Week Five: Introduction to the Penelopiad

May 04, 2021

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is the next novel I’m reading. Unsurprisingly, it follows the story of Queen Penelope, a Spartan princess and wife of Odysseus. The book also follows the Twelve Maids of Penelope rather than simply one female mythological figure. This is a deviation from other works of classical reinterpretation. Chapters are either from Penelope’s perspective or that of the maids. However, while Penelope always speaks in a narrative format, the maids appear in several forms: from poetry to an anthropological lecture to sea shanty songs. Usually, an account by Penelope is followed by one of the maids on the same topic but with a vastly different perspective. 

Penelope introduced herself while in Hades. She explains to the audience that she has decided to tell her tale which, in many cases, deviates from the Odyssey. First, she is frustrated with how her story has been a “stick used to beat other women with” (2). Here, she is referring to her famed martial devotion. In the Odyssey, when Odysseus is away fighting in Troy and making his perilous journey home, Penelope is pursued by many suitors who wish to marry her in hopes of becoming the King of Ithaca. Hundreds of suitors flood her castle and stay for long periods with the hope of pressuring her to marry. However, with a clever trick and the help of her Twelve Maids, Penelope can avoid marrying, thus maintaining her commitment to Odysseus until he returns. Historically, this tale is what Penelope is famed for, spending many years unknowing if her husband was dead or alive, without sex or remarriage. Penelope is frustrated because this then became a standard to oppress women.

As for the Twelve Maids, Atwood introduces them in the form of a song entitled “The Chorus Line: A Rope-Jumping Rhyme”. If you know the ending of the Odyssey, then you understand the morbid humor of this title. If not, it will soon become clear. In the context of my project, the song is full of interesting artistic decisions. First, choosing a different style for a different group is remarkable. I posit that the chosen styles are more conducive to representing a group than a narrative is. And, as I continue, I will pay special attention to this feature. Second, rope-jumping is typically considered an activity for children. Atwood’s choice to make this the introductory chapter for the maids is potent. Third, the song is from the perspective of the Twelve Maids who Odysseus hanged upon returning to Ithaca. Atwood vividly describes these maids hanging in the air as they criticize Odysseus for his cruelty and hypocrisy. Taken together, Atwood chose a children’s song to broadly yet graphically detail the violent murder of the Twelve Maids. And, this is only chapter two. 

As I continue to read, I will focus on comparing the perspectives of Penelope and the Twelve Maids. 

Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. Canongate Books, 2006




One Reply to “Week Five: Introduction to the Penelopiad”

  1. Jacob H. says:

    Atwood’s use of unconventional writing forms to convey each of the Twelve Maids’ perspectives is so fascinating. I love how it’s kind of like a deconstruction of the traditional narrative format, especially since Penelope expresses in her introduction how her narrative arc in the Odyssey has been used as a “stick to beat other women with”.

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