The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad Chapter 26 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter, taking up the Maids’ perspective, takes the form of a transcript of a videotape of an imagined trial for Odysseus. The chapter opens with Odysseus’s defense attorney asserting Odysseus’s innocence in the murders of the Suitors and the Maids. The Attorney suggests that it was justified for Odysseus to kill the Suitors since they had been eating his food without permission and had plotted to kill Telemachus.
In this chapter, Atwood actively engages with the idea of justice, imagining what it might be like if Odysseus were brought to trial in a modern court. This modern court reflects the reader’s own headspace while reading The Penelopiad or the Odyssey, as the reader is forced to judge Odysseus for themselves.
Themes
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Apparently, the prosecutor finds Odysseus’s reaction to have been an overreaction, especially since the Suitors offered to compensate him for his losses. However, the defense attorney notes that the men did nothing to try to respect Odysseus’s estate and family, and so their word was not necessarily trustworthy. The defense attorney comments that the Suitors had no reason not to murder Odysseus, and so his actions could be proactive self-defense. The defense attorney asks that the judge dismiss the case. The judge states that he is inclined to agree.
The defense attorney’s argument focuses on Odysseus’s property rights as an excuse for killing the Suitors—a problematic argument to say the least, especially considering that a significant portion of Odysseus’s property was made up of slaves, and slavery clearly conflicts with modern morality and law. But this line of argument is effective in the modern court, however, as the judge agrees.
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In response, the Twelve Maids, with ropes around their necks, yell and cause a commotion in the courthouse, alleging that Odysseus hanged them as well. The judge says that this allegation is new, and asks to hear the lawyers’ arguments about it. The defense attorney says that since the women were his slaves, killing them was within his rights.
The fact that the judge has never heard the Maids’ allegation against Odysseus before perhaps speaks to the fact that readings of the Odyssey have been focused on men and not women. Meanwhile, the defense attorney continues to argue for property rights.
Themes
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The judge, unsatisfied, asks what they did to be hanged. The defense attorney states that they, the “best-looking” and “most beddable” Maids, had sex without permission with the Suitors. The judge leafs through the Odyssey, saying that they need to consult it since it is “the main authority on the subject,” even though it has too much sex and violence. The judge points to a passage saying that the maids, who were totally unprotected, were raped, and asks the defense attorney if that is true.
Although the judge seemed taken with property rights arguments initially, he draws the line at slavery as justification for murder. Yet the judge also sees the Odyssey as the only authoritative text about the murders, and uses the male-focused text, rather than the Maids’ own testimony, to “prove” that they were raped.
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The defense attorney says he does not know, since it was three or four thousand years before. The judge calls Penelope for a witness, who says she was asleep, and can only recount what the maids told her, which was that they were raped. The judge asks if she believed them, and Penelope says she “tended to.”
Penelope’s support for the Maids is lukewarm, as she says she “tended to” believe them, and she cannot verify their statements, despite the fact that Penelope earlier said that she herself took care of the girls who were raped.
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The judge notes that the Maids were frequently rude, and asks why Penelope did not punish them. Penelope states that they were like daughters to her. She starts to cry and says she felt sorry for them, but notes that “most maids got raped” at some point. Anyway, Penelope states, it was not their rapes that were the problem, but the fact that they were raped “without permission.”
The trial deviates from accusations of Odysseus’s murders as the judge focuses on irrelevant details of the Maids’ behavior, like the fact that they were “rude”—a classic example of victim-blaming, a practice that (as Atwood points out with bitter irony) has not changed even in “modern” times. Penelope, meanwhile, does not admit that the Maids were spying on the Suitors for her.
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The judge laughs and asks if that is not the definition of rape, and the defense attorney clarifies that she means their master’s permission. The judge points out that Odysseus was not there to give permission, and that, whether the maids consented or not, they would be forced to sleep with the Suitors. However, the judge concedes that Odysseus’s times “were not our times” and that standards of behavior were different. He then states that he would not want to let such a “minor incident” ruin Odysseus’s career, and that he would not want his condemning Odysseus to seem anachronistic. Hence, the judge dismisses the case.
As Penelope and the judge discuss the sickening idea of “rape without permission,” Atwood highlights how the Maids’ slave status practically guarantees that they will experience gendered violence. The judge’s familiar, modern statement that he does not want to stain Odysseus’s “career” undermines his argument that he cannot judge Odysseus because his times were so different—clearly, they are largely still the same.
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The Maids begin to yell, demanding justice and calling on the Furies. The Furies appear, and the Maids ask them to inflict punishment on Odysseus and hunt him down, never letting him rest. The Furies poise themselves to attack Odysseus. The defense attorney then calls on Athene to defend Odysseus’s “property rights” and protect Odysseus. The Judge, confused and shocked, demands order in the court as it dissolves into chaos.
When the judge fails to deliver the justice that the Maids hope for, they call upon the mythological Furies, female goddesses whose job is to enact vengeance on men. The modern justice system, rather than rectifying the injustice done to the maids in the past, offers no punishment for Odysseus and so they are forced to call upon more ancient and brutal forces. This scene of Athena vs. the Furies also echoes Aeschylus’s play The Eumenides.
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