Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’—retelling Penelope’s story

Officially obsessed with Margaret Atwood, though that should come as a surprise to no one. But prior to reading The Penelopiad, the only Atwood book I’d read was The Handmaid’s Tale, and her poem Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing. Similar to the poem, in this book, Atwood takes the part of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and Penelope tells her own version of the events surrounding the Trojan War.

17645Penelope is always seen as the antithesis to Helen, who was painted as the ultimate “bad woman.” On the other hand, Penelope is always depicted as the perfect, loyal wife, who waits for 20 years for Odysseus to come home, successfully keeping her hundred suitors at bay out of loyalty for a husband she doesn’t know will ever return. However, this story gets plenty updated in The Penelopiad, and Penelope becomes a woman with sass, agency, impatience, and a penchant for plotting.

Penelope begins her tale in the vast, shadowy underworld of Hades. This is a Greek underworld, complete with the fields of asphodel. It’s present-day, and Penelope has seen much in the thousands of years since she died. Finally, she says, it’s time to tell her story.

“Now that I am dead, I know everything,” she declares. And she does. She begins her story by describing her mother the naiad, and how her cousin Helen loved admiration so much she chased it down, and caused the deaths of thousands of Greeks. But more than anything else, Penelope tells the story of her 20 years without Odysseus—weaving the shroud, fending off her suitors, and taking Telemachus down a couple notches.

But Atwood also makes some important changes to the story we know. Most notably, Penelope states that she totally recognized Odysseus through his mask, but that pretending not to was all part of the plan. And most important: the twelve maidens who were hanged for betrayal were, in fact, spying on the suitors on Penelope’s request, thus making Odysseus’ act one of murder. The hanging of the maidens weighs heavy on Penelope’s long-dead shoulders.

The flashbacks are interspersed with Penelope’s musings in the underworld. Down there in Hades, she sees Helen still fending off flocks of admirers, and she sees Odysseus too ashamed to come near her, instead opting to become reincarnated so that he can avoid her. It’s often silly and irreverent:

“I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands. ‘Which prayer shall we answer today?’ they ask one another. ‘Let’s cast the dice! Hope for this one, despair for that one, and while we’re at it, let’s destroy the life of that woman over there by having sex with her in the form of a crayfish!’ I think they pull a lot of their pranks because they’re bored.”

But it is also, at its heart, cultural commentary about the agency of women and how they’re portrayed. Atwood has done her best to challenge stereotypes and still bring to life these allegorical, classical figures, giving them voices beyond their epic songs. And even though the tone of the book is whimsical at times, there are still moments of chilling truth, and disturbing beauty, such as the chapters where the 12 hanged maidens sing their songs:

“Then sail, my fine lady, on the billowing wave —
The water below is as dark as the grave,
And maybe you’ll sink in your little blue boat —
It’s hope, and hope only, that keeps us afloat” 

At its heart, this amazing, slim little book gave me the same eerie feeling of truth that Atwood’s Helen of Troy poem gave me. She obviously has a deft hand with satire and cultural commentary, but to weave those together with classic Greek mythology and make it all accessible and funny? Truly magical. I just adored this book, and it quickly became one of my favorites!


Helen of Troy, as told by Margaret Atwood: a poem

Today I wanted to share one of my favorite poems ever. This is “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” by Margaret Atwood. I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem recently, because I’m reading this book about Helen of Troy through the ages, Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell.

I first read this poem in college and since Helen of Troy is a source of constant fascination to me, I wanted to share this fantastic, amazing poem and my thoughts. My last essay I ever wrote as an undergrad dealt with Helen and this poem, and it’s been dear to me ever since.

Here it is:

Helen_of_TroyThe world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look—my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

I love this poem because it’s somewhat an updated interpretation of Helen of Troy’s persona for the 20th century, and also because it makes clear that Helen is still relevant today. We still struggle with gender inequality, and as a society, women are still objectified and reduced to something less than human for expressing sexuality, and are demonized for practicing agency.

Gender norms and sex politics are all there in the story of Helen of Troy, and Margaret Atwood’s take just makes that so much clearer in this poem, rich and striking and beautiful and uncomfortable.