The Penelopiad is framed as Penelope and the Maids’ retrospective narratives, in which they look back from the afterlife on what they did in the past. Due to this dynamic, Penelope repeatedly refers to how society has changed since the time when she was alive in Greece.
The ancient Grecian characters are keenly aware of what goes on in the modern era. In the afterlife, spirits have the option to return to earth for a time with the memories of their past lives wiped out. As a result, they are up to date on societal shifts and trends. Helen, who has taken this option several times, tells Penelope about “bikinis, and aerobic exercises, and body piercings” and suggests that she and Penelope take a trip to Las Vegas. Even understandings of Grecian history, which Penelope and Helen actually lived through, have changed since their time on earth. Penelope, for example, notes that modern people consider the Trojan War, in which Helen’s elopement with Paris is supposed to be the central issue, to have been an issue of trade routes. Through her comparison of contemporary customs and her narrative description of older ones, Penelope highlights the vast difference in culture between antiquity and the modern day.
At the same time, however, these changes have not done as much as the reader may think to improve the world, especially in regards to the treatment of women. Atwood most clearly showcases this during the Maids’ chapter “The Trial of Odysseus.” The chapter is written as a court transcript. The format of the trial is in the style of a modern-day court system, featuring lawyers, a judge, order in the court, etc. But despite the court’s modernity, the judge arrives at the same outcome for Odysseus as the Greeks did—no punishment for killing the Maids. The judge states that it is impossible to judge Odysseus because his times “were not our times.” However, the judge then goes on to say that it would be a shame if this one “minor incident” ruined his career. This is highly ironic, because fear of ruining a man’s career is an often-cited, and often criticized, excuse for silencing victims of rape in modern times. Through this irony, Atwood shows how Odysseus’s times are, in fact, not very different from our times, with violence against women going undiscussed and unpunished.
Not only does Atwood suggest that modern times have not made much progress in regard to the treatment of women, but she even suggests that progress is not guaranteed, and that societies can regress rather than progress. To give one example, Penelope discusses how, during her time in Greece, a switch was being made in marital practices. According to Penelope, men used to move in with their wives’ families, and money and titles were kept in women’s families as a result. Women were still being used as vessels to convey inheritances, just like in later Western Civilization before women could own property, but in this original Greek system women were at least not completely uprooted from their communities and physically trafficked elsewhere. But, as Penelope notes, during her youth there was a new and growing trend toward women moving in with their husband’s family instead of the husband moving to join the wife’s family. Penelope and Odysseus take part in this growing trend, with Penelope leaving fashionable Sparta for the isolated island of Ithaca. While Penelope is not upset about this when it happens, she often discusses feeling isolated and lonely, suggesting that this change may not be in her best interest. In general, this change could be considered to be more objectifying and more damaging for women, a regression in their personal rights.
Atwood makes the possibility of regressing in society’s treatment of women clearer in the chapter titled “An Anthropology Lecture.” During this chapter, the Twelve Maids explicitly make the case that the scene at the end of The Odyssey and The Penelopiad represents the switch from a women-centered society to one that is male dominated. In their argument, the maids argue that the twelve of them plus Penelope represent the thirteen lunar moons in a year, and that their rape and hanging represent the “overthrow of the matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians.” Their argument is not only based in the symbolism of the narrated event and its parallels to other iconography, but also in the fact that there is archeological evidence that such an overthrow actually existed. In other words, the Maids describe the fall of a women-centered society in favor of a men-centered one, leading to the rest of the patriarchal history of Western Civilization. Atwood’s emphasis on the precariousness of progress for women forces the modern reader to look critically at their own society and the cultural changes being made.
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women ThemeTracker
Antiquity, Modernity, and Progress for Women Quotes in The Penelopiad
And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example! I want to scream in your ears—yes, yours!
Then after hundred, possibly thousands of years…customs changed. No living people went to the underworld much any more, and our own abode was upstaged by a much more spectacular establishment down the road—fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks—a great many special effects.
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.
He then said that he’d made the decision he’d had to make—he’d gone in search of his father, since no one else seemed prepared to lift a finger in that direction. He claimed his father would have been proud of him for showing some backbone and getting out from under the thumbs of the women, who as usual were being overemotional and showing no reasonableness and judgment. By ‘the women’, he meant me. How could he refer to his own mother as ‘the women’?
The more outrageous versions have it that I slept with all of the Suitors, one after another—over a hundred of them—and then gave birth to the Great God Pan. Who could believe such a monstrous tale? Some songs aren’t worth the breath expended on them.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.