The Penelopiad

Author: Margaret Atwood
Year: 2005
Genre: Literary fiction / Mythology

Margaret Atwood retells the story of the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view, interspersed with commentary from the twelve maids that Odysseus kills after his return to Ithaca. These days, there seems to be a trend of new fiction based on classic literature (see Finn and March), and Penelope is an obvious character to pick up, especially for someone like Margaret Atwood.

The book did have its interesting parts. I liked the look at Penelope's early days as a sheltered princess in Sparta, ugly-duckling cousin to the slutty Helen. It's easy to forget that those mythological royal families had more intermarriage than the 19th century crowns of Europe, and that characters who are generally considered to symbolize different aspects of femininity are also people who would have known each other. In fact, I'd say in general that Atwood succeeds when she reconsiders mythological characters as people, rather than symbols.

Unfortunately, though, through most of the book, she uses the characters of the Odyssey as symbols that suit her own agenda. Her treatment of the maids is the most glaring example: in Homer's version, it's true that they are needlessly slaughtered by Odysseus and Telemachus, but there's not much more to say about them. Atwood inflates them into figures of more importance by saying it over and over, albeit in different literary forms: there's free-verse poetry, folk music, courtroom drama, and even a sea shanty. The introduction notes that "the maids form a chanting and singing Chorus," but this isn't the sort of chorus you'll find in Aeschylus; rather than commenting on the action of the main story, they have their own story to tell. And to repeat. In the end, I didn't feel sorry for them anymore, just guilty and defensive on behalf of men for the mistreatment of women throughout the history of the world.

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