Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad was written in 2005, as part of the Canongate Myth series in which a number of contemporary authors have undertaken the task of rewriting classic myths.
Atwood’s fascination with mythology and folklore is everything but concealed. She has encorporated the element of myth and fairytales in many of her writings, both fiction and poetry. The Penelopiad is no exception to that rule, as it is a retelling of Homer’s classic Greek epic The Odyssey, in which a hero, Odysseus, embarks on a journey in order to reach his home island, Ithaca, and the family he has left there. His wife, Penelope, patiently awaits for his return, despite a great number of suitors having arrived to claim her hand due to the fact that Odysseus’s return seems highly unlikely after the many years that have gone by.
In The Penelopiad, Atwood has opted for a rather interesting retelling of this classic tale. Instead of simply rewriting the story as everyone knows it, she chose to present it from the point of view of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. Therefore, the entire story is told from her point of view and thus many interesting aspects of her character that had been neglected before are revealed now. We learn more about her relationship with her cousin, Helen, who had been the source of dispute that caused the Trojan war, as well as her story before she came to marry Odysseus. In this novel, Penelope is presented as more courageous and less passive compared to the original story. She also seems to be in juxtaposition with Helen, and both seem to nurture feelings of deep dislike towards each other (one of the chapters is even titled “Helen Ruined My Life”).
Apart from Penelope’s character, there are also some events that Atwood chose to highlight in this novel that had been obscured in Homer’s epic, such as the hanging of Penelope’s twelve maids upon Odysseus’s return. The maids acquire a voice of their own in this novel, and they are even given the role of the chorus in between the chapters of Penelope’s narration, a technique I found brilliantly executed and thought of. Odysseus’s image in The Penelopiad is also slightly distorted from the original, in that he is not presented as much as a heroic figure; rather, more emphasis is put on his shortcomings.
What is distinct about this novel is that, despite offering a new perspective in the story, no narrative can be absolutely trusted, for both Penelope and the maids seem to present the events entirely as how they perceive them, thus creating some small contradictions from one narrative to the other.
All in all, I immensely enjoyed this book and how Atwood treated one of the myths I grew up with. Her choice of giving voice to the females of the story and to more obscure characters and events was brilliant, as it was really interesting to see the story from an entirely different perspective. What I loved most was, of course, that Atwood, due to her splendid craftsmanship, did not just produce a retelling of the myth but created another version of it, thus making it her own.