On the Margins No More: A Review of The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood gives voice to Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and her twelve maids who remained voiceless in Homer’s Odyssey. The book alternates chapters between Penelope’s monologues and singing choruses by the twelve hanged maids (by Odysseus).

Atwood replays the myths to bring the marginalised into the centre of the narrative. Odysseus is not the glorified one here, unlike Homer’s Odyssey, rather the stage here is set for the women written about only in the peripheries.

The author resurrects Penelope to tell her story from beyond the grave, where she’s quartered in the underworld with other souls from her lifetime, so the narrative shifts from her time on earth and her present situation.

The voice bestowed upon Penelope is that of the 21st century: smart, funny, quippy and sharp. The story is told in anachronism, with satire and tragicomedy.

Penelope’s account begins with her childhood in Sparta, born to King Icarius and a Naiad mother. She recounts her childhood days. She speaks of her envy of the Helen of Troy, her divinely beautiful cousin. She recollects the events of her marriage day – how Odysseus won her hand in a game that may or may not be set up by her uncle. She talks of her days in Ithaca, Odysseus’ kingdom, where she doesn’t have much to do, but her days are spent in love and laughter, until ‘’Helen ruins her life’’.

Odysseus is called away to fight in the Trojan War. Penelope gives birth to their son, Telemachus, in his absence. The war ends, but Odysseus doesn’t return home. She wails as she waits, while struggling to shrug off suitors, all 120 of them, in pursuit of marriage, and by extension, the kingdom itself.

Twenty years later, he returns. Slaughters all the suitors. And orders the hanging of the twelve maids.

Atwood’s The Penelopiad concerns itself with answering two questions: what was Penelope really up to in the absence of her husband and why were the maids hanged? But, even when Penelope sheds a shining light on her own story, she remains enigmatic still.

Then, there are the twelve faithful maids, wrongfully hung for being raped without the permission of their master, who, by the way, was away from the island and could not have given permission.

At the end, Atwood brings it out in the open and wages war on Odysseus by setting up his trial in a 21st century courtroom, where he’s tried for crimes committed over 4000 years ago.

After his attorney presents a well enough case, the judge dismisses all charges against him.

But the story doesn’t end here, the maids speak up against their rape by the suitors and their eventual hanging. The judge hasn’t even heard of them and starts leafing through Homer’s Odyssey, not finding them anywhere.

Slyly, Atwood points out here that the readings of the epics have always been focused on the men. By presenting this case, she makes it clear that justice is her agenda, not just for the maids but for the years of casting women to the sidelines.

Penelope appears as an ‘unreliable witness’, there’s that classic case of victim blaming and the judge finally dismisses this case too, saying such a small ‘freckle’ of an incident should not tarnish Odysseus’s reputation. And as we are all way too aware and wary of, the man is let off without so much as a scuffle. 

This little chunk off the glacial Odyssey carved out as The Penelopiad speaks volumes of the injustices of the world against women.

In the end, you are only left with the infuriating realisation that the problem that began eons and ages ago is not easily uprootable. All you can do is fight back, everyday, everywhere and wait for the world to upturn itself on its heels. The reach and ravaging success of the recent #MeToo movement is, certainly, a major move towards the achievement of the goal of equality, but we’re still a long, long way away. 

A fiercely feminist read, but how else is an Atwood novella supposed to be?

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