The Penelopiad

The Twelve Maids Character Analysis

The Twelve Maids are Penelope’s twelve most trusted servants, whom she raised since they were children. Throughout the novel, the Maids, acting as a Greek Chorus, give their own perspective on the events of the plot, sometimes contradicting Penelope’s account. The Maids are the daughters of poor women and slaves and they have spent their entire lives working for Penelope and her family. The Maids are devoted to Penelope and they help her during Odysseus’s absence. They Maids spy on the Suitors for her, sometimes falling in love with or being raped by the men in the process. In order to gain the Suitors’ trust, Penelope commands the Maids to say bad things about her and Odysseus. At night, the Maids also help to unravel the shroud that Penelope weaves for Laertes in order to procrastinate choosing one of the Suitors. At the book’s end, Odysseus orders the Maids to be killed, and Telemachus hangs them. In the afterlife, the Maids haunt Odysseus.

The Twelve Maids Quotes in The Penelopiad

The The Penelopiad quotes below are all either spoken by The Twelve Maids or refer to The Twelve Maids. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Canongate Books edition of The Penelopiad published in 2006.
Chapter 4 Quotes

We were told we were dirty. We were dirty. Dirt was our concern, dirt was our business, dirt was our specialty, dirt was our fault. We were the dirty girls. If our owners or the sons of our owners or a visiting nobleman or the sons of a visiting nobleman wanted to sleep with us, we could not refuse.

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker)
Page Number: 12-13
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 8 Quotes

Oh gods and oh prophets, please alter my life,
And let a young hero take me for his wife!
But no hero comes to me, early or late—
Hard work is my destiny, death is my fate!

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 10 Quotes

Nine months he sailed the wine-red seas of his mother’s blood…
In his frail dark boat, the boat of himself,
Through the dangerous ocean of his vast mother he sailed
From the distant cave where the threads of men’s lives are spun,
Then measured, and then cut short
By the Three Fatal Sisters, intent on their gruesome handicrafts,
And the lives of women also are twisted into the strand…

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker), Telemachus , The Fates
Related Symbols: Weaving and Fiber Work , Water
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 15 Quotes

Though we had to do it carefully, and talk in whispers, these nights had a touch of festivity about them, a touch—even—of hilarity… We told stories as we worked away at our task of destruction; we shared riddles, we made jokes… We were almost like sisters. In the mornings… we’d exchange smiles of complicity… Their ‘Yes ma’ams’ and ‘No ma’ams’ hovered on the edge of laughter, as if neither they nor I could take their servile behavior seriously.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: Weaving and Fiber Work
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:
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It was not unusual for the guests in a large household or palace to sleep with the maids. To provide a lively night’s entertainment was considered part of a good host’s hospitality, and such a host would magnanimously offer his guests their pick of the girls—but it was most irregular for the servants to be used in this way without the permission of the master of the house. Such an act amounted to thievery.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), The Suitors, The Twelve Maids
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 19 Quotes

I then related a dream of mine. It concerned my flock of lovely white geese, geese of which I was very fond. I dreamt that they were happily pecking around the yard when a huge eagle with a crooked beak swooped down and killed them all, whereupon I wept and wept.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Odysseus, The Suitors, The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 21 Quotes

Let us just say: There is another story.
Or several, as befits the goddess Rumour…
Word has it that Penelope the Prissy
Was—when it came to sex— no shrinking sissy!
Some said…that each and every brisk contender
By turns did have the fortune to upend her,
By which promiscuous acts the goat-god Pan
Was then conceived, or so the fable ran.
The truth, dear auditors, is seldom certain—
But let us take a peek behind the curtain!

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker), Penelope , The Suitors, Pan
Page Number: 147-148
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 23 Quotes

‘Only twelve,’ she faltered. ‘The impertinent ones. The ones who’d been rude… They were notorious whores.’
‘The ones who’d been raped,’ I said. ‘The youngest. The most beautiful.’ My eyes and ears among the Suitors, I did not add. My helpers during the long nights of the shroud. My snow-white geese. My thrushes, my doves.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Eurycleia (speaker), The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths , Water
Page Number: 159-160
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 24 Quotes

No, Sir, we deny that this theory is merely unfounded feminist claptrap. We can understand your reluctance to have such things brought out into the open—rapes and murders are not pleasant subjects—but such overthrows most certainly took place all around the Mediterranean Sea, as excavations at prehistoric sites have demonstrated over and over.

