This week I’ve continued exploring the Penelopiad. In particular, I’ve delved deeper into some of the fascinating stylistic choices. Throughout my analysis, I’ve concluded that it’s partly the blending ancient and modern dramatic styles that allows the Penelopiad to irreverently dismantle the weighty legacy of the Odyssey. Atwood’s style is refreshing in several ways. Most notably, her clever manipulation of narrative style.
As discussed in last week’s post, the chapters largely alternate between Penelope’s first-person narrative and the varied style of the Maids. Here, the Maids function as the chorus would in ancient dramas. The job of the chorus is to comment on the dramatic actions of a single character. In this novel, the Maids usually qualify or refute Penelope’s accounts. The addition of these sections feels both old and new. While it is a hallmark of ancient drama, modern authors don’t often employ this technique. Yet, Atwood is not simply using an ancient technique. Rather, she adds her own twists by varying the styles and updating the voice. She is pushing the genre of classical reinterpretation further by using an old technique to write new voices. Rather than merely writing from the perspective of one woman, she brings in twelve more who come from an entirely different background.
While Penelope is a Spartan princess and Ithacan queen, the maids are unnamed slaves. Atwood attempts to represent the wide swath of different women forgotten, erased, or misrepresented by older classical tradition. Oftentimes, Penelope is difficult to sympathize with because of her mistreatment of her maids. However, the dissatisfaction that these depictions elicit is integral to the story. They provide depth and nuance to the representation of women in myth. More often, their experience was a product of their social, economic, and legal status. While generalizations can often be made about women in mythological texts, they also often don’t reflect social, political, and economic differences. Atwood presents a refreshing, more intersectional approach to classical reinterpretation.
In a similar vein, Atwood does a masterful job at relaying complex ideas in a manageable manner. The Penelopiad covers a variety of topics relating to female representation, some mentioned above, and unpacks them artfully. For instance, one of the Maids’ chapters is entitled “The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture” and relates research from many ancient sources and Atwood herself in a clever way. The Maids present an lecture on the anthropological significance of their lives and murder. They argue that they were not simply “twelve maids…but twelve maidens” (163). Ultimately, they’re arguing that there is a connection to the maiden goddess Artemis. And, in the style of an ancient dialogue and modern lecture hybrid, the Maids present their reasoning. Within a mere five pages, Atwood includes an enormous amount of information ranging from the symbolic meaning of twelve to the “possibility the [the Maids’] rape and subsequent hanging represent[s] the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult” (165). And, this is one of the true triumphs of this novel. With expertly constructed layers, the novel could be enjoyed by a wide range of people with varying levels of familiarity with the source text.