Today I will talk about the significance of Margaret Atwood’s inclusion of the twelve maids’ discourses in The Penelopiad. In summary, the novel tells the epic of Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, revealing her hardships. Yet through inclusion of Penelope’s twelve maids’ discourses, Atwood disrupts Penelope’s narrative. Through heteroglossia and variation of genre in the maids’ chorus lines, Atwood provides context on events beyond Penelope’s visibility and shines a light on conditions of lesser, neglected individuals. The maids’ discourses mock and contradict Penelope’s narrative, challenging the legitimacy of her words and the rationality behind their deaths.
So, firstly, the maids provide additional context regarding events in the Odyssey that Penelope’s perspective is unable to cover. For instance, the maids foreshadow their murder at Telemachus’ hand after his birth and also describe to readers Odysseus’ jolly adventures in a sea shanty.
However, the twelve maids’ lines also work to undermine Penelope’s suffering. After Penelope describes her difficult childhood, the twelve maids also relate their childhoods through a lament. Making subtle contrasts between Penelope and the maids’ childhood conditions, Atwood emphasizes Penelope’s affluence compared to that of the maids. Penelope complains of a murderous father and cold, aloof mother, but the maids highlight her fortuity in being born from such prestigious beings in comparison to their slave parents. The maids speak in straightforward, solemn language, composed of short sentences and phrases, which in turn produce bleak imagery reflecting the gravity of their situation. On the other hand, Penelope maintains a colloquial linguistic style, which develops a more comfortable atmosphere with readers. Penelope’s ability to so informally portray her suffering again diminishes her hardships in comparison to the maids’ misery.
In addition, through the maids’ voices, Atwood...
Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood states in the Introduction to The Penelopiad that she found two things profoundly 'hysterical' in their strong demand for analysis and interpretation in Homer's Odyssey: Penelope's own life during Odysseus's absence and the hanging of the twelve maids in the original text (xiv). The Penelopiad can therefore be seen as a reply to the Odyssey, centering around a character who, as a woman in Ancient Greece, was by definition banned from any relevant events, and as a female character is exiled to the margin of an epic.
According to Linda Hutcheon, the post-modern is best understood as being paradoxical, ironic, both using and abusing conventions and forms of representations, while being intrinsically intertwined with politics (Politics 8). The Penelopiad is precisely such a text, in which genres, styles, conventions and ideas come together in a collage containing both Penelope's story from a first person point of view, written in a more traditional manner, and various 'chorus lines' centering around the twelve maids, written in various, wildly ranging genres, with a powerful feminist undertone.
The structure of the book resembles that of Greek drama, with the main story told by Penelope constantly interrupted by the maids' whimsical 'chorus lines' which serve as commentary and lament. Their first input is in the form of a post-modern parodic, morbid, jump-rope rhyme which unsettlingly contrasts childhood innocence to murder and playfulness to pain: "we danced in air/ our bare feet twitched/ it was not fair". They also point out that they were punished for doing far less offensive actions than those committed by Odysseus (5), which is a clear feminist comment on the differences between the male and female status in their society. This can be viewed from the perspective of what Pierre Bourdieu calls 'symbolic violence', which he defines as "the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity": women perceive the dominating position of men as natural and judge each other through standards which enforce feminine submission("Symbolic Violence"). Due to their status, neither they nor even Penelope have a word to say against their fate. Eurycleia, Odysseus's old nurse, is unaware of Penelope's subtle workings and effectively condemns the maids to death, being unaware of their important role. The maids meanwhile are themselves unaware of Penelope's remorse and guiltlessness, blaming both her and Odysseus for their fate. Therefore, women are exiled not only from the world of men, with its implied freedoms and rights, but they are also exiled from each other due to their secrecy which is a result of their impotence in the face of male domination.
Among the 'chorus lines' we find a court trial in a contemporary setting, in which the maids are pleading their case against Odysseus. Penelope states that they have been hanged due to being 'raped without permission', by which meaning without permission from Odysseus, who was absent at the time (181-182). This punishment for an act that was not within the powers of the maids to prevent or stop can be examined from the perspective of the rule-governed 'thou shalt not' of human sexuality that Peter Brooks expounds on in Body Work. Brooks claims that the perception of the anatomical difference as being fundamentally significant is promulgated by the castration complex(13), which in Odysseus's case takes the shape of the perceived danger and threat of being replaced in his position as master of the maids by his wife's suitors, who have claimed them. The fact that, when disguised, he is also insulted by them, does nothing more than to enhance this perceived danger, which leads him to eliminate the threat entirely rather than control it through other means. This poses an interesting question on the nature of fear and prejudice, which are here presented as the major reasons for a lack of connection between characters, the question whether these are not the cause for the exile of persons in their own worlds, unable to interact properly.
