Representation of the Female Perspective in The Penelopiad
Özge Özkan Gürcü, Ege University, Turkey
The Odyssey written by Homer, an epic poem that has gained worldwide popularity since it was written centuries ago, portrays the adventures of Odysseus till he returns home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. The epic favours the male perspective, thereby highlighting the qualities of a patriarchal society that esteems the valour and strength attributed to men, and leaves aside the expectations and emotions of the female characters. Their voice thus being muted, women have no right in interfering in the order implemented by men, which denies them any chance of existence other than their roles as wives and mothers in the domestic sphere. Taking into consideration the female perspective that is left unattended in the Odyssey, Margaret Atwood provides the readers with her rewriting of the story – the Penelopiad – in which she challenges the patriarchal authority of the original text and transfers the priority to the female perspective in her account of the story. Therefore, this essay shall be concerned with illustrating how Atwood indulges in her attempt to expose how the Odyssey silences the female voice, and strives to compensate for this loss by structuring her account of the story on Odysseus’s wife Penelope, and her twelve maids who are punished to death.
Initially, Atwood gives a brief introduction to her story, in which she summarises the basic plot of the original text. Nevertheless, the Odyssey is not the sole material constituting the source for her text, as she mentions how she consulted other materials, especially those giving information on Penelope’s parentage, early marriage, and the rumours about her (xv). Since “mythic material was originally oral and local”, it would differ each time it was told (xv). At this point Atwood confesses her intention in rewriting the Odyssey. Upon realising that the original text hosts gaps and inconsistencies concerning the female characters, Atwood is determined to solve the mystery of this concealment that is left unresolved in the original text, and tries to discover the reasons for two striking aspects regarding Penelope and the twelve maids: “what led to the hanging of the maids, and what Penelope was really up to” (xv).
Regarding the first chapter, it is quite striking that the first setting in Atwood’s plot is the Underworld, which is revealed by Penelope: “Now that I’m dead I know everything” (1). So, Atwood’s intention is presented to the reader right from the outset: she aims at producing an alternative reading of the original text, and she does this by breaking free from the conventional narrative techniques. Therefore, Atwood employs multiple narrators, including Penelope and her twelve maids, thereby allowing multiple voices to achieve the objectivity that remains unquestioned in the narration of a single voice.
In this case, Penelope’s sole existence as a ghost shows that this text shall benefit from different techniques to evoke an awareness as to what the original text conceals or who it ignores. Moreover, it is customary for Atwood to make connections between the living and the Underworld in her works: This obsession with the transgression of boundaries between the living and the dead, which is one of the markers of Gothic sensibility, has characterized Atwood’s poetry and fiction from its beginnings, and for her the creative writing process itself is haunted by intimations of mortality (Howells 7).
Furthermore, Penelope’s existence as ghost signifies that she is informed of “things she would rather not know” (1), hinting that she is informed about the mysteries that had been unresolved and the truth about the maids that was kept secret in the Odyssey. The mystery referred to in this context concerns not only Penelope’s fidelity as the wife who is expected to endure twenty years of solitude despite the influx of suitors, but also the realibility and chastity of the twelve maids:
It seems that Atwood is using Penelope’s story to tell another story within it: the story of the hanged maids, who, like the Handmaids of Gilead, have been relegated to the margins of the epic narrative: ‘From the point of view of future history, we’ll be invisible.’ Writing against this erasure, Atwood uses her novelistic imagination to expand Homer’s text, giving voice to this group of powerless silenced women. Not surprisingly, their stories are very subversive, not only of the masculine heroics of The Odyssey but also of Penelope’s True Confessions (Howells 6).
In the first chapter “A Low Art”, Penelope mentions how everyone arrives at the Underworld with a sack in which words – “words that you have spoken, words you have heard, words that have been said about you” are carried (1). Penelope stresses how her sack contains words mainly about her husband, thus showing the reader how her existence as an individual is subordinate to the husband, and is considered mainly in terms of her relationship with the male-dominated world. Moreover, this symbolises how language is employed as a means of lending credibility to male authority: not the slightest doubt is shed on the sincerity of man’s words. For instance, Penelope is well aware that her husband is apt to decive others, but nonetheless acknowledges that he mostly gets away with his lies : “nature had nourished him with the gift of convincing people into believing in his lies and getting away with it” (1).
Moreover, Penelope is informed how others make gossip about her and her husband. As to the rumours about her infidelity, Penelope maintains that she cannot defend herself against any gossip, since this would mean that she accepts the blame for the accusations. In addition, Penelope mentions how she is reduced to what others make of her, thereby illustrating how her depiction is dependent upon the narrator’s conception about her and thus changes from one story to another. Likewise, in Homer’s the Odyssey, Penelope becomes the perfect example of patriarchy’s influence upon the woman as she “amounted to an edifying legend, a stick used to beat other women with” on grounds that she faithfully “waited and waited for her husband despite the tepmptation- almost the compulsion – to do otherwise”(1).
