Atwood’s feminism has been apparent ever since her first novel The Edible Woman, and this novel is no different. Speaking in her introduction of her unease with the discrepancies in the original myth, and its failings to explain and unravel the lives of its female characters, she hopes to answer two questions: “What led to the hanging of the maids?” and “What was Penelope really up to?” By drawing on “multiple sources” Atwood manages not only to recount Penelope’s life while her husband was away but also contextualise this time in her life by exploring Penelope’s childhood and family life. Having only read The Odyssey, one may never know why Penelope was an avid crier (“A handicap of the Naiad born”); seeing this as a weakness rather than a genetic disposition.
That is not to say Atwood creates a perfect, resilient woman in Penelope. Taking note of the Penelope’s female historical contemporaries, she understands that Penelope is not a powerful, all-knowing woman who can do as she pleases. Her weaknesses include having “little authority” over other nobles and family members at Ithaca, a weak sense of self (often being offended by what others say of her), and less of a grasp of social etiquette than you might expect of a Princess of Sparta.
The reader learns that Penelope is recounting her life after her death right in the first line, where we also learn that the events of Penelope’s life were not only confusing to others but also to herself, and that many aspects of the original story are not known, even to those involved. Later in the novella a minstrel makes the suggestion that the Cyclopes the Odysseus fights is only a “one-eyed tavern keeper”.
Unlike many of Atwood’s other novels, The Penelopiad focuses more on viewpoint than an incident-led plot; a relatively uneventful story arc for Penelope reaches its climax while she herself is asleep, later being told of the slaughter she missed. Atwood often comments on sexual politics, here showing how Penelope’s seclusion, brought about through people believing she was too delicate to include in political or dangerous matters, leads to her experiencing an extremely poignant sense of grief and a deep feeling of guilt over the death of the maids she herself assigned to the suitors.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book are the chorus chapters, dispersed in alternation with Penelope’s monologue, which consists of the 12 maids recounting how they feel about the events Penelope has just discussed, from their own childhoods to the day they were hanged. This parallel between someone who feels let down by society and as if she had nothing left to live for and the maids, who are truly hated and disregarded by society, keeps both the novel and the reader grounded; we focus on distinguishing what is a true injustice over what may be simply an overreaction from an emotional princess. By including the maids' own view and their hatred of both Homer’s protagonist and Atwood’s, Atwood cunningly undermines Penelope’s story and creates a jarring conflict inside the reader. Who is the real, downtrodden heroine of the story?
Throughout this novel Atwood manages to combine strong political messages on sexism and power with deadpan comedy (“She’d turned men into pigs – not a hard job in my view”) to create a wonderfully refreshing retelling of a beloved classic. However, while the story succeeds in answering Atwood’s original questions, and gives an interesting insight into the lives Odysseus left behind when he sailed for Troy, the book somehow leaves something to be desired. Some of the extra information seems a little too much like idle speculation and padding. While The Penelopiad may not stand up to in-depth examination, it will certainly excite and entertain the reader during their time spent reading it.