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Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad”

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1028
  • Category: Gender

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“We had no voice, we had no name, we had no choice, we had one face.” (p195)The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is a contemporary twist to the ancient myth of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. The novel is set in Ancient Greek society where particularly women and lower-classes were severely subjugated and silenced. Atwood critically evaluates this patriarchal world through eyes of women. The timeless story of Odysseus, overflowing with phallocentric ideals and the traditional patriarchal discourse, is undercut to give voice to Odysseus’ wife Penelope and her twelve maids – characters who rarely receive mention in Ancient Greek literature.

With Penelope and her maids now playing the protagonists, Homer’s story has been revised to declare those who have been overlooked by history. The Penelopiad has successfully empowered those who were once marginalized through the employment of two literary agents: the subversion of the Grand Narrative and integrating Feminist Theory into literature. This essay will explore and evaluate the literary devices Atwood has used to effectively subvert Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ into a modern, feminist critique of those who are suppressed in a patriarchal context.

The ‘Grand Narrative’ is considered to be an overarching story which pertains to the widely held perceptions of society – it explains and justifies the beliefs of that context. The subversion of this Grand Narrative results in the undercutting of the greater perspective and presenting it in an unusual manner. The Penelopiad is thus a subversion of Homer’s narrative ‘The Odyssey’ and Atwood revamps his story in several ways.

The perspective in which the story is narrated has shifted from the phallocentric heroes of The Odyssey to the domestic personal perspective of Penelope and her maids. The reader is thus exposed to an alternate perspective which is seldom heard in both society and literature. Penelope refers to Homer’s “official version” a “stick to beat other women with” as it provides an anti-feminist ideal of female modesty, patience and constant faithfulness to their husband, their lord and life.

The maids, angered by their tragic and unjust deaths, are eager to give their opinion of events, often offending characters of high status throughout the novel. Through death, Penelope and her maids have escaped the social conventions which previously smothered their voice and importance, and are free to express themselves without retribution.

Atwood has reshaped the structure of Homer’s chronological mythical narrative into a story intertwined with interludes by the Maids and Penelope’s thoughts in the afterlife. As a tribute to Ancient Greek Drama, Atwood uses the twelve maids as a chorus strategically placed at pivotal points of the novel, for the maids to comment on. The chorus is a structural tool in which Atwood gives the silenced maids an opportunity to voice their opinions. The frequently critical and mocking nature of the maids further undermines the glorifications of the Grand Narrative and promotes the voice of the marginalized. The experiences of the maids serve as a parallel to Penelope’s life, emphasizing the universality of female oppression from all social scales.

Penelope uses colloquial language which engages directly with the reader in a spontaneous and relaxed tone. It highlights her reflective and honest perspective – unrestricted by social boundaries. Her writing resembles a post-modern Stream of Consciousness where the narrator openly communicates with the audience. The colloquial style of writing familiarizes Penelope with the audience, making the reader more inclined to accept Penelope’s more modern and realistic telling as the “true version”.

Through the subversion of Homer’s The Odyssey, Atwood illustrates the historical naivety and oppression of women in conventional literature and highlights the significance of voicing those who are frequently silenced by shifting the point of narration and mocking the patriarchal ideals of the meta-narrative.

Following a subversion of the grand narrative, the Penelopiad has transcended into a feminist text. The Feminist Theory in literature strives to provide a voice for those who are marginalized and critically evaluate society’s representation of women. One of the key aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement was to achieve women’s full participation in society, including literature. Atwood has adopted these objectives into her novel and has empowered Penelope and the Maids as the “heroines” in a highly patriarchal world. Penelope’s evaluation of Ancient Greek social structures shows that women had a very limited purpose in life, confined within the walls of their domestic home. Many women of the modern world can relate to this issue.

The feminist theory in literature opposes the patronizing image of women created by male writers and calls upon women to reclaim their gender. Penelope states “I’ll spin a thread of my own” which relates to the Ancient Greek concept of The Fates and the lack of control people had over their lives. Atwood empowers Penelope and the Maids to seize control and retell their own story and create their own life, as opposed to submitting to the male version.

The Penelopiad challenges the traditional notion that women are less capable than men. Throughout the novel, the glorified schemes and plans created by men, who were originally thought to have fooled Penelope now states that she intentionally appeared to be unaware, to keep the men satisfied. She continues “it would be impudence to step between a man and his intelligence”. By demolishing the social barriers of conventional female suppression, the novel inspires readers and characters within the book to break their silence and seize control over their lives and opinions. The Penelopiad integrates the Feminist Theory in order to identify the historical and social structures of female submission and give voice to those would are silenced within and beyond the novel.

The Penelopiad has successfully subverted the Homer’s The Odyssey and adopted the Feminist Theory in literature, to produce an innovative revision of the ancient myth and present an insightful shift in perspective. Throughout the novel, Atwood empowered both characters and readers alike who were previously silenced. The modernization of Homer’s myth, through an undercutting of the conventional perspective, structure, language and purpose, this ancient myth is resurrected into a contemporary issue incorporating feminist reflections and giving a voice to those who are traditionally marginalized in society.

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