The Penelopiad—Margaret Atwood

[I decided to read this in two halves. I wrote about the first half before knowing what Atwood would do with the rest of it.]

9 October 2018
Chapters 1-13
What I like about this novella so far—what I always like about Margaret Atwood’s fiction—is that she is never only out to do one thing at a time. The most clearly signalled aspect of her re-telling of Penelope’s story, the satirical re-imagination of a heroic tale from the point of view of the marginalised wife, is only a small part of it. Atwood isn’t only critiquing how men mythologise their own male culture, a well-trodden path these days, but showing how women live, and how women think. In the Penelopiad universe, women have to learn almost from birth how to survive. This culture—like every culture, Atwood implies—does not exist to serve any woman’s wishes or even basic needs. Young princesses are only as valuable as the treasure—or trash as Penelope learns to call it—that is attached to them. They are loot, booty, swag. Young girls who aren’t princesses, since the time of the Greek myths, are only there to service the needs of other people. They might as well find what entertainment they can as they go about the daily grind. Atwood lets us know as early as the Introduction that the plight of the maids is as interesting to her as Penelope’s own—so that while her chief narrator speaks in her own voice, so do they. They get their own chapters, and they love to tell it like it is.

One of the ways that Atwood makes her tale both ancient and modern at the same time is to have Penelope telling us her tale now, in the 21st Century. She had been a long time dead by 2005, the year of the book’s first publication, and Atwood takes this as her cue to turn her back on the idea of historical accuracy. She isn’t interested in accuracy, she’s interested in versions of events—and, as we read, we know that this is just another one of them. Atwood knows it too, so she also knows that she’d better make it a good one. With the freedom she’s allowed herself she can make the language as modern as she likes and, in a story based on a 3,000-year-old myth, I can forgive that knowing little joke about how the internet, ethereal conduit of all knowledge, has its glowing portals that have become like shrines. It’s a godless world otherwise, compared to what poor old disembodied Penelope is used to.

And, as I write now, I’m remembering how playful Atwood always is, despite the seriousness of her purpose. The myths that have been passed down to us were created, like all history, by the victors—and the victors were always men. If the balance is to be redressed, if old stories are to be retold, they don’t have to be told in the same old way. Who invented genres and rhetorical structures anyway? It certainly wasn’t women—so why should any woman have to play by rules she had no part in creating? Not that Atwood states any of this explicitly. She doesn’t need to, because here is comedy, song, satire, disgust, female cattiness—you should just hear the way Penelope goes on about her cousin, the preening Helen of Troy—and a kind of empathy with the plight of others that moves the story on in a different way from what we’re used to. Sure, it’s told chronologically (when the narrative isn’t suddenly fast-forwarding a couple of millennia for a breath of different air), but there isn’t the relentless forward thrust of the plot. We know the plot already. This is collage, patchwork, community. It isn’t men’s work at all.

In fact, there isn’t a plot, just stories. Penelope doesn’t even try to tell it straight, because it might all be lies anyway. Her mother was a naiad, or she probably wasn’t. But plenty of comic possibilities are opened up by her watery maternity, even when she tells us her father tried to drown her at birth. Or he didn’t—but if he did, it was to appease an angry sea-god. Or it wasn’t—but water is everywhere, and Penelope’s supposed mother tells her all about how useful it is to be liquid. Solid objects sink, whilst water… water goes around impassable objects, goes wherever it wants, which is almost everywhere. But whatever her maternity, Penelope has to go with the flow when it comes to her arranged marriage—as ever, a trade-off between the heads of wealthy families with something to gain from the deal. And, also as ever, there’s no certainty about how Odysseus won the race the suitors have to run. It was his celebrated silver tongue and physical prowess, if you want that kind of story. Penelope prefers to believe that he cheated, offered extra speed through some pharmacological intervention whilst something else was slipped into the other suitors’ drinks to slow them down. Atwood can’t resist having Penelope remark on how it’s a technique seeing a revival in modern times. How we laughed.

