In 2005, the British publishing house of Canongate began producing a series of short novels based on myths from Western and non-Western civilizations.
“The Penelopiad” by Margaret Atwood was among a batch of three works that were published simultaneously to inaugurate the series.
It’s a thin-ish work, running to just 196 pages with a lot of white space. In it, Atwood retells the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope and of her 12 slave-servant girls.
After massacring the 100 or so pesky suitors, Odysseus orders Telemachus to have the girls clean up the mess and then to take them outside and slaughter them.
Instead, his son decides that such a death would be too clean, and, in T.E. Lawrence’s translation, “He made fast a dark-prowed ship’s hawser to a pillar and strained it round the great spiral of the vault, at too great a height for anyone to touch the floor with her feet. Sometimes in shrubbery men so stretch out nets, upon which long-winged thrushes or doves alight on their way to roost; and fatal the perch proves. Exactly thus were the women’s heads all held a-row with a bight of cord drawn round each throat, to suffer their caitiff’s [i.e., despicable person’s] death. A little while they twittered with their feet — only a little. It was not long.”
In a chapter titled “Odysseus and Telemachus Snuff the Maids,” Atwood has Penelope explain that she slept through the killings of the suitors and the maids, hearing about it after the fact from Odysseus’s childhood nurse Eurycleia: “Then — Eurycleia continued — he told Telemachus to chop the maids into pieces with his sword. But my son, wanting to assert himself to his father, and to show that he knew better — he was at that age — hanged them all in a row from a ship’s hawser.”
But it’s all a mistake.
Because Penelope felt so hemmed in by the suitors and her son was such a willful teenager and she never trusted Eurycleia, she enlisted the maids to spy on the suitors, even if that meant sleeping with them. To add cover, she told them to disparage her and Eurycleia whenever with the suitors as they aggressively ate up Odysseus’s estate while hanging out in his home trying to win Penelope’s eye.
All well and good, but, since she had failed to tell Eurycleia or Telemachus about the deception, the maids paid the price when Odysseus returned after being gone for 20 years.
The maids are a literal Greek chorus in the novel, adding their own commentary in song, drama and prose to Penelope’s account.
In one of the maids’ chapters, a trial of Odysseus is imagined, and Penelope testifies that the maids had initially been raped.
“I felt sorry for them,” she says. “But most maids get raped, sooner or later; a deplorable but common feature of palace life. It wasn’t the fact of them being raped that told against them, in the mind of Odysseus. It’s that they were raped without permission.”
Without, the Judge asks, whose permission?
“Without permission of their master, Your Honour,” the attorney for the defense says.
Of course, none of these young women was alive when Odysseus went off to the Trojan War, and, of course, Odysseus wasn’t present to give his permission to the suitors to assault the maids.
And, of course, if the maids acquiesced with Penelope’s permission — which they did — they should have been considered blameless since Penelope was running the household. But, of course, in Atwood’s account, Penelope felt so unsure of herself and her own standing with her husband that she didn’t raise the issue.
The story ends with Odysseus moving back and forth between Hades and Earth, living one life after another. And dogging his steps are the maids:
“We can see through all your disguises: the paths of day, the paths of darkness, whichever paths you take — we’re right behind you, following you like a trail of smoke, like a long tail, a tail made of girls, heavy as memory, light as air; twelve accusations, toes skimming the ground, hands tied behind our backs, tongues sticking out, eyes bulging, songs choked in our throats.
“Why did you murder us? What had we done to you that required our deaths? You never answered that…..We’ll never leave you, we’ll stick to you like your shadow, soft and relentless as glue. Pretty maids, all in a row.”
The injustice done to the maids is a powerful point. (Even if they’d slept with the suitors by choice, why is that reason enough for their killing?)
Atwood includes a alternative-story chapter, narrated by the maids, that gives an account of the same facts but, in this one, Penelope is also sleeping with the suitors.
She also uses the maids to relate an anthropological speculation that the genesis of the Odysseus story wasn’t simply a desire to tell a rousing tale, but for use in undercutting an earlier matriarchal society and replacing it with a new patriarchal myth.
But it’s difficult for the reader to take those two counter versions seriously since Atwood apparently doesn’t find them interesting enough to play out more.
Still, as a writer, Atwood provides the reader with many pleasures, such as the “heavy as memory” image in the above quote.
• Penelope’s description of her 15-year-old self being bestowed upon Odysseus by her father: “And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you. A sort of gilded blood pudding.”
• The maids’ description of Odysseus in his mother’s womb: “Nine months he sailed the wine-red seas of his mother’s blood/Out of the cave of dreaded Night, of sleep,/Of troubling dreams he sailed/In his frail dark boat, the boat of himself…”
• Penelope’s description of her mother, a naiad, a water nymph: “She had a manner of eating the fish raw, heads first, an activity I would watch with chilled fascination. Have I forgotten to tell you she had rather small pointed teeth?”
Patrick T. Reardon