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The Odyssey is a classic ancient Greek poem credited to Homer, following the Greek hero Odysseus and his extensive journey home after the fall of Troy. In his absence, his wife Penelope “is sieged by suitors who want her hand in marriage and with it her kingdom” (Morford, Lenardon, & Sham, 2019, p. 520). Despite having over one hundred wilful suitors competing for her, Penelope is known for staying loyal to Odysseus, waiting twenty years for his return. She fills the time by deceiving her suitors, one notorious trick being a declaration that she will marry once she has perfected a tapestry for her father-in-law, but while she works on it each day, she unravels her work each night, thus she never finishes. This account of Penelope’s character has traditionally bestowed her a “very serious status as the perfect wife, the model woman, a paragon of patience, or a saint of faithfulness” (Heitman, 2005, p. 2). This depiction that surfaces is nearly all there is to Penelope’s narrative within The Odyssey, demonstrating the blatant pattern of ancient Greek myths being centered on male heroes while women are only secondary characters.

According to Heitman (2005), since its original era, there have been frequent efforts to restore interest in Penelope’s place in The Odyssey (p. 2). This convention can be seen in Margaret Atwood’s novella The Penelopiad, which has redefined and given a voice to Penelope. Although deemed a secondary character within The Odyssey, “[Penelope] passes in and out of the scene like a phrase in music or a gold thread in a woven texture” (Mackail, 1986, p. 7). The Penelopiad portrays her as modernized, as she ponders on the events of her life in Hades including her family in Sparta, her marriage to Odysseus, her proceedings with the suitors and her twelve Maids, and the results of Odysseus’ return. Through The Penelopiad, the original myth has been changed as a result of the effects of new story-telling perspectives and allusions to new topics and themes.

The Penelopiad, a contemporary retelling of Homer’s myth, is multi-voiced and multi-angled, giving voice to Penelope’s twelve Maids alongside herself. The basis of Atwood’s revision was to fill in the inconsistencies surrounding Penelope and her Maids. The concept of storytelling is greatly significant from the beginning of the novella. The novella itself implies that The Odyssey is somehow distorted or inadequate, therefore, “there is an instinctive and inevitable tendency to wonder how the story went on” (Mackail, 1986, p. 19). The Penelopiad not only challenges major plot points of The Odyssey, but when writing the adaptation, Atwood sourced other texts, implying that The Odyssey is not the myth’s only solid narrative. Within The Penelopiad, Penelope and the Maids, providing a chorus, are revealed as “dead” narrators reflecting on their lives. Released from the limits imposed by The Odyssey, Penelope, and the twelve Maids exhibit raw emotions such as envy, aggression, skepticism, and self-doubt. In Atwood’s (2005) first chapter, Penelope explains why she is finally telling her own story and why she had formerly stayed silent stating:

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I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut; or if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn’t contradict, I didn’t ask awkward questions, I didn’t dig deep. I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages. (p. 3).

Penelope distinctly indicates that the narrative structure towards a happy ending was the reason for her side of the story to be silenced. Although, Atwood (2005) points out that even Penelope’s voice is not fully dependable or absolute. Early on in the novella, Penelope confesses, “Perhaps I have only invented it to make myself feel better” (p. 8), and from the Maids’ perspective, Penelope is described as someone who “had never transgressed” (p. 21). By installing the Maids’ voices to be counteractive to Penelope’s in this way and having Penelope doubt herself and her recollection of the events that occurred, Atwood challenges both Homer’s account in The Odyssey and that of her heroine in The Penelopiad. This implication in which Atwood suggests that there is no objective truth in storytelling grants the possibility of numerous interpretations of the myth, not a singular correct one.

Moreover, in The Odyssey, the hanging of the twelve Maids is not a notable aspect of the myth. It is referred to in a single paragraph, yet Atwood completely transforms its significance in her adaptation. Atwood’s account of The Odyssey through Penelope and the Maids’ perspectives focuses on the suffering and misery of life as a woman in Ancient Greece. The Maids’ hanging is not only a central mystery and motivation for Penelope and their narratives in The Penelopiad, but it is also a testimonial to social issues such as the exploitation of women, male violence against women, and women’s betrayals of other women. By way of the novella, Atwood asks: “What led to the hanging of the Maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” The Maids relive their lives through assorted narrative forms, but they all have in common their sense of Penelope’s betrayal. They cry, “We are the maids the ones you killed the ones you failed” (Atwood, 2005, p .5) This is due to Penelope not saving the Maids from their hanging, claiming that she did not know, as she was locked away from the slaughter of the suitors and had fallen asleep. Throughout the account, Penelope develops many defenses for herself and many alternate reasons for why the maids were hanged. With the conflicting narratives, it is difficult to convey what is truth and what is falsehood. The question of the Maids’ hanging is never answered, however, the Maids’ narrations do emphasize the gender and class issues that go unopposed in The Odyssey, for their fates embody the dark roots of an epic tale.

The growths in society and culture from the time of The Odyssey to the time of The Penelopiad uncover the differences that existed during Ancient Greece and the evolution towards today’s modern society. A specific significant issue is the outlook on gender equality and the treatment of women in society. As a result of the effects of the added viewpoints by Penelope and the Maids and the allusions to topics such as the social issues of exploitation, violence, and betrayal, the novella substantially changes the original myth’s value. Context plays a vital part in establishing the plot and how meaning is formed throughout the text. In Atwood’s approach to meeting the unanswered questions surrounding Penelope and the twelve Maids in The Odyssey, The Penelopiad can bring forth themes of voiceless women, untrustworthy narrators, and gender stereotypes to explore the gender issues within The Odyssey. Atwood also reimagines the myth in such a way as to undo the idea of objective storytelling and the authoritative truth, thus allowing for more creative, unconventional analyses of The Odyssey.

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