The third chapter returns to Penelope’s first-person narrative as Penelope wonders whether to begin her story at the beginning or elsewhere. She states that to truly start at the beginning, because of the timeline of cause and effect, she would have to start at the beginning of the world, so instead she will start with her own birth.
When Penelope states that, in order to truly start at the beginning with her story, she would have to start at the beginning of the world, she is perhaps implying that, since her story is part of a larger history of her gender, she cannot divorce herself from it.
Penelope tells the reader that her father was King Icarius of Sparta and her mother was a Naiad (a river spirit). Penelope goes on to recount the story that, when she was a baby, her father ordered her to be thrown into the ocean. Penelope believes this was because of a prophecy that Penelope would weave her father’s shroud, and so her father thought that if she could not weave it, he would never die. Penelope notes that she did not, in fact, weave his shroud, but rather her father-in-law’s.
Penelope’s early experience with her father shows how, from the time she was a child, her life has been colored by male violence. That her father acted based on a prophecy reinforces how stories and words are supremely influential, so much so that they could inspire infanticide. Icarius’s actions show how quick people are to act upon the stories that they hear.
Penelope deviates from her personal history to remark that teaching crafts has become less popular than it was when she was alive. She endorses crafting as a way to pretend to be busy and so not to have heard inappropriate things that people are saying.
Crafting and fiber works are often depicted as feminine arts and are one of the main symbols throughout the novel. They often are used to represent storytelling.
Penelope returns to the story of Icarius throwing her into the sea, saying that she may only have invented the shroud prophecy to make herself feel better. It’s hard, Penelope says, to know when she’s made a story up and when she’s heard it from someone else.
As she discusses her father’s attempt to kill her, Penelope suggests the possibility of using stories as a way to mitigate or disguise unpleasant realities.
Regardless, Penelope says, she was thrown into the sea, although she does not remember it. Someone else told her the story when she has a child, and this strained her relationship with her father. Penelope attributes her reserve and wariness to this near-drowning incident.
Although Penelope does not remember her father’s betrayal, the stories of his violence against her still affect her deeply, showing how powerfully stories can change viewpoints and affect relationships.
Since Penelope is the daughter of a Naiad, however, drowning her was not a smart plan. Her connections to the water and its creatures caused a flock of ducks to rescue her. As a result, Icarius took her back and gave her the nickname “duck.” She imagines that he felt guilty, since after that, he was overly affectionate towards her.
Penelope’s mother is a Naiad (water nymph), and Penelope believes that her maternal connections saved her. Penelope’s mother’s connection to water is one of many ways that Atwood links the ocean with women and motherhood.
Penelope, however, could not reciprocate Icarius’s affections. She remembers walking with her father along a cliff or riverbank and wondering if he might, at any moment, decide to try to kill her. Afterward, she would go to her room and cry. Penelope remarks that frequent crying is a common trait among people born to Naiads.
Although Icarius is now kind to Penelope, the knowledge of his violence against her makes Penelope unable to trust him. This serves as a representative example of the effect of historical violence against women, which creates lingering fear and mistrust.
Penelope goes on to describe her mother, who was beautiful but coldhearted. Penelope’s mother would slide away from Penelope if she tried to hug her. Penelope hopes that her mother sent the ducks to save her, but thinks that it probably wasn’t her, since her mother did not much like children. Penelope thinks that if her father had not thrown her into the sea, her mother might have done so herself because of her inattentiveness and moodiness. Penelope attributes her self-sufficiency to her childhood with her unsupportive parents.
While Penelope does think that her blood relation to her mother is part of what saved her, Penelope does not have a close emotional relationship with her whatsoever. In general, Penelope’s youth is devoid of strong female relationships, whether with a mother figure or peers her own age. It’s suggested that the lack of female community in Greece (at least among the upper class) is part of what makes women like Penelope so vulnerable.