Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad

Have you ever read Homer’s Odyssey and wondered what ever happened with Penelope during the twenty years that Odysseus was busy with his adventures? Well, one Canadian writer did – Margaret Atwood. She has written a novella called The Penelopiad, an interesting book about the aforementioned myth, but from a revolutionary perspective.

Atwood offers a modern myth from the female point of view: now the narrator’s voice comes from Penelope and her twelve maids. They criticize the actions of Odysseus and Telemachus. Atwood has successfully demonstrated how myths can provide rich material for the formation of new art, in the spirit of literary deconstructionism. This work shows the relativity of the truth, in a humorous way, and proves how much the truth depends on context and perspective. Atwood has successfully shown how meaningless it is to talk about the boundaries of myth. Myth functions as an open structure, it is open to new interpretations, over and over again.

Here are five reasons (but there can be many more listed) why you should take a look at this novella:

  1. The humor: Penelope is completely honest about what she is going through, but she does it in a simple and funny way. Very few books can make me laugh out loud, and Atwood has managed to do that, on several pages. You can notice all the modern references, such as female jealousy, envy, trying to be free from the captivity of social norms, reaching out for individualism and uniqueness. Her character is close to us in many ways; also – it is spiced with occasional bitterness, but in a very fresh way.
  2. What it means to be a woman: This new version of the myth will make you rethink your views on women and their role in society. Maybe you’ll discover some prejudices you never thought you had.
  3. Clash of cultures: Via the text, you can learn a lot about values in Ancient Greece and see how they would function in the 21st century. These two points in history’s timeline communicate in an intriguing way, through the story. It is interesting to compare what it meant to be a woman in Ancient Greece and what it means to be a woman today. For example, there was a double standard regarding the status of men and women. Men were tolerated for socializing with courtesans, while women were punished for adultery and immoral behavior. Very interesting is the final reciprocity of this cultural code: if women continued to live immorally, their husbands came in danger of losing their civil rights. So, the marital institution is understood as a two-way relationship and a matter of honor and mutual responsibility. On the other hand, individualism, which is greatly emphasized in the 21st century, implies insisting on the freedom to express one’s personality, so frequent conflicts with the collective are not a strange thing. Searching for someone who will make us feel good is the focus, marriage doesn’t have anything to do with it.
  4. The psychology: Atwood really delves into the problems of the various social roles we all have to play (regardless of gender). What it means to have a mother who has never been there for you or a father who has abandoned you, or a cousin who is the most beautiful woman in the world (beautiful Helen of Troy) or what it feels like when you just cannot control your mother’s instinct and you suffocate your son – these are just some of the issues Atwood discusses, through the character of Penelope.
  5. Odyssey: See for yourself if this man did right by killing the maids after he returned to Ithaca. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, try comparing the scene of the massacre that Homer gave us with the modern one. It is rather interesting. Keep in mind the old saying – you cannot read in a book what you don’t already have inside of you.

French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out that, through history, human societies have expressed have themselves through their myths and miraculous stories, which contained universal values and feelings: stories about love, hatred or revenge. Modern writers communicate with myths, primarily in a desperate search for a story, but that’s okay – because this new era needs new myths.

Rewriting myths mean telling a new story. Reading a myth in a certain way tells a lot about our own values.

Today, movements for gender equality are often confronted with prejudices and convictions, both in the case of men and in the case of women. At the global level, there is a great disparity in terms of realizing women’s rights. Often women themselves view other women as overly radical feminists, feeling that today – such ideas are simply outdated. The fact is that – just because some women haven’t felt injustice personally (or have not yet regained consciousness about it) – it doesn’t mean that injustice isn’t present. Atwood’s shift of the focus of the myth (on women’s position) could be seen as a confirmation of that. We can even go a step further: understanding literature as an area of freedom, Atwood was able to express her views on the mythical story, but at the same time release her own personal feelings, through an authoritarian female voice, which in the XXI century might still be insufficiently heard. It is an easy read, but it had many layers. Definitely worth your time!

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