Atwood’s account of the events of the Odyssey through Penelope and the Maids’ eyes focuses on the hardship and heartbreak of life as a woman in ancient Greece. Among these difficulties are the social and psychological pressures that women face. Atwood examines them primarily through Penelope, whose first person account gives the reader a sense of how Penelope feels about the societal expectations of women.
One of the problematic social dynamics that Atwood explores is the intense competition between women. Much of this competition is over male sexual attention, like in the case of Helen and Penelope’s rivalry and Penelope’s sense of inadequacy because of Helen’s beauty. Penelope spends quite a bit of her narrative taking stock of her own plainness compared to Helen, while Helen repeatedly rubs in her superior beauty. This toxic dynamic results in Penelope’s fierce dislike of Helen, whom she calls “that septic bitch.” Rather than being allied in their shared status as women, or in their familial relations (Helen is Penelope’s cousin), Penelope and Helen are rivals for male attention. This rivalry seems to be the consequence of a society that values women only for their beauty, since Penelope’s cleverness and devotion go undervalued.
Some of the competition between women, though, is less focused on male sexual attention, and more on correctly filling a stereotypically female role in general. For example, Penelope finds that her mother in law (Anticleia) and Odysseus’s former nurse (Eurycleia) are constantly judging Penelope’s performance as a wife. Eurycleia takes Penelope under her wing, but many of her instructions give Penelope unnecessary stress. Eurycleia tells Penelope “whether to cover your mouth when you laugh, on what occasions to wear a veil, how much of the face it should conceal,” centering her instruction around female modesty and showing how the minute details of women’s behavior are constantly policed. Eurycleia also controls Penelope’s mothering of Telemachus very closely and criticizes her independent choices. Through Penelope’s narrative, Atwood shows how social norms of women’s behavior and desirable qualities cause Penelope constant stress and make her feel extremely alienated.
While Penelope suffers because of the psychological pressures of her gender, Atwood shows how, in comparison, the Twelve Maids have it much worse. Because of how their class status interacts with their gender, the Twelve Maids suffer even more than Penelope does in the male-dominated society of Greece. Though Penelope still has to fend off the Suitors that come to marry her after Odysseus does not return, the Suitors at least never threaten to harm Penelope physically. The Maids, however, are often the victims of rape at the hands of these same Suitors. Both Penelope and the Maids discuss rape as an extremely common event in ancient Greece, committed by both the Greek gods and mortal men. While Penelope theoretically is also susceptible to this threat, the Maids’ lowly status means that they are totally unprotected from it. When the Maids are raped, none of their rapists are punished for their deeds. On the contrary, Penelope and Eurycleia treat rape as a normal, if unfortunate, occurrence. Still, it is clear that the Maids themselves are extremely affected emotionally and physically by the violation. Penelope describes, for example, how the girls “felt guilty” and “needed to be tended and cared for.”
Ultimately, the maids are not only raped, but they are then punished for their rapes with murder. When Odysseus returns and kills the Maids, he says his murders were not a problem because the Maids were “whores.” Eurycleia also describes these women as “notorious whores,” despite the fact that she knows that many of them were actually rape victims, and did not willingly have sex with the Suitors. During the “The Trial of Odysseus” chapter, Penelope states that the women were killed because they were raped with their master’s permission, not just because they were raped, highlighting the fact that their slave status makes them especially unprotected. The Maids also specifically blame their slave status for their fate, stating in their second chapter that they were discarded because they were “born to the wrong parents.”
In sum, while Atwood shows the struggles that women face in Greek society in general, her characterization of the Twelve Maids highlights how low class status exacerbates the violence and psychological trauma that all women are susceptible to.
Class, Womanhood, and Violence ThemeTracker
Class, Womanhood, and Violence 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!
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.
Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.
The gatekeeper had been posted to keep the bride from rushing out in horror, and to stop her friends from breaking down the door and rescuing her when they heard her scream. All of this was play-acting: the fiction was that the bride had been stolen, and the consummation of a marriage was supposed to be a sanctioned rape. It was supposed to be a conquest, a trampling of a foe, a mock killing. There was supposed to be blood.
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!
She’d been in the household ever since Odysseus’s father had bought her, and so highly had he valued her that he hadn’t even slept with her. ‘Imagine that, for a slave-woman!’ she clucked to me, delighted with herself. ‘And I was very good-looking in those days!’
I ought to have thanked her for it, with my heart as well as my lips…Whether to cover the mouth when you laugh, on what occasions to wear a veil, how much of the face it should conceal, how often to order a bath—Eurycleia was an expert on all such matters.
‘Helen hasn’t borne a son yet,’ he said, which ought to have made me glad. And it did. But on the other hand, why was he still—and possibly always—thinking about Helen?
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…
If word got around about his post, said Odysseus in a mock-sinister manner, he would know I’d been sleeping with some other man, and then—he said, frowning at me in what was supposed to be a playful way—he would be very cross indeed, and he would have to chop me into little pieces with his sword or hang me from the room beam.
I pretended to be frightened, and said I would never, never think of betraying his big post.
Actually, I really was frightened.
I had such a clear picture in my mind—Odysseus returning, and me—with womanly modesty—revealing to him how well I had done at what was usually considered a man’s business. On his behalf, of course. Always for him. How his face would shine with pleasure! How pleased he would be with me! ‘You’re worth a thousand Helens,’ he would say.
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.
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’?
I didn’t let on I knew. It would have been dangerous for him. Also, if a man takes pride in his disguising skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognize him: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.
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.
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.
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!
‘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.