Monday, October 1, 2007

Margaret Atwood on an Ancient Mystery

by Julia Buckley
I recently read The Odyssey for the first time; then I read Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which is a wonderful, delightful, intelligent re-imagining of the Penelope of Ancient Ithaca. The book's flyleaf suggests that she asks what we might ask at the beginning of any mystery: "What led to the hanging of [Penelope's] maids, and what was Penelope really up to?"

Atwood allows Penelope a more fleshed-out back story than The Odyssey provides, giving Penelope immediate importance as narrator and an ironic voice which serves to render the “heroic” notion of her husband’s tale immediately suspect. She begins with Penelope’s summary of her own birth and childhood: “My mother was a Naiad. Daughters of Naiads were a dime a dozen in those days; the place was crawling with them. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be of semi-divine birth. Or it never hurts immediately."

Atwood often lets Penelope use an ironic modern idiom that the past would never have allowed her. Penelope derives freedom of language by being dead, in the Underworld, and is free to use whatever expression she finds appropriate, from whatever time. In saying that girls like her were “a dime a dozen,” Penelope dismisses the solemn, majestic tone implied by The Odyssey and brings a more human tone to the story.

One of the best ways Atwood employs modern idioms is in Penelope describing herself. Her self-image, according to this telling of the story, was always in question, and it truly is a myth, Penelope asserts, to say that she was beautiful. She was a part of the dowry, in a sense, but all of the treasure turned out to be meaningless in the end. She describes her own suitors and the day of her marriage: “The palace women have dolled me up as best they can, minstrels have composed songs in my honor—‘radiant as Aphrodite’, and all the usual claptrap—but I feel shy and miserable. . . . I know it’s not me they’re after, not Penelope the Duck. It’s only what comes with me—the royal connection, the pile of glittering junk. No man will ever kill himself for love of me."

Atwood’s use of modern—-and disparaging—-terms give Penelope a sense of wisdom, a stance that does not allow for mythologizing.

This past July the Royal Shakespeare Company (in production with the Ottawa Theatre Company) performed a version of The Penelopiad adapted for the stage by Atwood herself and presented at the Swan Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon. Reviews have been good, and I'm hoping to see it performed elsewhere now.

I love the fact that Atwood has taken an ancient mystery--and those are the most fascinating mysteries of all--and tried to shed light on the inscrutable thoughts and behaviors, not just of the characters of The Odyssey, but of its writer.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wow, Julia, you got me hooked at once. I didn't know about Atwood's Penelopiad (I've never quite forgiven her for how painful I found The Handmaid's Tale), but now I want to go right out and read it. There is actually a Jewish literary or philosophical device, the midrash.> To oversimplify, it's a riff on a classic (in Judaism, Biblical) text. Modern feminists have used the form in prose and poetry to do for the Hebrew matriarchs and other women in Jewish lore exactly what Atwood has done for Penelope.

Julia Buckley said...

Oh, you will love it, Liz! I thought it was just terrific, especially because I had a lot of problems with the way Penelope was depicted in The Odyssey. It's hard for us to put ourselves back in that world, because we would have to think of ourselves, I think, as less than the women we are, perhaps even less than human. And we can't do that with today's sensibility--so Atwood gives us a different way of approaching this character.

I taught the Handmaid's Tale, and I did find it hard to read, but as she points out, none of the things in that story are fictional--she borrowed them from different cultures and time periods. Ironically, that is the book I was teaching when the planes hit the Twin Towers, and the students and I had been discussing terrorism. The irony was even more painful than the book.

A Paperback Writer said...

Wow. I've never been a big fan of the Odyssey, but THIS I could like. I'll have to find and read it.
Thanks for telling us about it.

Julia Buckley said...

Well, let us know if you do. It's a very little book, a very quick read, but a real pleasure--funny and ironic, and yet deep.