As to Atwood’s rewriting of her story, now that she is dead, hence devoid of any pressure constraining her, being a ghost provides her with the chance - the voice - to reveal her inner thoughts and feelings, which have hitherto been ignored: “In Atwood’s poems and short fictions there are many women who speak out of ancient myths and legends, given a voice for the first time through her literary imagination to dissent from the cultural myths imposed upon them” (Howells 8). This turns the reader’s attention to Atwood’s aim in her retelling of the Odyssey, as “Atwood’s project is to “retell The Odyssey as ‘herstory’ as she engages in the kind of feminist revisionist mythmaking at which, in common with Hélène Cixous and Adrienne Rich, she is so adept” (8).
Apart from the presentation of her protagonist in the Underworld, what makes Atwood’s story different is that it also refers to Penelope’s life before her marriage to Odysseus, depicting at length the arrangement of her marriage and how she functioned as an object of exchange in the patriarchal world. Penelope is of semidivine birth, with a Naiad as her mother, and King Icarus of Sparta as her father. However, there seems to be a lack of attachment among the family members, especially with her father who ordered her to be thrown into the sea after being told that Penelope would weave his shroud (5). Her mother is not affectionate towards her, either as Penelope confesses how her mother “might have dropped her into the sea in a fit of absent-mindedness or irritation”, thereby leaving her no choice other than learning how to be self-sufficient (7). Therefore, it is evident that Penelope could not rely on her family’s support.
Furthermore, Penelopiad’s arranged marriage and the wedding ceremony serve as a representation of the ancient Greek tradition in which “only important people had marriages, because only important people had inheritances” (13). Moreover, “children were regarded as vehicles for passing things along”, which could be “kingdoms, rich wedding gifts, stories, grudges, blood feuds” (13). This exchange of goods and gifts was common in ancient Greece, where “Greek traditions going back to Homer place gift-giving at the center of human relationships, and show both men and woman as participants” (Lyons 93). Therefore, “the Penelopiad pays attention to the details of cultural life and belief in ancient Greece as retailed in The Odyssey, while recognizing the gap between that world and our own” (Howells 10).
Besides reflecting the conventions of the Greek tradition, the marriage ceremony depicted in the book brings about two important aspects prevailing in the society: gender and class. As to the former, namely the gender distinction, Penelope mentions how the ancient Greek society favoured sons over daughters, since “the more sword-wielders and speaker-throwers you could count on from within your family the better” (14). As to the latter, class distinction had a crucial role in the arrangement of marriages, on grounds that marriage was restricted to the nobility. Likewise, the importance of class distinction shall be handled at length later on while analysing Penelope’s relationship with the twelve maids.
In unison with the ancient custom of competition in order to qualify for marrying a noble woman, men had to win the contest organised beforehand (the Penelopiad 15). The winner would obtain his prize – the noble woman, as well as wealth accumulated through marriage – such as “gold cups, silver bowls, horses, robes, and waepons” (15). However, the treasure remained with the bride’s family, because “under the ancient customs, the huge pile of sparkling wedding loot stayed with the bride’s family, in the bride’s family’s place (16). Penelope is aware that all the men who take part in the contest to win her are in fact seeking to obtain not Penelope herself, “but only what comes with her – the royal connection” (17).
As a matter of fact, Penelope thus acknowledges that she will marry the man dictated by tradition, thereby showing how the woman is denied both the right to choose her future husband and interference in this order implemented by man. However, to compensate for the restriction imposed upon her, Penelope manages to engage with the contest with the aid of the maids. Penelope introduces the maids to the reader as her confidants, referring to them as her “sources of information” (18). So, she adheres to plotting with the maids for her own benefit, which foreshadows how she will eventually be responsible for their death. Penelope does not hesitate to employ the maids, who are members of the lower class, as seductresses to get the information she desires, as “no one cared who might worm his way in between their legs” (18). Nevertheless, the fact that Penelope thus takes advantage of the maids should be judged on the merits of her status. As she has to keep up with the reputation that patriarchy inflicts on the women of her social class, she cannot have any intimate relationship with men so as not to risk her marriage, instead she uses the maids as a bait against men: In a society in some sense founded on the circulation of women, the possibility that a woman’s circulation will not end with her marriage remains an ever-present threat. At the heart of this anxiety is a fundamental conceptualization of women as objects, not agents, of exchange (Lyons 95).
