This chapter returns to Penelope’s first-person narrative as she describes a recent look into the world of mortals after a medium opened up a connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Penelope says that it’s “amazing” how the living will not leave the dead alone, and mentions how, in her own time on earth, Sibyls were the ones who messed with fate and the dead, but at least they had more manners than modern magicians.
Penelope’s comments on how the living will not leave the dead alone, and how this trend has continued from Greek time through modern times, suggests how Ancient Greeks and modern people might not be so different in how they process mortality, as they all show interest in the afterlife and communicating with the dead.
According to Penelope, modern people only want to know about the economy and world politics and converse with people like “Marilyn” and “Adolf,” who Penelope does not know. Through using these windows opened by magicians, however, Penelope can keep track of Odysseus.
Atwood again slips into a more satirical and even humorous tone as she describes Penelope’s experience of the afterlife and modern times.
Penelope then explains how spirits can be reborn by drinking from the “Waters of Forgetfulness,” wiping their past lives from their memories. Penelope notes, though, that this does not work especially well, and lots of people remember everything. According to Penelope, Helen has used this option a lot, and when she returns she tells Penelope all about the changes in fashion trends, and then about how many empires and men she ruined.
As Penelope discusses the “waters of forgetfulness,” she shows an aspect of Greek spiritual life that does not exist in Christianity: reincarnation. Through this ability to be reborn into modern society, the Ancient Greeks track changes in culture that perplex them, just as their culture confuses modern people.
Penelope informs Helen that interpretations of the Trojan War have changed—now everyone thinks Helen was a myth and the war was really about trade routes. Helen tells Penelope not to be jealous, and says that Penelope should come with her to the world of the living so they can take a trip to Las Vegas. She then remarks that Penelope would probably rather stay at home like a good wife since she, unlike Helen, is a “homebody.”
Penelope’s comment to Helen about how people now think that she is a myth is humorous. It also suggests that, while many myths are likely not true, it’s possible that in dismissing these myths people might fail to recognize real history and truth in the stories. Helen and Penelope’s competition, meanwhile, continues even thousands of years later.
Penelope admits that she is right, and that she will never drink from the Waters of Forgetfulness because she cannot take the risk. After all, the next life may be even worse. Penelope thinks the modern world is just as dangerous as the ancient one, and human nature is as bad as ever.
Penelope’s conclusion that human nature has not improved suggests that narratives of progress are incorrect (or at least incomplete), and society has changed without necessarily improving.
Odysseus, Penelope notes, drinks the water very often. When he comes back to the afterlife, he acts happy to see Penelope and tells her that home life with her is all he ever wanted. They take walks and tell stories together as Odysseus tells her what Telemachus, also living next lives, is up to. Then, just when Penelope is starting to believe she can forgive Odysseus and they can be together, Odysseus goes and gets reborn again.
Odysseus’s choice to drink the water and be reborn repeatedly means that he and Penelope must replay their separation and Odysseus’s homecoming over and over again in afterlife. Penelope, though she recognizes this cycle, still gets her hopes up every time, unable to resist the idea of a loving husband.
Penelope thinks that Odysseus means it when he says he wants to be with her, but that “some forces” always tear them apart. Penelope believes this force is the Maids, who will not leave him be in the afterlife. In his rebirths, Odysseus has lived all kinds of different lives, with each of them ending badly. Penelope yells at the Maids, asking why they will not leave Odysseus alone, and what more they want from him. In response, they only glide away with their feet twitching like they did in death, not touching the floor.
Penelope’s conviction that it is the Maids that drive her and Odysseus apart seems misguided, since Odysseus chose to stay away from Ithaca after the Trojan War of his own accord (or, alternatively, because of Poseidon, but Atwood heavily suggests that this is a lie). Penelope blames the Maids for her separation from Odysseus, scapegoating them even after their deaths.