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The Penelopiad: Parody and Polyphony in Atwood's Classical Rewriting

The Penelopiad is a novella by Margaret Atwood that revisits the story of The Odyssey by Homer. Penelope, the protagonist, tells the story of her life because she intends to give her version of the events from The Odyssey by Homer. Consequently, Atwood includes events that do not originally appear in the story because the focus is on Penelope. In The Penelopiad, Atwood commits to work on those gaps that the original narrative did not resolve for the audience by deploying a woman's perspective. The Penelopiad is named after the eponymous heroine, Penelope, imitating the title of the original story named after Odysseus and is also inspired by Homer's Iliad. Thus, the author makes sure to establish that this is 'herstory' meaning that the events are told from a woman's perspective in contrast to traditional historiography, which has always been narrated by male authors (Spongberg, 2002). For that reason, Atwood manages to create a new story that established continuity with the classical legacy through the deployment of two different literary mechanisms: parody and polyphony (Hauser, 2018). On the one hand, according to Hutcheon (1985) parody is "repetition with critical difference"(p. 32) and, therefore, a model or an archetype suffers from a process of transformation through an "ironic inversion" (Staels, 2009, p. 101). On the other hand, The Penelopiad is also a polyphonic novella since it includes a multi-voiced outlook on the characters and events (Hauser, 2018).

Penelope. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 1869.

The Penelopiad belongs to a tradition of Odyssean rewritings, especially those with a post-modern and feminist interpretation. Suzuki (2007) appreciates a large feminist influence on the new versions of The Odyssey, such as Samuel Butler's Authoress of The Odyssey or Robert Graves's Homer's Daughter. According to reception theory, there are two different traditions of continuity with the classical world-educated and commercial (Miralles, 2009). The academic world aims to recreate an accurate portrayal of life and customs in the Ancient world whereas media and filmmakers usually try to bring the classical legacy closer to the contemporary viewer. Therefore, the resulting product will be easier for the public to understand (Miralles, 2009). Re-writing classical stories usually is an example of a hybrid method, that is, a combination of the two traditions above-mentioned, and usually explores aspects of motifs that were implicit in the original story but were not easy to grasp by the reader (Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S, 2000). Nevertheless, they also have a cultured dimension since authors usually reflect or criticize the society around them through different schools of thought. In this way, Atwood uses burlesque and parody to create continuity with the classical legacy. The first one usually refers to a stylistic transformation in terms of anachronism. For example, ancient class distinctions are neutralised by the use of burlesque dialogues (Staels, 2009). According to Hutcheon (1985), these terms are different because burlesque implies ridicule or degradation whereas parody does not. The wide range of comical and satirical elements that are constantly used contrast perfectly with the plot. For that reason, burlesque and parody serve as de-mythologising mechanisms, but at the same time they are close devices to the classical tradition, especially with Greek satyr play that employs parody when addressing topics, such as transvestism (Staels, 2009).

The beginning of the story follows a dead Penelope who is in the Underworld where she starts the course of events and her autobiographical narrative. Penelope is aware that the retelling is, in a way, a response to other Odyssean interpretations and even to the original narration. Atwood already utilizes parody as a literary mechanism at the beginning of the story since Penelope's function as a narrator in the Underworld is a representation of The Penelopiad as a postmodern re-writing. The reason for this is that Atwood counter-writes the original source by using Penelope as the narrator in hindsight after having notice of all the interpretations of The Odyssey. Therefore, the literary work starts by reflecting on its meta-literary nature and the gap between The Odyssey and the re-writing. Atwood presents The Odyssey as a finished and defined product and not as a combination of multiple literary sources establishing a parallel discourse by fixing the erasures or omissions from the original work. Consequently, Atwood's Penelope feels entitled to re-tell her story because The Odyssey has come to an end (Hauser, 2018). As the plot unfolds in The Penelopiad, Penelope narrates her life, from her childhood to adulthood. Her life already started with a shocking event: her father, Icarius of Sparta, ordered her to be murdered because he was told by an oracle that she could be responsible for his death. Her unhappy childhood and youth were marked by constant comparisons between her and her cousin, Helen, who was known for her power of seduction and beauty. However, Penelope reveals her intelligence when not believing Helen's birth story and, in fact, this is one of the first demythologized myths that appear through the narrative (Staels, 2009). It was said that Helen had come out of an egg as a result of Zeus raping her mother disguised as a swan, but Penelope states her misbelief from the beginning: "I wonder how many of us really believed that swan-rape concoction?" (Atwood, 2005, p. 20).

