The Penelopiad


Margaret Atwood

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The Penelopiad: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Penelope decides to address the rumors that have been circulating about her since ever she was alive, declaring them all patently untrue. The stories, Penelope says, regard her sexual conduct. According to Penelope, these stories allege that Penelope slept with one suitor that was particularly polite. Penelope admits that she led the Suitors on and made promises to them, but asserts that this was all part of her strategy. She made promises in order to get them to give her expensive gifts and recuperate some of her losses. Penelope insists that Odysseus approved of her behavior.
Penelope’s descriptions of the rumors surrounding her cast doubt on her own version of events, which, until this moment, seemed to be a corrective to the events as described in the Odyssey. Penelope’s changes to the understanding of her role in the myth did open up questions of narrative unreliability and lying, but the reader would likely not expect that Penelope’s own narrative could be just as unreliable as Homer’s.
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One of the wildest stories that Penelope heard was that she slept with all of the Suitors and then gave birth to the god Pan. Penelope wonders who would believe such nonsense. Some people take Anticleia’s silence to Odysseus regarding the Suitors in the afterlife as proof that Penelope slept with them. Penelope argues, though, that Anticleia disliked her from the first, and so could have been trying to turn Odysseus against her.
The myth that Penelope gave birth to the god Pan is only as unlikely as the mythological (and more noble) version of Odysseus’s journey home, which Penelope seems to believe. This suggests, perhaps, that Penelope should not be so quick to believe Odysseus’s embellished version of his own story.
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Still other people believe that, because Penelope did not punish the Twelve Maids, Penelope must have been having sex with the Suitors herself. Penelope, however, has already explained that.
The assumption that Penelope must be having sex because she did not punish the Maids shows again how Greeks stigmatize female promiscuity.
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Other people allege that Odysseus did not reveal himself to Penelope when he first arrived back in Ithaca because he did not trust her. Penelope states, however, that the real reason was because Odysseus was afraid she would cry tears of joy and reveal his identity. This is why he locked Penelope in her room while he killed the Suitors. Penelope insists that Odysseus would not have wanted to expose her to such sights. She says that if Odysseus had known of these rumors during his lifetime, he would have punished the people spreading them.
Penelope’s excessive protest against the rumors of her behavior in Odysseus’s absence only casts doubt on the reliability of her narrative.
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