Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad reinvents the myth of Homer’s Odyssey, retelling it through the eyes of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. In her retelling, Atwood actively engages with questions of mythology and invention, self-reflexively investigating the relationship between storytelling and truth. The concept of storytelling is highly important from the very beginning of the novel, when in Penelope’s first chapter she talks about why she is finally telling her own story and discusses how she had previously remained silent because she “wanted happy endings.” Penelope clearly implies that the normal narrative arc towards a happy ending, or narrative structure in general, has silenced her side of the story. In this chapter, Penelope also describes many of the stories invented about her infidelity following the circulation of the Odyssey as “scandalous gossip,” again linking storytelling with untruth. Penelope then furthers this idea by frequently connecting storytelling to fiber work and her own weaving, which she uses for deceptive purposes.
Furthermore, Atwood’s decision to write the novel itself could also be taken as a criticism of the idea of textual authority (the concept that the text is sacred, final, truthful, and cannot be questioned). The Penelopiad’s very existence implies that Homer’s version of the story is somehow misleading or incomplete. Atwood’s revision also undermines several major plot points of the Odyssey, including the idea that Penelope did not recognize Odysseus when he arrived back at Ithaca in beggar’s clothing. Moreover, to write her revision, Atwood relied on other contemporary Greek texts besides the Odyssey, suggesting that the Odyssey is not the only authoritative account of the myth. In fact, in her introduction, Atwood specifically states that the Odyssey is “not the only version of the story” and discusses how, because of its nature, oral myth is inherently made up of many different voices.
While the reader may assume that Atwood’s revision of the myth through Penelope’s eyes is a kind of “correction” of the Odyssey, the fact that Atwood troubles the idea of a complete and truthful narrative undermines the trustworthiness of her own novel as well. Atwood actively engages with this tension, especially through the chorus of Maids whose voices are present throughout the novel. The Twelve Maids question Penelope’s decisions, suggesting that Penelope is complicit in their murders since she does not reveal to Odysseus that they were helping her all along. Although Penelope attempts to exonerate herself in her narrative, suggesting that there was little she could have done to help at the time, the Maids’ chorus condemns Penelope for her lack of action. In opening Penelope’s own narrative up for criticism, then, Atwood suggests that even Penelope’s voice cannot be taken as authoritative or definitive.
This overthrow of textual authority in turn troubles the idea of an authoritative or correct reading of the Odyssey, opening the text up for more radical interpretation. The Maids explicitly discuss this in the section “An Anthropology Lecture,” where they argue that the Odyssey represents the overthrow of women-led society and the switch to a male-dominated society—a social upheaval that likely actually took place in early history. The Maids believe that their listeners may disregard their alternative reading as “feminist claptrap,” suggesting how, up to the present, readers of the Odyssey who questioned predominate power structures were soundly rejected by the mainstream readers. However, Atwood’s implication that there is no objective truth in storytelling allows for the possibility of a breadth of readings, not only a “correct one.” In short, while Atwood dismantles the idea of objective, truthful storytelling and the authoritative text, she also opens the Odyssey up for more creative, alternative readings.
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods 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!
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…
Rumors came, carried by other ships… Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper, said another… Some of the men had been eaten by cannibals, said some; no, it was just a brawl of the usual kind, said others… Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some… and the two of them made love deliriously every night; no, said others, it was just an expensive whorehouse, and he was sponging off the Madam. Needless to say, the minstrels took up these themes and embroidered them considerably.
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.
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.
Then he told me how much he’d missed me, and how he’d been filled with longing for me… and I told him how very many tears I’d shed while waiting twenty years for his return, and how tediously faithful I’d been, and how I would never have even so much as thought of betraying his gigantic bed with its wondrous bedpost by sleeping in it with any other man.
The two of us were—by our own admission—proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said.
But we did.
Or so we told each other.
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.