Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
Today’s Armchair BEA topic is Character Chatter. Here are my thoughts on a book that reimagines some of the most famous characters in literature.
The Penelopiad is a decidedly odd little book. It’s a riff on the story of faithful Penelope from the Odyssey, who waited twenty years for her husband to return from his travels (and his amours) while fending off a pack of rapacious suitors. It takes an aspect of the story usually considered a minor detail — the hanging of twelve of Penelope’s maids for sleeping with said suitors — and makes it the subject of a sort of literary theme and variations, incorporating poetry, music-hall style comic songs, feminist criticism, and even a court transcript, which interrupt Penelope’s own first-person narrative (delivered from Hades).
The maids never get individual voices, speaking rather as a chorus that echoes the use of such satirical relief as a counterpoise to Greek tragedy. As they contrast with and comment on Penelope’s version of the tale, they cast doubt on her motives and leave us with unresolved questions about what really happened. As Penelope says herself, along with her husband she is one of the great liars of all time, after all.
This is a book by Margaret Atwood, so it’s sly and witty and gracefully written. It didn’t quite satisfy me as a reading experience, though, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps because the interposed chorus sections sometimes felt too contrived, their stylistic changes showing off Atwood’s virtuosity for its own sake. The highlighting of issues of gender and class was somewhat heavy-handed, and the mixture of ancient and modern idioms sometimes jarring rather than amusing.
Still, Atwood is nothing if not a compelling storyteller, and the questions she raises are worth asking. Her attempt to give voice to the voiceless women of one of our foundational Western myths is admirable, and worth any reader’s time. I’d love to go back to the sources (particularly The Odyssey and Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths), and then read it again and see what I think.
I’m counting The Penelopiad for the “Myth” category in the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.