Most teens are familiar with Odysseus, the ancient Greek myth spread orally and eventually written down to be read by us in the future. The epic depicts a man on his years-long journey home from the Trojan War, battling gods and monsters alike under the protection of Athena. As the legend goes, Odysseus returns home to find his dining hall filled to the brim with ravenous suitors, after his wife Penelope. Beating the suitors in a contest, he regains control of the castle, enlisting his son to kill the men and hang 12 maids who favored them for their company. Thus, the story is complete, and Odysseus and Penelope spend their remaining days together. Or so we thought…
The Penelopiad tells the story from Penelope’s point of view, the persevering and cunning wife who waits for Odysseus to return despite the world giving up on him. Atwood begins the story at the beginning of her life, following her through the myth as we know it. Told through Penelope in Hades (the afterlife underworld of the Greek mythos), perspective flips from recalling her time in the land of the living to her interactions with the same characters after death. The author also incorporates the story of the 12 hanged maids as a chorus, chanting intermittent, heart-wrenching chapters in verse. The short novel is timeless, using its afterlife setting as grounds for various anachronisms and interwoven cultural elements.
Atwood’s retelling of the popular myth describes an ancient world made for men from a powerful woman’s perspective, one has rarely seen in ancient Greek literature. While a 21st century adaptation, it stands as an important vision of the lives of women during a time where they were given no power or say in what happened in their lives. Always the sidekicks, romantic interests, and victims, The Penelopiad gives us a chance to finally imagine what their story could have been told with the ancient myth so long ago.
Having read the book in three days, I found myself enthralled by the perspective Penelope and the maids bring to the conversation and recommend it to any reader fascinated by Greek epics beyond the mandatory school reading. Told by a remarkably influential author, The Penelopiad brings Greek women’s stories to life in dramatic and humorous ways.
– Bailey L.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.