Margaret Atwood actually wrote THE PENELOPIAD as part of The Canongate Myth Series in which contemporary authors would re-write classical myths and legends. The book is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, and it encompasses her relationships with her parents– her father who first tried to murder her, and later became loving and affectionate, and her mother, who was always distant and indifferent. She speaks of her haughty and cattish cousin Helen, her meeting with Odysseus, and her strained relations with the members of Odysseus’ family, including his old nurse, and her son Telemachus.
As the novella begins, Penelope is dead, wandering the Fields of Ashpodel in the present day, reminiscing about her life. She tells her story in crisp, clean language as if gossiping with an acquaintance (the reader, naturally). As she tells her story, there are regular interludes with Penelope’s twelve handmaids, the ones whom Telemachus and Odysseus hung in Homer’s epic. They sing their own story in several different genres, such as idyllic verse, ballad, a lament, and even schoolyard rhyme. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the Twelve are actually hounding Odysseus for his crime in murdering the innocent young women, like a chorus of Erinyes.
Odysseus himself is described as not exactly clever, but as someone who is able to intuit people’s personalities, likes and dislikes, and make himself both agreeable and believable. In short, Odysseus is a master story-teller. Or liar, depending upon how much charity one is willing to grant. Penelope finds that she is able to see through much of Odysseus’ stories, but prefers to accept them for his sake. And he seems to be aware of this, and they settle into a comfortable relationship.
Helen is described as the great beauty of legend that she was said to be; but she is incredibly arrogant and smoothly vituperative, outrageously insulting others, even while complimenting them.
Telemachus is described as a spoiled young child, who grows up into a spoiled young man, constantly at odds with his mother, yet backed by Odysseus’ family. And when Odysseus is called away to Troy by Menelaus and Agamemnon, relations between Penelope and her in-laws deteriorate further.
As noted, the book follows Penelope’s life at home while Odysseus is away, her dealing with the suitors come to steal Odysseus’ position and goods, she and her maids trying to suss out the unwelcome guests and their intentions.
Penelope muses on the double-standards between the sexes, where Odysseus may sleep around with Goddesses and beautiful women, and spend his days at ease; yet Penelope is expected to remain chaste and untouched, and be a faithful guardian of her husband’s estate. She likewise muses on the differences in class; how her maids, for their lowly status, are yet freer than she is in her husband’s home. And Penelope mourns for the unjust killing of her maids, her trusted companions throughout her husband’s absence; They were seen as traitorous for having slept with the suitors, yet they were Penelope’s eyes and ears against the interlopers, and for their trouble were raped and used as playthings by the unwanted guests.
Atwood’s prose is almost skeletal, like Thelonius Monk playing a riff on the piano. Penelpe tells her tale in straightforward fashion, without embellishment. THE PENELOPIAD is structured like a classical Greek drama, and for fear of spoiling the experience for the reader, I will not give out much detail, here. There are many delightful details to Penelope’s life, and rumors that she addresses, that you must read for yourself. She gives more than just a passing nod to Robert Graves’ theories on the relation of Greek myth to ancient feminist moon-cults.
If you have any interest at all in The Iliad or The Odyssey, I highly recommend this book.