Breaking Binaries in The Odyssey: An Exploration The New Woman in The Penelopiad

In the Homeric Epic, women are cast into one of two dichotomous roles: that of the wise and faithful or that of the foolish and disloyal. However in Atwood’s The Penelopiad these roles are deconstructed such that they become fluid as opposed to concrete—such that the women do not wholly occupy one role or the other but rather move on a balance beam between the two, sometimes leaning nearer to one lateral or the other but never resting on the end points of either side.

In the unfettered world of The Penelopiad, woman are granted the voices that they are denied in The Odyssey; they are free to weave their own epic stories of cunning, captivity, danger, victory, and failure. The Penelopiad therefore gives rise to a “new” woman who is not bound by Homeric conventions that confine reader to a singular understanding of The Odyssey and its characters; rather Atwood unveils a myriad of possibilities, explanations, and motivations behind the events of The Odyssey as they are imagined by Homer.

Our minds are opened to realities and potentials either unconsidered, or considered but immediately abandoned for lack of emphasis, by the readers. We are made to ponder what seem to be obscurities and minor inconsistencies in The Odyssey that upon deeper exploration and analysis serve to completely revolutionize the conventional reading of The Odyssey in terms of the female characters. Atwood accomplishes this impressive feat by exploring the “dark alleyways” that lead us to alternate, but plausible, conclusions as evidenced by the expressions of the muted cast of The Odyssey—Penelope and the twelve hanged maids. The Odyssey presents Penelope as being wholly wise.

She is the appropriate counterpart for the wise and cunning Odysseus. She is revered by the other characters for her wisdom. She is not made to appear foolish because one cannot be both wise and unwise in a dichotomy. In The Penelopiad she exhibits an even more fierce display of her wisdom, but also admits her foolishness and poor decisions. For example, she tells us that she knew Odysseus was still alive because he had not yet appeared to her in a dream, and admits that she had recognized Odysseus upon his arrival but placed the bow to be sure. She tells also that she had asked the prettiest and most faithful of her maids to entice the suitors and learn of their plots by any means necessary. Yet she fails to consider what Odysseus would think after returning home and hearing, or worse observing, the behavior of the maids.

Moreover, when she knows that he has returned she sets her mind to proving her wisdom and faith by telling “the beggar” of her woes she had suffered in his absence and of the shroud. She also pranks him by setting Eurycleia to wash his feet knowing that she would recognize the scar and laughing to herself at how they tried to cover it up, and she tests him with the bow. But not once did she consider her maids. Nor did she think that she to tell Eurycleia of her activities with the maids knowing how faithful she was to Odysseus and how he would trust her judgment. Nor did she consider the possibility of their being raped or seduced when she set them upon the suitors to be her spies. Such folly and unwise decisions conflict with the Penelope we come to know in The Odyssey, but all is revealed in The Penelopiad.

Coral Howells notes, in her piece “Five Ways of Looking at The Penelopiad,” that, “Penelope’s is not the only voice here; her tale is frequently interrupted by the voices of her twelve hanged maids, those nameless slave girls who have nothing to say in The Odyssey” (Howells 5-6). Similar to Penelope’s plight in The Odyssey, the maids are cast in a dichotomous role—that of the whore and disloyal servant.

They are painted as scandalous, ungrateful, spiteful woman who abuse the household of their master Odysseus with their disrespect for the queen and her son, as well as their interactions with the suitors. Eurycleia is all too willing to, “report in full on the women…who are disloyal…who are guiltless” (Homer 406). And despite Odysseus dismissal, she was in fact later called upon to expose the disloyal servants for the whores that they were, according to The Odyssey that is. The possibilities are opened in The Penelopiad. For example, the women are condemned in the Odyssey for having sexual relations with the suitors. This behavior is attributed to their role as whores and unfaithful servitude without any consideration of other possibilities or circumstances.

In The Penelopiad, they maids speak of being, “dirty girls” by occupation. They say, “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. It did us no good to weep, it did us no good to say we were in pain” (Atwood 13-14). In a later chapter Penelope remarks, “It is not unusual for guests in a large household or palace to sleep with the maids…but it was irregular for servants to be used in this way without the permission of the master of the house…However there was no master of the house. So the suitors helped themselves to the maids in the same way they helped themselves to the sheep” (Atwood 116). Therefore, their behavior should have been considered in the same way that Penelope’s was: dutiful and loyal to their master.

Penelope tells the reader that giving visitors to pick of their servant girls was a part of good hospitality—a very important convention in the Homeric epic—and the master of the house happily obliges them in their choice (Atwood 116). Considering this, by sleeping with the suitors, the girls were continuing in the same behavior that would have been promoted and even expected if Odysseus were home.

Despite this reality the maids are placed in the category of the whore, therefore their actions must be presented as indicative of their role. The dichotomous classifications of women in The Odyssey would not allow them to be both promiscuous and faithful. They are limited to obscurity, being minor characters, “neglected to the margins of the narrative;” they serve no other purpose than to fulfill their role in the epic convention and suffer what most readers of The Odyssey would consider a much deserved fate (Howells 6).

However in The Penelopiad the maids become the majority, holding the voice of commendation or condemnation, a voice previously denied to them in the epic. Mihoko Suzuki finds that Atwood uses parody and burlesque to expose the Odyssey’s unfair representation of women and their lack of complexity due to the placed upon them by the epic. She argues that Atwood uses her modern examining of the Penelope and her maids to, “allow agency, intelligence, and voice to female protagonists who may not be equivocally amiable.” (Suzuki 270).

