Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell: Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad (2005) (novel)

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad (2005)

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Penelopiad (2005) is a postmodern feminist reworking of the ancient Greek mythological stories of Odysseus as were principally told in Homer’s The Odyssey, which is one of the founding texts in the Western literary canon.  Seeing the original work as patriarchal, misogynist and  sexist in what it says about women and in the way it tells the story from the male perspective thereby omitting female perspectives on the events covered, this reworking of these stories serves to correct these politically-incorrect biases, silences and omissions by telling the story from the perspective of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus,  and, to a lesser extent,  from the perspective of the twelve slave women whom Odysseus executed for fraternising with the suitors who sought to gain access to his wealth and lands during his long, twenty year absence on military campaign and returning from the Trojan Wars.

Penelope had gone down in literature as the ultimate loyal wife who remains faithful by evading the advances of over a hundred dishonourable suitors until her heroic adventurous husband returned home to violently restore order. This postmodern feminist reworking of these stories instead focused on Penelope to present her as an intelligent and capable woman who is not given a chance by her patriarchal society to have a career suited to her talents, nor is she given sufficient credit for managing the household and estates of her husband while he was absent.   As a woman she is subordinated and exploited, and she is a victim of double standards regarding sexual morality. Another of her disadvantages was she was denied a voice to express her grievances.  This text gives her that voice and puts both her grievances and attributes at centre stage.  Similarly the twelve executed slave women are used as a means to show how slave women were exploited by their male masters. They could also be sexually exploited by both their master and by other men of rank.  They were the unfortunate victims of patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism in the prevailing social system that sought to control their bodies for the benefit of men and that gave little value to their lives.

The text also presents a sceptical debunking of the heroic mythological stories of Odysseus by providing alternative explanations for his great deeds that reveal them to have had their origins in ordinary events that have, since then, been embellished beyond recognition.  This suggests that all myths glorifying men may have origins in ordinary events that were later dishonestly distorted according to the dictates of the male ego to create stories to make the men look more heroic and noble than they actually were.

With Atwood fascinated with the way men rate women primarily on their looks, and how only a few women are privileged by this tendency while most others are disadvantaged, she presented this dilemma through her depiction of a rivalry between the two cousins, Helen of Troy and Penelope, to give expression to how much the plain but intelligent woman’s feelings are hurt by the many slights she routinely receives from her beautiful rival and by the demeaning actions and inactions of the men she encounters.  In this context, the novel documents what it presents as the justifiable resentments that many women in this predicament feel, such from the realisation that the men in their life would secretly rather be with the beautiful Helen than with their own partner.  Helen is presented as an exception to the sisterhood, as a woman who is formidable in her sexual power; she is vain, manipulative, and insensitive to the feelings of others whom she hurts. She causes incalculable harm by the effect she has on men who are captivated by her beauty. She is even able to use her beauty to escape punishment for the disasters she precipitated and the wars and injustices committed in her name.

As well as being a feminist text, it is also Freudian.  Atwood is profoundly influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis and she depicts individuals as shaped by their experiences, especially their childhood experiences, and especially their traumatic childhood experiences.  In this text she applies these analytical principles to her treatment of Penelope and she presented her as partly the product of her traumatic childhood where she was neglected by her mother and violently abused by her father who sought to kill her due to his fears regarding a (false) prophesy.  Penelope ended up uncertain about relationships and lacking in trust.

The text is also Marxist in the way it treats socio-economic inequality as the source of most, if not all, evil, and this is highlighted in Atwood’s sympathetic presentation of the subordinated slave women who work as maids and in her occasional malicious digs at capitalists as ruthless and cruel.

Postmodernists, including postmodern feminists, are often politically opposed to texts in the canon of great Western literature that present politically incorrect values as normal or virtuous.  Postmodern feminists would see The Odyssey as exhibiting patriarchal values that normalise the subordination or oppression of women.  Many postmodern feminists would see this ancient and revered text as a challenge to be countered or preferably replaced by a politically-correct version of the story.  The rewriting of this ancient text to make it accord with postmodern politically-correct feminist values is not only a literary act but also a political act.  It is a contribution to changing what the politically-correct Left regard as the dominant male discourse, thereby chipping away at the paradigm that they regard as oppressing women.  Atwood’s novel can be seen as an expression of political activism by a writer seeking to advance the feminist cause.

In this postmodern feminist re-writing of The Odyssey, Odysseus is no longer a hero but the beneficiary of dishonest storytelling that glorified him unrealistically.  He is, instead, a privileged, patriarchal, misogynistic and sexist male who neglected his wife by abandoning her for twenty years and who unjustly murdered twelve slave women who were innocent of the betrayal for which they were accused.  Penelope is not simply the ideal Greek wife who remained loyal under extremely difficult circumstances but rather she emerges as a more complex character when given the chance to speak for herself.  She can be seen as a capable and intelligent woman who was oppressed by the patriarchal social order to which she was subjected and which denied her an opportunity to live a more fulfilling life by having a caring husband and career.  She loved a man who took advantage of her love by expecting devotion from her that he was unwilling to return.   Her long years of lonely fidelity to her husband brought no improvements to her life upon his return.  Meanwhile, her cousin Helen of Troy emerged in this version of the story as a vain and shallow woman who betrayed the sisterhood and who cared little about the feelings of the women she hurt or about the havoc and destruction caused by the men who were distracted by her beauty.  Meanwhile, the slave women who were maids were given a voice to speak of their victimisation, being oppressed for being both women and for being poor.  They were represented as demanding justice for the wrongs done to them by the men who presided over them.  Their calls for justice can also be seen as exemplifying the need for feminism and for feminist activism to advance the cause of oppressed women.

Student and teacher resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2019 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students and teachers seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.)

Subject: The Penelopiad meaning, The Penelopiad themes, The Penelopiad analysis, The Penelopiad notes