But Odysseus really is plausible. Penelope isn’t precise about how old she must have been when they married, but settles on fifteen as being about right. How will things be on the wedding night, she wonders, appalled at the prospect. It’s fine. Odysseus isn’t just gentle with her, in a way that any new wife would hope for. He genuinely seems to have her welfare at heart, and likes talking to her. That’s always his great selling-point, she lets us know. He always makes whoever he’s talking to think he’s only thinking about them, and for some reason I was reminded of stories of Bill Clinton. Good at diplomacy, and could charm the pants off anybody. As could Odysseus, obviously. We’ve heard the stories—as does she, once she’s been waiting for him for years on end. But that comes later, and I’ll come back to her take on the news she gets from abroad…

…because first she has to leave the island she grew up on and sail with her new husband to Ithaca. In her presentation of it, it’s a typical Greek island, complete with rocks and goats. And she’s never happy there. What woman would be? She has nothing to do—Odysseus’ former nurse is a self-appointed chief housekeeper and runs everything—and even the skill she’s become famous for, weaving, is only ever an aristocratic woman’s pastime. She can lose herself in the mindlessness of it, but it’s the slave class who are the real makers. Speaking of whom… Penelope gets her twelve serving-maids on the birth of her son. Except, of course, he’s only ever Odysseus’s son, with all the baggage that male heirs always carry. Atwood has reminded us in the Introduction that his reaction to later events will be to hang all twelve maids. I can’t remember the details, but I’m sure we’ll get plenty of versions of them when the time comes.

So, she’s a bit bored… and then Odysseus has to leave. It’s a promise he and others made to Menelaus years ago, that if his precious Helen were ever to be taken from him he would do whatever it might take to… etc. Penelope’s take on how far Helen would have resisted Paris’s attentions is exactly what you would expect. Penelope herself has never been able to rely on good looks to get her anything, so she has no time for all that. But Odysseus goes, and time passes. So she waits, and decides that weaving isn’t going to occupy her for the rest of her life. As months and years are added to the long wait, it’s becoming clear that the nurse and Odysseus’s mother are too old to run the business. Penelope takes it over, and gains a reputation for driving a hard bargain in the livestock markets. Patient, pining Penelope? She’s got better things to do.

Troy is eventually defeated, largely (if the stories are to be believed) through Odysseus’ stratagems. Years have passed, but at last the surviving Greeks can come home, which they do. Except Odysseus—and soon the stories start coming in. Tales are told, by some, of how he defeated the Cyclops with a clever trick. But others tell of a bar-room brawl in which he blinds a one-eyed lout. Other tales are told, all the classics from the Sirens to Circe and Calypso, and for every tale there’s a more credible one about sailors in port, the madame of the brothel that Odysseus lived with for seven whole years. He clearly has no more interest in Ithaca than his wife does. The sea shanty that forms Chapter 13—really a cleverly rhyming comic song—presents a bawdy version of Odysseus’ adventures. It’s another burlesque turn to go with the ones sung by the maids.

Speaking of whom: they simply get on with getting through the day—it’s just as likely to be them as anybody else who spread the gossip about Odysseus—and make fun of the rich and idle. They don’t mind Penelope, but she knows she can never be the friend of any one of them and, if they care, they don’t show it now. Their shared gender doesn’t seem strong enough to forge the kind of bond that would overcome the basic truth they were born knowing, and died knowing—that they were never anything more than property. No rich woman is going to change that. Besides—no small matter—they were hanged because of her.

14 October
Chapters 14-29—to the end
Did I enjoy the second half as much as the first? In some ways, more—although my earlier point about there not being so much plot as in the kind of narrative favoured by the patriarchal hegemony (I’m paraphrasing) is undermined by the amount of plot there is after the half-way point. There isn’t only one plot, obviously and, equally obviously, ‘plot’ has all sorts of meanings. Most significantly, Penelope plots with the maids and, crucially, doesn’t tell the old nurse. She tells us as soon as she decides not to that it will end in tears. Or, not tears—Penelope, her mother’s daughter, spends a large proportion of her life weeping at the best of times—but in something much worse. We already know what.

