I took a road trip to Wichita earlier this week during a spring rainstorm. Cattle were scattered across the rolling golden fields for miles and the sky was a hazy grey. It was a perfect opportunity for a book tape, with six hours of driving. I picked Margaret Atwood’s novella, The Penelopiad, published in 2005.
The Penelopiad (a spin off the traditional Greek epic The Odyssey) was irreverent, mythical, feminist centered and playful. The four hour book tape was perfect for a day trip. The tale is narrated in present day by Penelope (wife of Odysseus) who is currently in the Greek underworld of Hades. The story is complete with routine chorus from the 12 hanged maids in traditional Greek Tragedy form.
In the first chapter, Penelope explains storytelling is not something traditionally practiced by nobles, but now that she’s in Hades she might as well give it a go.
“Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself. I’ve had to work myself up to it; it’s a low art, tale-telling … So, I’ll spin a little thread of my own.”
Double standards concerning gender and class are expressed throughout the novella. In the Greek epic The Odyssey, Penelope’s husband Odysseus commits adultery throughout his travels, but expects Penelope to remain loyal. At the end of The Odyssey, Penelope’s 12 maids are executed for treason for sleeping with suitors who hung around the estate while Odysseus was gone for 10 years.
The chorus of hanged maids sing at one memorable point in the book:
“Blame it on the maids… blame it on the slaves… blame it on the sluts.”
Atwood centers the maids voices right next to Penelope’s own story, and intertwines them. They are all women, and there is a double standard for all, but because of the power that Penelope holds from her position as a noble, she lives while the maids are hanged.
“Point being that you don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.”
Though her writing is female centered, Atwood claims in interviews that the feminist label can only be applied to writers who work specifically within the specific feminist worldview.
After listening to The Penelopiad, I am seeking other novels by Atwood because I liked her writing style so much. Next up is The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a distopian novel about ugly developments taking place in the U.S., and Canada is featured as the only hope for escape.
Atwood was known for being “in the vanguard of Canadian anti-Americanism of the 1960s and 1970s. Atwood recently claimed that the 2016 election has increased her sales of The Handmaid’s Tale.