Amazing to me, how Margaret Atwood can take the wife of Odysseus straight out of the Greek myths, and by giving her a personality, as well as a voice, remind me of the women in my very favorite book of hers, The Robber Bride. For to me, as much as anything, The Penelopiad is about the wiles of Helen of Troy against the faithfulness of her cousin, Penelope.
Because Helen ran off with Paris and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, come back, Odysseus fulfills his oath and goes after her. Twenty long years he is gone; ten years in pursuit of Helen and ten years in pursuit of his own pleasures. Meanwhile, Penelope fends off her Suitors, promising that she will choose one when the shroud she is weaving is completed. Every night, she unravels a bit more to stave off the fulfillment of her promise.
Odysseus returns, disguised as a beggar. Penelope recognizes him, but fails to give up his identity. The twelve maids are hung, though they were raped by the Suitors to whom they were given because Penelope refused to defile her marriage bed.
Surely in all these ways the story Atwood tells follows what the myth has told. But her interpretation, the tension she creates between Penelope and Helen, is what fascinates me. Anyone can tell a myth; it takes Margaret to explore the complexities of women who betray other women.
‘Oh, Penelope, you can’t still be jealous,” she says. “Surely we can be friends now! Why don’t you come along with me to the upper world, next time I go? We could do a trip to Las Vegas. Girls’ night out! But I forgot-that’s not your style. You’d rather play the faithful little wifey, what with the weaving and so on. Bad me, I could never do it, I’d die of boredom. But you were always such a homebody.”
Helen mocks, and teases, and belittles, never admitting the fact that she was the impetus for Odysseus leaving in the first place. She believes in her beauty, her ability to attract men, her flippant style, and she gives little care to how it affects those around her. How it has cost the twelve maidens their lives, and Penelope her marriage, but for her faithful allegiance.
No man will ever kill himself for love of me. And no man ever did. Not that I would have wanted to inspire those kinds of suicides. I was not a man-eater, I was not a Siren, I was not like cousin Helen who loved to make conquests just to show she could. As soon as the man was grovelling, and it never took long, she’d stroll away without a backwards glance, giving that careless laugh of hers, as if she’d just been watching the palace midget standing ridiculously on his head.
I was a kind girl-kinder than Helen, or so I thought. I knew I would have to have something to offer instead of beauty. I was clever, everyone said so-in fact they said it so much that I found it discouraging-but cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.
For those of you who’ve only read Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novels, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, or Oryx and Crake, I beg you to read The Robber Bride. It is similar in so many ways to The Penelopiad, in that one woman is able to wreak havoc on all those around her and apparently come out unscathed. Who, then, is left to suffer?
The faithful one. Like Penelope.