(Canongate e-book 2005; Canongate Myths series)
As part of Canongate’s ‘Myths’ series, Atwood was commissioned to re-tell a myth, and originally, she wrote, tried to re-write a Viking legend, before realising that she was “haunted” by the fate of the handmaids in the Odyssey, hanged arbitrarily by Telemachus, for having sex with Penelope’s suitors. She decided that she would write a version of the tale which would address this problem, and tell Penelope’s story as she waited and waited for Odysseus to come home from the Trojan War.
I haven’t read the Odyssey, though I’m reasonably familiar with the stories which form it, and I think some knowledge of the poem (or at least, the main thrust of its plot) is necessary to read this book, since Penelope frequently refers to the events of the Odyssey. It’s written in a first person narrative by Penelope herself, from the land of the dead, addressing the reader in a lively and conversational style. Her narrative is interspersed with interjections from the chorus of maids, presented in several forms – as various type of song to an account of an imaginary trial of Odysseus for their murder.
Penelope suffers through her life (and her afterlife, too) from jealousy of her much more physically attractive cousin Helen, who is portrayed as vain and rather spiteful, only too pleased to have men fighting over her, and who never misses a chance to show Penelope how much less attractive her younger cousin is. Penelope doesn’t portray Odysseus in a positive light either, though she admits that she fell in love with him; showing him as an inveterate liar and schemer, who trusts no-one, and whom his wife grows to distrust. She’s marooned in rocky Ithaca with a snooty mother-in-law and Odysseus’s old nurse, and whose only companions are her maids. She’s effectively widowed after a very short marriage when her son is only a baby, leaving her in a precarious position.
As Telemachus grows up, and Odysseus fails to return from Troy, and rumours abound as to what he’s actually doing, her maids become Penelope’s companions. She begins to think of some of them as her daughters – even, possibly, despite their lowly status as slaves, as friends. Certainly, when the suitors descend on Ithaca to try to persuade Penelope to marry one of them, she uses the maids as her spies, and, when the suitors rape some of the maids, tries to comfort them. She doesn’t try to stop them, though – for which she later feels much guilt – reasoning that, because they’re slaves, the suitors would treat them badly anyway, and she has absolutely no authority to stop the ill-treatment.
Atwood’s Penelope is a interesting and well-drawn narrator, a little self-justifying, perhaps, but clear-sighted, and wearily realistic about her status in this male-dominated world. She explains well the problems facing Penelope during her husband’s long absence, and the society of Ancient Greece which gave rise to the whole phenomenon of the suitors arriving in Ithaca, and Penelope’s inability to remove them from her house. Odysseus’s amorous adventures with women such as Circe and Calypso, for example, are resentfully contrasted with Penelope’s fidelity, and the double standard which would castigate only her for unfaithfulness.
The interjecting choruses from the maids are by turns amusing and moving, and counterpoint both Penelope’s narrative and the Odysseus-centric narrative of the Odyssey.
I really enjoyed this novella, casting as it does an illuminating light on the one-sided portrayal of Penelope as the patiently waiting, faithful wife (though Penelope is keen to point out that the rumours about her sleeping with one – or all – of the suitors are entirely incorrect), as well as the injustice Odysseus and Telemachus do to the maids, whose fate is entirely unjustified. Its conversational style and direct addressing of the reader make this very accessible, and the characters are well-drawn.