But to start at the beginning. Or when it begins to seem likely that Odysseus won’t be coming back, and the Suitors start turning up. These are key participants in the myth, and Atwood has a good time having Penelope satirise their laddish behaviour. Over a hundred, maybe 108, maybe 112—Atwood is making a joke about how the stories can’t really agree on how many—start slaughtering and barbecuing the livestock. (I decided it’s probably better not to do the maths: 100-odd hungry young blokes killing and roasting for some years…. Could a small island really sustain such consumption on that scale? Never mind, because it’s only ever a story anyway.) They make things tough for Penelope, who has by now spent years making a comfortable enough life for herself without any men at all. Sure, there’s Telemachus, but he hasn’t even reached puberty when they first arrive. Penelope is going to have to look after herself without help from a boy she tells us is something of a spoilt brat anyway.

Cue the Shroud trick, another famous element of the story. She’ll marry one of the suitors when she finishes weaving it for Odysseus, she tells them, and they are OK with this. But she makes sure she carefully unpicks anything she makes, and the twelve maids—remember them?—are in on the stunt. They not only help her unpick the shroud—she’d be up all night otherwise, I guess—but they become her secret agents and spies. She needs them to infiltrate the suitors’ blokeish world, find out what they really think and plan to do. Fine—although, of course, it seems to be taken for granted that they will need to grant all kinds of sexual favours as they do this. And they will pretend to be on their side, against everybody else in the palace. They have more fun than Penelope likes telling her how rude they are about the beauty they are so extravagant about in the poems and songs they compose in her honour.

This is the deception that the old nurse knows nothing about—and which, when the time comes, becomes a key part of her testimony against them. When Odysseus finally does get home—I’ll spare you the details of his ragged traveller charade, the one that Penelope sees through straight away—he gets down to business. First, he plays one of his tricks, something to do with firing an arrow through twelve axe-heads—it’s hard to think of anything more macho—then goes for one of the Greek heroes’ favourite amusements, killing people. All the suitors, including a particularly oleaginous one Penelope often meets in the Elysian fields of asphodel, are reduced to bloodied corpses. It’s the maids’ job to get rid of them, and the blood, brains and guts that are making the place look untidy…. It’s when the old nurse testifies against the maids that Penelope regrets not having let anybody else know that she was in cahoots with them to protect her own virtue.. Oh dear. Telemachus, who has reached the kind of manhood he always dreamed of—he even took a ship without permission to go looking for his father—later chooses their mode of execution. Oh, the dancing feet.

Have you had enough yet? I almost had, especially when we get Penelope’s elaborate defence of herself against charges of having made up the whole Shroud story. Really, goes the allegation, she was weaving a tissue of lies to cover up her lascivious behaviour. Those maids of hers were never to be trusted when they came to her defence…. And so on. She also goes through an explanation of how she was never a kind of proto-feminist agent of Athene, an even more elaborate structure of re-revisionism. All we know is what we always knew: you can’t believe anything or anybody. But it’s been fun, yes?

Yes. And, after some more fun with the mythology of death, and earthly manifestations of spirits, and reincarnation—including the after-lives of the two most archetypal classical types, Odysseus and Helen—Atwood gives the last word to the maids. Is there a classical reference in their sprouting feathers and hooting like owls? ‘We call to you / Too wit too woo…’ and so on. Well, a lot of it has been a three-ring circus, a burlesque. Why shouldn’t there be performing owls? And, thanks to Wikipedia, I have the answer. Owls are Athene’s emblem, can see in the dark, and are wise. It’s a bit late for the maids, and for Penelope too, but it’s a useful thing to be if you’re a woman living in a man’s world. Which, as all thirteen of them know—count them—all women are forced to do.

Too woo.