She goes on to argue that that, “through their debunking, light-hearted burlesque Atwood makes a more serious point; the maids function as a tragic chorus, commenting on the actions of the hero, Odysseus (and in a later chorus, Penelope)” (Suzuki 272). Atwood allows the women to occupy identities other than that of the dichotomous prudent and honorable wife and foolish dishonorable harlot. Howells argues that Atwood’s project in The Penelopiad, “Atwood’s project is to retell The Odyssey as herstory” (Howells 8).

And in doing so, Atwood addresses many of the unanswered questions in The Odyssey by allowing. In her re-envisioning of The Odyssey she takes the poem out of the context of the Homeric Epic to speak plainly and bluntly about the true events of The Odyssey, or at least some quite plausible possibilities. Shannon Collins notes that The Odyssey is, “A recitation of a blind poet, who recounts the stories told by a famous liar and adventurer, the poem contains narrative nested within narrative” (Collins 57). Likewise, Howell mentions that, “It seems that Atwood is using Penelope to tell another story within it: the story of the hanged maids” (Howells 6).

The stories have in common therefore that they are both metafictional, true to Homeric epic convention, however as Collins says, “In the Greek epics, women do not star in their own tales so much as play supporting roles in the adventures of others” (Collins 57). Therefore, casting Penelope as the narrator is essential to Atwood’s formation of the ‘new’ woman we find in The Penelopiad. We find in Homers interpretation that the women are described only by other characters but not given the opportunity to speak about themselves. This can have a profound effect on the facts of the story—on what is deemed important therefore which facts are told and untold—and also on how those facts are communicated.

The values, beliefs, frustrations, and insights of a person or group often influence not only the tone and mood of the story—that is to say what is impressed upon the reader—but also the details of the major events as well. For example, Homer paints Odyssus as a cunning, brave, and well deserving hero with amazing exploits while Penelope paints him as a boastful, short-legged, tricky liar with amazing stories. Collins argues therefore that, “each of the women characters also has a story to tell, though their versions may be different from the official one. Our own stories are by necessity different than the stories told about us by others. The story- tellers may claim to tell an objective truth, but who can know the truths of our own individual stories” (Collins 57)?

Although Atwood explains that, “Writing The Penelopiad allowed me not only to revisit an ancient and powerful tale, but to explore a few dark alleyways in the story that have always intrigued me,” she ultimately leaves the reader in the same predicament as the Odyssey; true to the epic, we are left with many questions (Atwood 58). Who’s telling the truth about the shroud, the suitors, and the slaughter: Penelope or the maids? Was it Eurycleia who perpetrated the slaughter of the maids on
her own accord out of jealousy? If Penelope was so wise and indeed recognized Odysseus as she says, why didn’t she tell him the ‘spies’ at the same time she told him about the shroud?

Unlike Homer however, she also opens our minds to new possibilities—perhaps Odysseus’ exploits were over-exaggerated fables adaptations of the truth in which battles with Cyclops were merely bar fights and goddesses were merely high-priced whores. Atwood’s widely imaginative, but strongly conceivable, answers to the unanswered questions of The Odyssey are some of the reasons I and many other readers fall so deeply in love with The Penelopiad. The means by which she develops these new possibilities give voices, first-hand interaction, and real humanity to the women of the Odyssey.

They become real people—real women with real emotions, desires, grievances, and pain—as opposed to the simple manifestation of the roles that they play in The Odyssey: the faithful wife, the disloyal servant. Of course they serve a specific purpose to the plot and themes of The Penelopiad ad they do in Homer, they are not locked into being the muted puzzle pieces that they are in Homer.

Atwood, Margaret. “The Myth Series and Me.” Publishers Weekly 252.47 (2005): 58. Academic Search Alumni Edition. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. . In this brief articles, referenced quite frequently in literary criticism and examination of The Penelopiad, Atwood divulges her motivations behind the creation of the The Penelopiad and her thoughts about the re-telling of classic myths. Particularly, she admits that one of her intentions in The Penelopiad is to respond to, or provide answers to, some of the mysteries of The Odyssey. Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. New York: Canongate, 2005. Print.

Collins, Shannon C. “Setting the Stories Straight: A Reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.” Carson-Newman Studies 11.No. 1 (2006): 57-66. Carson-Newman College. Web.

Collins comments on the art of storytelling as depicted in The Odyssey and The Penelopiad. She evaluates the stories told by Penelope, Odyseus (in the Odyssey which are commented upon, or rather revised by Penelope in The Penelopiad), and the maids. Her arguments provide support for the voices of the women of The Penelopiad existing only outside the confines of the Homeric Epic as women, namely the maids, are not given the opportunity to weave their own stories in The Odyssey but are endowed with voices in The Penelopiad to do just that—to tell give an “herstorical” account of The Odyssey.

Mihoko, Suzuki. “Rewriting the Odyssey in the Twenty-First Century: Mary Zimmerman’s Odyssey and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.” Approaches to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. By Kostas Myrsiades. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 239-54. Analyzing Atwood’s works from a feminist perspective, Suzuki offers valuable insight to the critical nature of The Penelopiad. Particularly interesting are her comments on the voices of the women in The Penelopiad that we do not hear in the Homer’s The Odyssey.

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