The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus
Lisa Arsenault is a high-school English teacher who is involved in
several ministry campaigns to increase literacy.
Atwood’s version of the Greek myth of Penelope and Odysseus is told
from the alternating first-person perspectives of Penelope and her 12
maids. Penelope begins the book by describing her privileged childhood
and advantageous marriage. Her account is counterbalanced in the next
chapter by the maids’ description—presented in doggerel verse—of
their deprived childhoods and sexual bondage. According to the
author’s stage directions, the verse is to be performed by the maids
in a chorus line accompanied by a fiddle, an accordion, and a penny
The maids’ rendition of events provides fascinating insight into the
less-documented lives of the have-nots and oppressed of ancient times.
The maids’ raucous, bawdy response to their misfortunes (an attitude
that persists even after they are murdered by Odysseus and his son)
prevents their portion of the book from becoming too depressing.
Penelope herself is not a simple aristocratic stereotype, but rather a
well-rounded, compelling, and ultimately sympathetic character.
While sticking to the original sources for her facts, Atwood employs
modern slang and even technology where appropriate; the trial of
Odysseus, for example, is videotaped by the maids. The Penelopiad is a
marvellous retelling of the Odysseus myth.