In addition, Penelope does not merely treat the maids as servants. Instead, they get on friendly terms, as is the case when she sees Odysseus for the first time at the contest, informed by the maids that he is reputed “never to have won anything fairly in his life” (19). In fact, Penelope’s description of Odysseus forms a contrast with his fame as a strong and well-built warrior in the Odyssey (167) , as she refers to the defects in his physical appearance: “the legs of Odysseus were quite short in relation to his body” (20). This serves as an instance of how Atwood supplies the reader with an alternative to what is taken for granted, since her description of Odysseus contradicts those in the original text that praise his strength and appearance.
Furthermore, the emergence of Helen at this moment reveals the rivalry between the two women: Helen teases Penelope that Odysseus will be a good match for her, since “both have such short legs” (21). She insists on degrading Penelope, implying that she is not beautiful, as she ironically consoles Penelope that Odysseus is clever, just like her. So Helen and Penelope provide the reader with two different representations of womanhood. Whereas Penelope represents the obedient chaste woman giving birth to children, and taking care of the household, thereby fulfilling the domestic roles that patriarchy expects from her, Helen represents the femme fatale who possesses the seductiveness that Penelope lacks.
However, at the centre of the book lies neither Helen nor Penelope, but the twelve maids who are given voice via the chorus lines in the text. The reader witnesses how the maids in Atwood’s narration are spared from the silencing in Homer’s Odyssey, where their punishment is considered obligatory from the male perspective. Instead, Atwood’s text allows them to narrators thanks to the chapters devoted to the chorus, thereby shedding light on the mystery of their death that had been left unquestioned in the original text. The distinction of class, which I had mentioned earlier, gains a decisive role in the lives of the maids. This is explicitly illustrated in Chapter X, where the maids inform the readers about the birth of Telemachus. The maids grow up together with Telemachus, and are even playmates. However, they are not treated in the same way owing to their social status: they were born as servants whereas he was born noble. Moreover, the maids mention how Telemachus regarded them as his possesion, and expected them to do whatever he pleased. The maids obeyed him, living in ignorance of the fact that he would kill them in the future.
Nevertheless, it is not Telemachus who is accused by the maids. Instead, Penelope is the target of their anger, and she bears the responsibility for their murder: “They blame her for their deaths and they accuse her of repeated infidelities with the suitors, always maintaining that she connived in their hanging because they knew too much” (Howells 5). This is indeed the case, because it was Penelope who had used them as spies to get information from the suitors. Penelope admits how she requested the help of her maidservants in her plot to undo the shroud that she used to knit during the day, thereby never finishing the sacred work that she had made up as an excuse for not choosing a new husband. Moreover, she ordered them “to hang around the Suitors and spy on them, using whatever enticing arts they could invent” (45). It was common at that time for the guests of a household to sleep with the maids, as they were considered to be “part of a good host’s hospitality” (45). This plan resulted in failure, on grounds that most of the maids were raped or seduced.
Moreover, Penelope does not protect the maids when Odysseus finally returns back and considers them disloyal. Even though it was Penelope herself who allowed their intimacy with the suitors for her own benefit, she does not interfere in Odysseus’s and Telemachus’s decision to hang them. So, Penelope betrays or sacrifices her own kind to establish her own security in a patriarchal world. She relates how Eurycleia chose the maids who would be hanged, giving away especially the ones she disliked, those who “who used to thumb their noses at her” (200). She explains how she kept silent for her own survival, reflecting again the muteness of women at times of pressure by the patriarchy.
However, the Penelopiad challenges the silencing of women in Homer’s Odyssey, and provides them with the freedom of speech that they could not achieve in the patriarchal world. By employing multiple narrators, all composed of women, Atwood highlights what had been neglected in the original source, and presents an alternative reading in which the mystery concerning the maids is essentail: “Atwood’s most striking innovation in The Penelopiad is to bring to the center the maids of Odysseus who were executed by their master upon his return” (Suzuki 271). So, their hanging functions as the basic mystery of the text, and constitutes Atwood’s motivation for rewriting the myth of Odysseus. Moreover, the maids represent not only matters concerning the female gender, but also represent the usurpation of the lower class, which victimises them and even causes their death.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Howells, Coral Ann. “Five Ways of Looking at The Penelopiad”. Sydney Studies in English. Vol. 32, 2006. 5-18.
Lyons, Deborah. “Dangerous Gifts: Ideologies of Marriage and Exchange in Ancient Greece”. Classical Antiquity, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2003): 93-134. JSTOR. Web 25 Jun. 2012.
Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad , Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005.
Suzuki, Mihoko. “Rewriting the Odyssey in the Twenty-First Century: Mary Zimmerman’s Odyssey and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad”. College Literature, Vol. 34, No. 2 JSTOR. Web 05 Jul. 2012.