But now that I have read the book, I would argue it is actually far more than a simple reinterpretation of a myth. I believe what Atwood is actually doing with The Penelopiad is reintroducing feminism itself.
The reinterpretation of the myth is in some ways the easy part of the novella. As I mentioned in my previous post, Penelope is a surprisingly complex character, at turns very funny, snarky, desperate and hopeful: kind of like every woman you know. Her narrative explains her behavior throughout her long ordeal. She loves her husband, but is disappointed by him. She loves her son, but doesn’t trust his judgment. She loves her parents, but their relationship is not close. Once Penelope moves from archetype of patience to actual human being, she becomes more interesting and significant. And that underscores the importance of feminist literature. It reminds us that women have stories, women are funny, women watch movies: they are not bystanders to culture, they are participants in its creation. At one point, Penelope deals with patriarchal misconceptions about her directly:
The charges concern my sexual conduct. It is alleged, for instance, that I slept with Amphinomus, the politest of the Suitors. The songs say I found his conversation agreeable, or more agreeable than that of the others, and that is true; but it’s a long jump from there into bed. p. 143
She similarly dispenses with the idea that Odysseus himself did not trust her, explaining that he simply believed she would cry if he revealed himself, and they might lose the opportunity to surprise and overtake the Suitors.
The trickier part, as I see it, is the view of feminism Atwood leaves us with in The Penelopiad. One of the stranger parts of Odyssey is Odysseus and Telemachus’ slaughtering of Penelope’s maids once they regain control of his kingdom. Atwood anchors the book in this violent act against women by including the usually silent maids as a Greek chorus. They editorialize on events throughout the book, sometimes comically, sometimes angrily. The maids have been wronged by Odysseus, by Telemachus, by the Suitors, and even by Penelope herself, they believe. And to some extent, they function as the feminist consciousness of the book. But if that is what they are, it's important to note that they aren’t totally sympathetic. Thousands of years after the events of the Odyssey and Penelopiad, they seek vengeance on Odysseus. Even the dead Penelope finally asks, “Why can’t you leave him alone?” Penelope senses that continually addressing wrongs done cannot improve the present.
I believe Atwood is addressing some of the complaints about feminist scholarship in this novella. Is it anachronistic to hold men of the past to current standards of behavior? How can feminists give women a voice if they cannot work together – and trust each other? She doesn’t necessarily answer the questions, but she acknowledges that a new generation of women may not see the issues exactly the same as the previous one, and I think that’s very interesting!
I was unexpectedly without Internet access for the past couple of days, so I’m anxious to catch up and see what others thought of this book. Was it enjoyable? Difficult? Here’s what Bellezza, WeBeReading and Nonsuch Book had to say. If you've reviewed this book, please add your links in the comments, and I’ll include them in this post.
In addition to the Read-A-Myth Challenge, I also realized this book counts for the Once Upon A Time Challenge as well. So while I didn’t do so well on that one, I did get one book in at the finish! I’ll plan better for that one next year! Thanks to Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting!