Penelope, still waiting
Hooked by P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley on the idea of reading classics in a new light, I looked for more books where a favorite story of mine had been extended. I had already read a few novels from Darcy’s point of view and none hit the spot. Few authors are talented enough to do him justice. A few months ago I purchased The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, back when I was determined to read all of her writing before hearing her speak this March at a writers’ conference. This was before I learned how prolific she is (I tend to abandon ambitious projects at the first sign of difficulty). The Penelopiad tells the story of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of his wife, Penelope. I read and reread a children’s version of the Odyssey in the comfort of my father’s bedroom, the only air-conditioned room of our old house, when I was about nine and I thought Odysseus was the best hero of them all. I admit I never ventured into reading the Odyssey in its entirety, its one of those works I figured I would get to some day along with The Iliad and Dante’s Inferno. Margaret Atwood has made someday today.
The Odysseus in my mind was a clever man, just trying to get home to his family after the Trojan War. The sea god Poseidon is unjustly punishing him and prevents his ships from reaching the shores of Ithaca where his wife and son have been waiting for twenty years. Of course nine-year-old me was on Odysseus’s side, the man was brave and desperate to be with the ones he loved. Not so from Penelope’s side of the story.
Atwood’s version is told by Penelope after her death, she knows how everything turned out and what she would have done differently if only given the chance. Her twelve hanged maids form the Greek chorus throughout the book, weeping for their lives back and demanding justice. I’m not sure if the children’s version completely left out the killing — I knew Odysseus killed the suitors who had ravaged his home, but not that Penelope’s maids were killed as well — or just glossed over it to get to the happy ending. Either way The Penelopiad is dark from the start.
We see Penelope, cousin to the beautiful Helen and therefore never feeling truly beautiful herself, married off to the sneaky Odysseus and swiftly falling in love with him. He is all she has in Ithaca, removed from her family in Sparta and surrounded by people who don’t care for her, and she cherishes the sweetness that his gives to win her over. The Penelope telling the story knows that he was marrying her for her gold and her youth, something the young Penelope knows as well, just not so deeply. After he leaves to fight in the Trojan War and never comes home she hears stories of his daring battles with a Cyclops and how he tricks goddesses and braves severe storms. This is the Odysseus of my childhood. Atwood swiftly wipes him away. Penelope also hears stories that the Cyclops was just an inn owner Odysseus failed to pay, the Sirens were most likely the occupants of a brothel and he is having his fair share of “goddesses” every night. She doesn’t know whom to believe. And neither do I.
Penelope knows she is the ideal to whom wives the world over are held. She warded off desperate suitors in favor of waiting, nobly, for a husband who people assured her was long dead. She never loved or touched another. Her dangerous plan of using Odysseus’s bow in a final challenge to the suitors just happened to coincide with the return of the one man strong enough to string an arrow. She is tired of this story and longs to set the record straight.
Atwood sets her novel in modern times. Penelope and Helen have been dead for thousands of years. She knows people consider her a myth, her maids nothing but symbols in classes on feminism. She sees her husband continue to leave her for the opportunity to be reincarnated on earth while she continues to wait for his eventual return. Her story is heartbreaking. The Odysseus from my childhood is brought down, clever only for his own advantage, selfish to the point of self-destruction. The Penelopiad haunts me with the idea that Penelope was practically stolen from her family and most definitely abandoned and lied to. Because I never read the Odyssey before seeing it from the woman’s side I may never be able to read it without the distinct feeling that his adventures are just excuses not to be home.
Atwood’s writing is, as always, beautiful and unforgettable. Her Penelope is not an ideal; she’s a woman with enough wits about her to survive through the next challenge. A woman who wants to set the story straight despite knowing that her husband’s version is more powerful and lasting. She feels guilt over the rape and death of her beloved maids and her wonderful son drives her more than a little crazy just like all teenage boys. The retelling is short, Penelope weathers one storm for years while Odysseus has multiple drawn out battles. And who could truly compete with Homer for an epic story anyway? Atwood shows what the other side went through and so turns the classic on its head.
Her research delved into Penelope’s heritage and the possibility of her infidelity to Odysseus. Atwood reminds the reader that Homer’s version, and her version as well, is not the definitive version of Odysseus’ adventures. Myths were originally oral and varied depending on who was doing the telling. She says those hanged maids always haunted her and now they will haunt me as well.