The Penelopiad opens with Penelope, the first-person narrator, quoting herself saying, “now that I’m dead, I know everything.” Penelope then goes on to say that this wish did not come true, at least not totally. Death, Penelope thinks, despite the knowledge it does bring, is not worth the cost. She even says that she would rather not know some of the things she has learned.
In the opening section of her narrative, Penelope immediately draws attention to the fact that she is dead, highlighting the setting as the afterlife and introducing the theme of Ancient Greek religious views, which recurs throughout the text.
Penelope begins to describe the afterlife, stating that everyone arrives to the underworld in a sack “full of words—words you’ve spoken, words you’ve heard, words that have been said about you.” Penelope notes that her own sack was full of words about her husband, and that some people say that her husband made a fool of her and got away with everything.
Penelope’s description of the “sack full of words” shows the central role that stories, rumors, and myths play in the book, and the importance they have in determining and shaping one’s identity—both as it’s experienced and as it’s perceived by others.
Odysseus’s account, Penelope thinks, was always so “plausible,” and many people believed his account of things while taking the mythology with a grain of salt. Penelope admits that even she believed him often, thinking that he would not lie to her since she was such a loyal wife.
This section seems to be somewhat ironic, considering how Odysseus’s adventures in the Odyssey are already highly mythologized. Belief in Odysseus’s account seems to have been part of Penelope’s role as his wife.
Bitterly, Penelope thinks that all she amounted to was a “stick used to beat other women with,” since all the storytellers considered her the model of a faithful wife. Penelope wanted to scream at other women and tell them not to be like her. Penelope admits that she always knew that Odysseus was tricky, but that she pretended not to see that side of him. Instead, she kept her doubts to herself because she “wanted happy endings.” Now, though, Penelope realizes that lots of people were mocking her in secret. They told stories about her that Penelope calls “scandalous gossip,” but that she says will only make her seem guilty if she denies them.
Penelope feels that the official version of events flattened her character into a means of controlling other women (making her an ideal of blind faithfulness and constancy toward her husband, to a standard to which other women were then held), showing how narrative can be oppressive. As Penelope continues, suggesting she remained silent because she wanted “happy endings,” Atwood shows how the normal narrative structure itself can be distortive and suppressive. As Penelope describes the rumors about her, Atwood continues to show this more damaging side of narrative.
Penelope decides that it is her turn to make her own story now, because she owes it to herself. She notes that storytelling is a “low art,” and that people would have laughed if she had tried to be a storyteller in the past. However, Penelope states that she no longer cares about public opinion, so she will continue with her story. Penelope states that her lack of a physical body makes speaking difficult, and she has no one to listen to her story. Still, she is determined to tell it.
As Penelope describes storytelling as a “low art,” the reader may think of the various other arts—like fiber work, which is so central to this story— that have been described as “low,” and how these “low” art forms are often associated with women and femininity.