given her some advice prior to her wedding:
Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.
As it turned out, it was advice that would serve her well in her long and lonely years in Ithaca.

Penelope's son, Telemachus, was born and while he was still a baby, her beautiful cousin Helen decided to run away to Troy with Paris, forcing Odysseus to fulfill an oath he had made to Helen's husband, Menelaus. Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon waged war against Troy and dragged all of Greece, including Odysseus and Ithaca, with them. Penelope and Telemachus were left behind.

For ten long years the war raged but then Troy was overcome and the Greeks headed home. But where was Odysseus? There was no word from him. He might be dead and, as a rich widow, Penelope drew greedy suitors like vultures.

The greater part of this tale deals with the ten years after Troy fell when Penelope was left alone to rule Ithaca and fend off the advances of those who would marry her. In protecting herself, she had few allies but she recruited her twelve maids and theirs is the second voice in this story. We hear them as a Greek chorus. Through them, we see the lot of slaves, the truly powerless who must submit to the whims and lusts of the suitors besieging the palace. They carry tales back to Penelope. They are, in effect, her spies, but when Odysseus does finally return, they pay a heavy price for their aid to their mistress.

This story is so familiar to us. It long ago became part of Western consciousness, but we've never heard it before from a woman's perspective. I found this telling fascinating. At times poignant and at times funny, it kept my interest throughout, even though I knew how it would end.

Some of the funnier parts of the story were Penelope's reactions to the inventions that make modern life easier. For example, one of her favorite inventions is the light bulb! For one whose life was lived in dim castles lit by candles, the attraction is understandable.

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