This chapter returns to the Maids’ narrative, and like in Penelope’s prior chapter, they discuss childhood. Their own parents, they note, were poor peasants or slaves or people who sold them. Unlike Penelope’s parents, their parents were not Naiads.
Although Penelope’s childhood may have been difficult, the Maids show how their poverty and low social class from birth made their childhoods infinitely more dangerous.
During their childhood, the Maids worked in the palace all day long, with no rest or comfort. They were verbally abused and told they were parentless, lazy, and dirty. The Maids say they were “dirty girls” and note how they could not refuse when their owners or noblemen wanted to sleep with them, even if they cried or were in pain. The Maids emphasize that this happened to them when they were still children.
Because of their status as female slaves, the Maids not only have to work all day, but they also suffer the constant threat of sexual abuse and rape. Atwood here shows how class status compounds with gender to leave slave women extremely susceptible to gendered violence.
The Maids discuss doing the work to put on wedding feasts but never having their own, and not having gifts exchanged for them because their “bodies had little value.” Still, they say, they also wanted to be happy. So as they grew older they learned to attract and sleep with men, to drink leftover wine, to spit in their masters’ food, and to laugh together.
While marriage is, to Penelope, a kind of monetary exchange, the Maids see marriage as a privilege. To them, marriage is a way of establishing that their bodies have value. Atwood shows how systems of oppression like marriage can look different depending on class status.