Five Ways of Looking at The Penelopiad
CORAL ANN HOWELLS
As the lights go down in the great church of St James, Piccadilly, a voice speaks eerily out of the darkness somewhere off to the side: ‘Now that I’m dead I know everything.’1 And then a single spotlight reveals centre stage a small grey-haired female figure robed in black sitting on a throne; she begins to speak. This is Margaret Atwood, doubly imaged here in performance as Penelope, for I am describing a staged reading of part of The Penelopiad by the writer herself.
The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus is one of the first three books in a new series, The Myths, published by Canongate Press in the United Kingdom and simultaneously in 32 other countries. The other two books are Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth and Jeanette Winterston’s Weight, a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles. It is Canongate’s intention to publish one hundred of these myth revisions by 2038. Atwood has been rewriting classical myths ever since her first privately published volume of poems Double Persephone back in 1961, and in this context her recent comments on myth are significant:
Strong myths never die. Sometimes they die down, but they don’t die out. They double back in the dark, they re-embody themselves, they change costumes, they change key. They speak in new languages, they take on other meanings.2
This talk of resurrection, shape-changing, and surreptitious returns from the dead reminds us of Atwood’s fascination with the Gothic, and true to form, The Penelopiad is her Gothic version of Homer’s Odyssey told through the voice of Penelope, speaking from beyond the grave as she tells her life story in the form of a confession, spinning ‘a thread of my own’ (p. 4) in selfdefence and self-justification. However, Penelope’s is not the only voice here; her tale is frequently interrupted by the voices of her twelve hanged 5
maids, those nameless slave girls who have nothing to say in The Odyssey, and whose hanging is a minor element in the story of Odysseus’s homecoming. Yet Atwood remarks, ‘I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids; and in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.’ (p. xv. And so, we might add, is Odysseus.) It seems that Atwood is using Penelope’s story to tell another story within it: the story of the hanged maids, who, like the Handmaids of Gilead, have been relegated to the margins of the epic narrative: ‘From the point of view of future history, we’ll be invisible.’3 Writing against this erasure, Atwood uses her novelistic imagination to expand Homer’s text, giving voice to this group of powerless silenced women. Not surprisingly, their stories are very subversive, not only of the masculine heroics of The Odyssey but also of Penelope’s True Confessions. Through their songs and burlesque dramas Atwood speculates on possible answers to two questions raised by her reading of The Odyssey: ‘what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?’ (p. xv). Atwood is aware of the power of a good riddle or an unsolved crime to generate reader suspense (just think of Alias Grace), while she describes her writing of The Penelopiad in true sleuthing fashion as the opportunity to ‘explore a few dark alleyways in the story that have always intrigued me.’4 There are many alleyways in The Penelopiad that we might explore, and in this essay I shall investigate a few of them: Atwood’s narrators and narrative techniques, as well as the connections between myth, fictive autobiography, Gothic tale, and domestic drama, all testifying to her fascination with the processes of storytelling and myth construction. I shall make my progress along these alleyways by following her own design for the Introduction to a volume of the new editions of H. G. Wells in Penguin Classics, ‘Ten Ways of Looking at The Island of Dr Moreau.’5
Greece and about the other ghosts down with her in the Underworld, ‘But when I...
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