However, Penelope bemoans this state of fact and hysterically demands to be heard, making this necessity for self-expression the raison d'être of 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!" (2) It is this relationship between the Odyssey and The Penelopiad which offers a new perspective on the subject of dislocation. Penelope is aware of the evolution of her own story, of being interpreted and perceived in only two dimensions; she is aware that, as a character, she has been exiled from profoundness into morality. It is this ground that she attempts to recover in her narration, to establish herself into this area that she has been denied and to fight against more impressive figures, such as her husband or Helen of Troy, for her own spot by presenting her own side of the story.
We are dealing here with the concept of difference and, as Gilles Deleuze says, difference need not be about passing judgment, but it can offer expressions, analytic or synthetic propositions (Difference 43). While Penelope herself passes judgment on some characters, especially Helen, whom she considers to be selfish, ambitious and very proud (76), her opinions are given from a personal and resentful enough point of view that the reader cannot help but consider her an unreliable narrator. For example, chapter 11 is entitled dramatically and pathetically, "Helen ruins my life" and the passages concerning the other woman are peppered with expressions such as "puffed up with vanity", "deranged lust" (76), which are clearly subjective and project their subjectiveness upon the entire passage. In other words, regardless of the main character's opinions, the text in itself is open enough to interpretation to show differences not in a negative, but simply an alternate manner. It cannot be regarded in the polar terms of 'right' and 'wrong', choosing instead to show that to believe a single interpretation as 'right' would be wrong.
Penelope has a very free, simple, perhaps naïve, rambling style of expressing herself, which is tempered by irony and self-irony to the point in which the question can be risen whether she is not using the style deliberately. Mark Currie states that the way in which the author can control the sympathy and antipathy felt for characters is in direct relation to the distance from and position relative to the characters that the narrator's voice has (Postmodern Narrative Theory, 21). Penelope endears through her frankness and irony, putting on the front of a simple, modest woman behind which an active intelligence and self-awareness are apparent. She brings readers into her own shoes by sharing with them intimate details, such as Odysseus's pleasure of sharing stories in bed (45), or the awkwardness of dinners in her new home (71); or embarrassing details, such as not understanding the sexual undertones of her servants' talk (32); or ironic, but very human alternate versions of the stories told in the Odyssey, such as Penelope covering her face in front of her father not from modesty, but as not to burst out laughing at the man's hypocrisy (49), or the realistic version of Odysseus's adventures, such as not encountering Sirens, but Sicilian courtesans (91). The vision that the reader has, therefore, is very close to Penelope and very intimate.
Considering the fact that Penelope's life consists of few intensely dramatic episodes that would allow her to prove herself and that her most memorable action is waiting faithfully for her husband's return, we can see that there was little other way in which she can have her story told. She cannot impress through her deeds and she is aware that, unlike Helen, she is not impressive simply through her own person. Therefore, Penelope must charm on a personal level and impress through her humanity and cleverness. It is possible to regard her a post-modern autobiographical author with the political agenda of making her way into the literary canon.
The maids, who are a collective character, objectified through their status of slaves, are unable to express themselves in the same way and must turn their efforts towards other types of storytelling. Besides the morbid jump-rope rhyme, they also communicate their plight through 'chorus lines' in the form of a lament, a popular tune, an idyll, a sea shanty, a ballad, a drama, an anthropology lecture, a 'videotaped' trial, a love song and a iambic dimeter poem. In the trial, they are shown to call upon the Furies to haunt Odysseus, while wearing their faces (183). It can be supposed that this identification with the impersonal Angry Ones is also a reason why they are always seen as a faceless whole, telling their stories in subtle, indirect, but quite hysterical ways to the audience.
The Penelopiad can therefore be seen as a challenge to think not only of real people, but also of literature characters as capable of being dislocated. While marginal characters, such as Penelope or the maids are not physically stranded, nor are they suffering from a strong internal trauma due to their location, they are metaphorically exiled from great stories towards the margins of texts, banished to be ideas in antropomorphic form and not much else. However due to the shifting paradigms of postmodernism, their situation can be changed; Atwood's Penelope and her maids do nothing more than to take advantage of the new possibilities in art to resign from their traditional roles and two-dimensional, moralizing qualities. They not only demand new interpretations, but also suggest them. While Penelope's exile inside her own story continues, she is coming out of her literary exile. In a post-modern way, like a member of a marginal social group, she, as a marginal character, is also brought to the center, demanding to be released from exile and given attention.
Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1995.
Currie, Mark. Postmodern Narrative Theory. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.
Deleuze, Gilles. "Difference in Itself." Difference and Repetition. Athlone, 2001. 28-69.
Hutcheon, Linda. "Representing the Post Modern." The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989. 1-28.
Peter Brooks. "Narrative and the Body." Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Harvard UP, 1993. 1-27.
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loic Wacquant. "Symbolic Violence." Violence in War and Peace. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004.