The Penelopiad


Margaret Atwood

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The Penelopiad Summary

Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad retells the story of the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope and her Twelve Maids. The story is told in retrospect, with Penelope and the Maids in the afterlife reflecting on the events that occurred centuries before. Penelope's first person narrative is a mostly chronological account starting at her birth, while the Maids provide commentary on her narrative.

Penelope's account begins with her deciding from the afterlife to tell her side of the famous story of her marriage to Odysseus after thousands of years. The Maids, meanwhile, introduce themselves through a song that accuses Odysseus of killing them. Penelope begins her account with her childhood, stating that she was born in Sparta to King Icarius and a Naiad mother. According to stories Penelope heard growing up, Icarius tried to kill Penelope in infancy by throwing her into the sea, but Penelope was saved by a flock of ducks. Her mother, meanwhile, was neglectful and cold. In the Maids’ commentary on Penelopes’ childhood, they compare their own lineage, contrasting their slave and peasant parents with Penelope’s royal ones.

Penelope next describes the contest for her hand in marriage, a running race, when she was fifteen. Odysseus won the race (supposedly by cheating) and married Penelope that day. The Maids comment on the section with envy, since they are not allowed to marry.

Contrary to custom, Odysseus took his bride back to his home on the island of Ithaca. The sea journey was rough for Penelope, and once they landed things weren't much better. Although Penelope quickly came to love Odysseus, she did not get along with her mother in law, Anticleia, and found Odysseus's former nurse, Eurycleia, to be very condescending. Penelope had no friends her own age or status. Penelope's only comfort was the birth of her son, Telemachus, and her love for Odysseus.

Eventually, Odysseus received word that Penelope’s cousin Helen, whom Penelope despised, had left her husband Menelaus for a Trojan prince named Paris. Menelaus and several other men intended to lay siege to Troy in response. They came to search for Odysseus, who had sworn an oath to Menelaus to protect his rights to Helen. Odysseus tried to feign madness to get out of his obligation, but he was caught in the end. Odysseus sailed for Troy.

Time passed, Telemachus grew up, and Anticleia died. Penelope learned to manage Odysseus’s estates in his absence. News came from minstrels about Odysseus's exploits during the war. Then, finally, news came that the Greeks had won the war. Expecting Odysseus to come home, Penelope looked for ships on the horizon, but none came. Minstrels brought strange tales of Odysseus's difficult attempts to get home, until one day the reports stopped coming. The Maids, during one of their commentaries, give a poem-form synopsis of the experiences that Odysseus supposedly had in the Odyssey.

Meanwhile Suitors began to show up at Ithaca, asking to marry Penelope in the hopes of gaining access to her dowry. Claiming that they were guests, the Suitors took everything they wanted from the estate, running it into the ground.

As the time of Odysseus's absence lengthened, the number of suitors grew bigger and they became more impatient. Penelope devised a plan to fend them off, saying that she would not pick one to marry until she had finished weaving a shroud for Odysseus’s father Laertes. However, every night, Penelope and her Twelve Maids secretly unraveled the work that she had done that day, prolonging the process and buying her more time. Meanwhile, Penelope told the Maids to spend time with the Suitors and gain their confidence by sleeping with them and saying bad things about Odysseus and his family. The Maids obliged and told Penelope whatever they learned.

The Suitors finally learned of Penelope's trick with the shroud thanks to the loose lips of one of the Maids. They confronted Penelope about it. Penelope promised to finish the shroud quickly and then pick a suitor. Telemachus, growing impatient, secretly left to search for word of his father. When he returned, Penelope prayed to the gods once more for Odysseus’s return. She then found Odysseus out in the courtyard, disguised as a beggar. Penelope did not let on that she recognized him, but sent him to Eurycleia for a bath. Eurycleia recognized Odysseus by the scar on his leg, but did not tell Penelope about his identity, although, secretly, Penelope already knew. During his time in the palace, Odysseus overheard the Twelve Maids saying bad things about his family, unaware that they were acting according to Penelope’s orders.

Penelope spoke with the beggar/Odysseus, still pretending not to know who he was. She said that she still missed her husband and remained faithful to him. She then asked his advice on her idea to have an archery contest to finally decide which Suitor should win her hand, knowing that the task she had set was one only Odysseus could succeed in. Odysseus/the beggar agreed this was a good idea, and he won the contest when Penelope held it that day. He then locked Penelope in her room and killed all of the Suitors.

After the Suitors’ murders, Odysseus asked Eurycleia to point out the Maids who had been unfaithful to him. Eurycleia pointed to the Twelve Maids who had been spying for Penelope, and Telemachus hung them. Following the hanging, Odysseus “revealed” his identity to Penelope, who pretended to be surprised. Odysseus then set sail again soon after finally arriving back at home, to go on a quest to cleanse himself of the Suitors’ murders.

In the afterlife, the Twelve Maids haunt Odysseus, following him everywhere. The Maids, in their commentary, evaluate their own murders from an anthropological perspective and then hold a mock trial for Odysseus to attempt to punish him for his deeds. Odysseus chooses to leave Penelope over and over again in order to be reborn and temporarily escape the Maids. Penelope, meanwhile, stays in the fields of asphodel, and the couple replays their estrangement over and over again in the world of the dead.