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:
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Point being that you don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 26 Quotes

Your client’s times were not our times. Standards of behaviour were different then. It would be unfortunate if this regrettable but minor incident were allowed to stand as a blot on an otherwise exceedingly distinguished career. Also I do not wish to be guilty of an anachronism. Therefore I must dismiss the case.

Related Characters: Odysseus, The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Twelve Maids Character Timeline in The Penelopiad

The timeline below shows where the character The Twelve Maids appears in The Penelopiad. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2: The Chorus Line: A Rope-Jumping Rhyme
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The chorus of Twelve Maids narrates this chapter in first-person verse. In their poem, the Maids address an unknown second... (full context)
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The Maids note that Odysseus was armed with words and a spear. The Maids say that they... (full context)
Chapter 4: The Chorus Line: Kiddie Mourn, A Lament by the Maids
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This chapter returns to the Maids’ narrative, and like in Penelope’s prior chapter, they discuss childhood. Their own parents, they note,... (full context)
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During their childhood, the Maids worked in the palace all day long, with no rest or comfort. They were verbally... (full context)
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The Maids discuss doing the work to put on wedding feasts but never having their own, and... (full context)
Chapter 8: The Chorus Line: If I Was A Princess, A Popular Tune
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...the form of song lyrics and stage directions, to be performed by the chorus of Maids with instruments. The first maid describes how happy her life would be as a princess... (full context)
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A second Maid describes her life as a servant running errands for her master and mistress, putting on... (full context)
Chapter 10: The Chorus Line: The Birth of Telemachus, An Idyll
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This chapter takes the form of a first person poem narrated by the chorus of Maids. They describe Telemachus’s birth, saying how he “sailed” through his mother’s blood for nine months... (full context)
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The Maids state that they, who would eventually be killed by Telemachus and Odysseus, made the same... (full context)
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The Maids describe themselves as “animal young,” to be sold or killed at will, and highlight the... (full context)
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The Maids state that, as they played together as children, they did not know that Telemachus would... (full context)
Chapter 13: The Chorus Line: The Wily Sea Captain, A Sea Shanty
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This chapter consists of the lyrics to a song performed by the Twelve Maids while wearing sailor costumes, in which they give their own account of Odysseus’s travels as... (full context)
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The Maids toast to Captain Odysseus, describing him as “gallant” wherever he is, whether in the trees... (full context)
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...was ultimately found by Nausicaa’s maids on a beach while they were doing laundry. The Maids say that no one can tell what the Fates have in store, not even Odysseus,... (full context)
Chapter 14: The Suitors Stuff Their Faces
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After the feast, Penelope’s Maids would tell Penelope the nasty things the Suitors had said behind her back, calling her... (full context)
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Penelope’s tears meant that the Maids could cry too and console her, which Penelope thinks was a “relief to their nerves.”... (full context)
Chapter 15: The Shroud
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Penelope chose twelve Maids that she had raised since they were children to help her with this task. Penelope... (full context)
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Ultimately, Penelope states, one of these Maids betrayed her secret unweaving of the shroud. She thinks it was an accident, and isn’t... (full context)
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Because she told them to spend time with the Suitors, several of the Maids were raped and others fell in love with the Suitors. Penelope notes that it was... (full context)
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Penelope comforted the Maids after their encounters, since many of them felt guilty, and the ones who were raped... (full context)
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Meanwhile, Penelope continued to tell the Maids to pretend to be in love with the Suitors so that the Suitors would confide... (full context)
Chapter 16: Bad Dreams
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...very mean of him, but she also worried for his safety, since one of the Maids told her that the Suitors were sending a ship after him to ambush and kill... (full context)
Chapter 17: The Chorus Line: Dreamboats, A Ballad
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This Chapter is written as lyrics to a ballad sung by the Twelve Maids. In the song, the Maids state that the only time they rest and do not... (full context)
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In the Maids’ dreams, these men take the Maids to feasts and the Maids sing to them at... (full context)
