Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Penelopiad

There's something a little bit seductively dangerous about the retelling of a well-known, classic story. I'm not sure why that is – and maybe it's just me – but it just seems brave in a rebellious sort of way. Perhaps it's the author's apparent belief that they know better than the original author that intrigues me, I don't know. But there is something about the genre of retold stories that hooks me; it's as if I am compelled to read them. When done poorly, the retelling is typically dull, adding a new detail here and there without really advancing the story. But when done well, the retelling gives you insight into levels of the original story you probably hadn't even considered before. Obviously, Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is an example of the latter (I say obviously because why else would I bother to write about it?). 

In The Penelopiad Atwood retells The Odyssey – Homer's epic about Odysseus' long journey to return home after the Trojan war – from the perspective of those left behind, namely, Odysseus' wife Penelope. This alone isn't an entirely original way to retell a story that is traditionally dominated by a man, but what makes Atwood's revision much more interesting is her inclusion of the maids. In the myth, upon Odysseus' return to Ithaca, he slaughters all the suitors who are after his wife and then hangs 12 of her maids. The suitors die for obvious reasons, but the maids' deaths are never properly explained, which is an injustice Atwood sets out to right.

The centre of the story, however, is Penelope. It is the story of her life – beginning before she met Odysseus – and it is told by her. Penelope tells her story from memory, because she has long-since died and become a resident of Hades, which allows her to include lots of little retrospective details. She frequently reminds her audience that she did not know then when she knows now, a position that allows her to refute and explain rumours that circulated about her. Penelope is a tart character and her voice is both sharp and soft, depending on what's called for and what part of her story she is telling. Most of her sharpness, though, is reserved for the other female characters who she perhaps felt threatened by – most especially her cousin Helen, whose face launched a thousand ships and took Odysseus away from home in the first place.

In between the slices of Penelope's story enter the maids. Atwood has set them up as a kind of Greek chorus, and their interjections are some of the spiciest parts of the story. The maids sing dirty jump-rope songs, they sing about their roles in the household, they take Odysseus to an imaginary modern-day court to charge him with murder. The maids are, in many ways, more of a counterpoint to Penelope's story than the original myth because they tell an alternate tale of life in Ithaca, waiting for Odysseus to come home.

The Penelopiad is so enjoyable, I think, because it doesn't try to retell us a story we already know. Rather, Atwood picks up characters that were previously side notes and gives them voices and back stories and life, all of which the original narrative failed to do. Is it an accident that these characters are female? No. But the story that Atwood tells her is a nuanced feminist portrayal in which there are complex characters and rivalries represented by both genders, which is sort of the goal really. The Penelopiad is a bit gossipy and a bit scandalous, but it also respects the realities of the myth it is rooted in, making it a generous and entertaining read.

The Penelopiad
by Margaret Atwood
First published in 2005 (cover image shown from Vintage Canada edition)

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