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Of Letters and of Sciences

Welcome! This is a blog about literature and books that are critical to any social discourse: literary, cultural, racial, gender-based. A blog for humanists, scholars, the curious, and thinkers and thinkeresses.


A Confused Step Turns into a Layered Statement

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus - Margaret Atwood

Aach! This could have been such an amazing product as a historical fiction novel from Penelope's point of view (a la Adele Geras' Troy or Ithaka). I would have liked--loved-- to see a tome in verse, mirrored in Homer's language (or similarly). In short, I expected a more "traditionally-written" feminist answer to The Odyssey.


There's a lot of meandering and some time travel (what?! was that necessary?) and the book isn't structured very well or tightly.


BUT after some time I've seen its emphasis on the 12 hanged maidservants (the women who are hanged for their "crimes" of consorting with the suitors after Odysseus' return), which I previously had seen as random and overplayed, as perhaps the driving point of the book.

Atwood repeats the imagery (almost to the point in which it becomes ubiquitous) of the hanged maidens; we hear their eerie, deathly Greek-chorus wafting in italics before the book even introduces the maidens themselves to us.

This constant chant, and Penelope's frequent lamenting/focus on her hanged maidens is, I think; I must think, knowing Margaret Atwood's writing, a lynchpin and a symbol of the male hierarchy. Here these twelve women are, hanged.

Yes, the male suitors die too, in the original Odyssey.


But what is treated as a casual slip of information in The Odyssey ("and then the maidens were strung up"...etc....disturbing), Atwood sees and uses as a symbol of male complacency and as an indictment.


Perhaps I speculate, but in her over-emphasis of the maidens in The Penelopiad (literally, the entire book seems to be about them, in a way), she is giving us a feminist reflection of The Odyssey.

It's a microcosm: she doesn't need to talk about all of the different ways in which women's power was curtailed in that historical period; she uses this one instance of violence as an element that illustrates a larger climate.


These women are compared to "geese" more than once in the book; their lives are inconsequential; the suitors (as Atwood knows we know) are killed in highly graphic, detailed scenes in The Odyssey; the maidens are mentioned as being killed as almost an aside in The Odyssey.


It is that, Homer's use of the deaths of these women as an aside or an afterthought, that Atwood undoubtedly subtly uses as the centrepoint for her feminist critique and allegory.

"Look at these women", her narrative seems to say. Penelope is haunted by them. Even though they "betrayed" her, Penelope's view is much less one-sided and she still refers to them as "my maidens". She is their advocate, constantly remembering them and mourning their deaths.


And they, the answering chorus, constantly remind us that something is extremely not right.


But how is this, the killing of these deemed "traitorous" women, a critical women's issue? How is it an indictment against patriarchy?


Because Homer didn't care about them; because he devoted countless pages to the named suitors and their detailed deaths, and then added as an afterthought, "oh and the women died too".


And because they were killed because they were deemed "guilty by association"; they, most notably Melantho, slept with the suitors, thus betraying their mistress, Penelope.


When I first read The Odyssey, I thought that there was a "justified" parallelism in the fact that all of Penelope's/Odysseus' traitor-suitors were punished.


But Atwood's saying, above all, that these women died because they had sex. It is not merely that they were killed. It is the way in which they were killed, and the fact that they were killed for a crime supposedly worse than those of the suitors: sexual betrayal moste foule.

They died "strung up like geese", because they used female power.

It is as if they are even more guilty than the suitors: not only have they betrayed their mistress but they've done it sexually, and in Homer's Greece, (and indeed, still today), that is a "no-no". It's reminiscent of the Northern Irish women who were tarred and feathered by the IRA during "The Troubles" for the "crime" of dating British soldiers.


"Regular" (nonsexual) betrayal would have been bad enough, it seems, but betrayal involving sex, arguably the only possible realm of (bodily) power women could use to their advantage at that time, is apparently particularly repellant, Homer wants us to think. 

Not only are they traitors, but they are "loose women", and for that, they are given shameful deaths. Not in battle or combat like the suitors, but slain, slaughtered, indeed, like "geese" (long necks).


Penelope laments them and we don't really hear from Odysseus (it is The Penelopiad, after all).


It's a strange route and a very strange, non-traditional book to read (in its format), yet, after years of bemusement and reflection, I think that that strange roundabout way that Atwood uses wasn't so roundabout after all. Yet another historical incident in which the women pay the price. Highlighting that in a book is bringing our attention to feminism, even if Atwood only steers our attention there and then leaves us to derive our own conclusions (hint: they are finite).


Women pervade The Penelopiad.

It's not about Penelope. It's about the maidens, and it's about women in general. At one point, Penelope has a vision of 21st century women wearing jeans and strange contraptions (high heels) and hurting themselves in various ways (plastic surgery). She sees this 'abomination' and torture of women's bodies as a heinous but natural progression of the dynamics she faces in her own era (and in the slaughter of her maidens).


So, for all its roundabout ways, The Penelopiad is pretty straightforward in what it wants to do. It does not want to talk about Penelope's mirrored experience. It does want to talk about the microcosm of women's experiences, including Penelope's, against the backdrop of the male experience that is exhibited in The Odyssey.


It's quixotic. But after approximately five years of mulling it over in the back of my mind and not understanding what Atwood was doing or why she was doing it and how it helped illuminate female perspectives;


That's my theory.