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Journal of No. 118


July 2nd, 2014

The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood @ 04:06 pm


The Penelopiad is sort of a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Penelope's perspective. Of course, since Penelope takes no part in the Trojan War or Odysseus' wanderings, there is more emphasis on Penelope's childhood, marriage to Odysseus, and her adventures with the suitors as they look to displace the absent Odysseus. The chapters mostly alternate from Penelope's telling of her own story, and a Greek chorus composed of the 12 serving maids, who are hanged for their naughtiness after Odysseus' return and the slaughter of the suitors. Evidently Atwood was struck by their unkind fate when she first read the Odyssey:

Euryclea left the cloister to tell the women, and make them come to Ulysses; in the meantime he called Telemachus, the stockman, and the swineherd. "Begin," said he, "to remove the dead, and make the women help you. Then, get sponges and clean water to swill down the tables and seats. When you have thoroughly cleansed the whole cloisters, take the women into the space between the domed room and the wall of the outer court, and run them through with your swords till they are quite dead, and have forgotten all about love and the way in which they used to lie in secret with the suitors."

On this the women came down in a body, weeping and wailing bitterly. First they carried the dead bodies out, and propped them up against one another in the gatehouse. Ulysses ordered them about and made them do their work quickly, so they had to carry the bodies out. When they had done this, they cleaned all the tables and seats with sponges and water, while Telemachus and the two others shovelled up the blood and dirt from the ground, and the women carried it all away and put it out of doors. Then when they had made the whole place quite clean and orderly, they took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, "I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."

So saying he made a ship's cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women's feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long.


Penelope reveals that all was not what it seemed, and the chorus has its own story to tell. The chorus sections are written in different styles -- poem, song, play, anthropological treatise, videotaped court proceeding...

It's a pretty short read, and I found it delightful from end to end. It's a great writer unleashing a jeu d'esprit based on old (but still vital) myths.

I'm not sure why this even needs mentioning, but just because it's a retelling from the female point of view, doesn't mean that it's a man-hating feminazi manifesto (okay except maybe that one bit, which is arguably satire).
 
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Journal of No. 118