Chapter 18: News of Helen
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...them then cooled off somewhat, and Telemachus received a bath and fresh clothes from the Maids. (full context)
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The Maids also provided Telemachus and his two friends, Piraeus and Theoclymenous, with dinner. Piraeus and Theoclymenous... (full context)
Chapter 19: Yelp of Joy
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Penelope did not have time to tell the Maids Odysseus’s true identity, so they continued to unwittingly insult the family to the Suitors in... (full context)
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...about the dream, and that while he was the eagle, the geese were her twelve Maids. (full context)
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Penelope says that in the songs, they often say that Penelope ordered her Maids to wash Odysseus’s feet and that he refused because he did not want to be... (full context)
Chapter 20: Slanderous Gossip
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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... (full context)
Chapter 21: The Chorus Line: The Perils of Penelope, A Drama
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This chapter, from the Maids’ perspective, is formatted as a script for a play. Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks speaks... (full context)
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...Odysseus is back, and that she identified him by his scar. Penelope, played by a Maid, says she already knew who he was from his short legs. Penelope worries he will... (full context)
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...the only people who know about her affairs with the Suitors are her twelve trusted Maids, and she tells Penelope that they must be silenced or they’ll reveal her secret. Penelope... (full context)
Chapter 23: Odysseus and Telemachus Snuff the Maids
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...door of the women’s quarters. Odysseus then summoned Eurycleia and told her to indicate which Maids had been disloyal. Odysseus made those girls bring the bodies of the Suitors to the... (full context)
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Odysseus then told Telemachus to hack the Maids up. However, Telemachus decided instead to hang the Maids from a ship’s rope. Then Telemachus... (full context)
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...her, saying that Odysseus had hung the rape victims, the youngest, and the most beautiful Maids. Penelope did not reveal that these were also her spies and confidantes. Eurycleia said that... (full context)
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Penelope wonders if another explanation might be that Eurycleia knew of her Maids’ assignments and wanted to kill the Maids to maintain her privileged position with Odysseus. Penelope... (full context)
Chapter 24: The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture
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In this chapter, the Maids’ commentary takes the form of an Anthropology lecture in an academic setting. The Maids begin... (full context)
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The Maids suggest that they were ritual sacrifices to Artemis, part of a fertility rite that began... (full context)
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The Maids, supposedly responding to a question from the audience, agree that the number of lunar months... (full context)
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Responding to a critic in the audience, the Maids deny that their theory is “feminist claptrap.” They say that they understand that subjects like... (full context)
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...fulfill this role, and instead tore off the genitals of a goatherd and hung the Maids. (full context)
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The Maids state that they could continue to prove their point that the story could be read... (full context)
Chapter 25: Heart of Flint
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...returns to Penelope’s first-person narrative as she describes her feelings after the Suitors and the Maids were murdered. Penelope had pretended not to believe that it was Odysseus who had killed... (full context)
Chapter 26: The Chorus Line: The Trial of Odysseus, as Videotaped by the Maids
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This chapter, taking up the Maids’ perspective, takes the form of a transcript of a videotape of an imagined trial for... (full context)
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In response, the Twelve Maids, with ropes around their necks, yell and cause a commotion in the courthouse, alleging that... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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The Maids begin to yell, demanding justice and calling on the Furies. The Furies appear, and the... (full context)
Chapter 27: Home Life in Hades
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 28: The Chorus Like: We’re Walking Behind You, A Love Song
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This chapter resumes the Maid’s commentary. First, they call Odysseus a number of names, from “Master of Illusion” to “Mr.... (full context)
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The Maids assert that Odysseus should have given them a proper burial. Now, they follow Odysseus wherever... (full context)
Chapter 29: Envoi
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...final chapter of The Penelopiad is in the form of a poem narrated by the Maids. They say that they were voiceless, nameless, and without any choice, and that they unfairly... (full context)