Penelope. John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. 1864.

However, Atwood’s novella is also a form of discontinuity with the classical past since the deployment of parody creates a meta-literary effect that is inherent to contemporary literature (Staels, 2009). Atwood uses meta-fictional parody in order to rewrite a highly acclaimed model, the epic genre, and, therefore, highlights its restrictions by placing it in a modern perspective (Hutcheon, 1985). In this way, The Penelopiad also challenges generic conventions since the novellas include a combination of different genres which is habitual in contemporary fiction (Staels, 2009). In addition, given that The Penelopiad is a piece of counter-writing that intends to fix the gaps or omissions from the original, Atwood must also resort to polyphony to overcome the limits from the original source. Thus, Atwood deploys several points of view that challenge the hindsight narrative of Penelope and the novella genre allows the author to deliver this literary technique. That is the reason why there are multiple versions of Penelope's character. According to the ancient myth, Penelope is the quintessential loyal and intelligent wife, but the modern feminist critique has questioned this description of her persona. For example, Helen of Troy depicts her cousin, Penelope, as today's feminist criticism has reviewed the traditional portrayal, that is, Penelope is considered to be a boring, emotionless, passive housewife whose only intention in life is waiting for her husband (Nischik, 2020). Penelope does not seem to believe Helen’s portrayal of her persona, but she often feels insecure around her because of her beauty. She feels jealous of her because she does not think that Helen has done anything remarkable to be adored and demanded by many suitors (Staels, 2009). In this way, not only is Helen of Troy portrayed as the traditional interpretation has established, that is, as an insanely beautiful woman that uses her attractiveness to her favor, but she is also depicted as a cruel and vain character: "You’d think Helen might have got a good whipping at the very least, after all the harm and suffering she caused to countless other people. But she didn’t." (Atwood, 2005, p. 22).

One of the novella’s main motifs is de-mythologising the logos of myths because conventional interpretations of ancient stories are rejected. For example, Penelope always provides realist explanations for original myths such as the cyclops that Odysseus fought being a one-eyed tavern keeper because the bill was not paid (Atwood, 2005). In this way, the twelve maids become the voices of dissent because they revolt against the status quo, but they are also a parody of the classical chorus because challenge the archetypical hierarchy of the epic genre by dismantling or upsetting the narrator's voice (Penelope) to reveal their version of the facts (Jayabharathi, 2016). The maids ironically criticise anthropologists of the myth and academics who are strictly limited to understanding or interpreting the myth in a symbolic way (Staels, 2009). Consequently, they claim that they are also human: "You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice." (Atwood, 2005, p. 168). They have an intriguing nature because they are really loyal to Penelope but end up falling in love with the suitors. However, this consequence of their actions is due largely to Penelope's order of spying on the suitors which end up being the maids' doom because they either are sexually abused to develop a romantic attraction to them. Finally, Odysseus executes them because of their disloyal behavior, but Atwood may be indicating that they have been sanctioned by their free agency. In this way, Atwood returns the power to the twelve maids who had been silenced and marginalized by Odyssean interpretations. Her version challenges the patriarchal echoes from the original text that disregarded the maids as minor characters who were to be exploited and ignored. In this way, Atwood follows the tradition of authors who dismantle classic literary works to expose their reactive character (Staels, 2009).

In addition, Penelope has an ambiguous nature since she confirms or accepts her archetypical identity, but defies the mythical model imposed on her by displaying a modern and highly complex identity. Originally, Penelope’s archetypical image derives from the king of Sparta’s wife, Clytemnestra, who murders her husband along with her new love after his return from the War of Troy. In contrast, Penelope is the faithful wife who patiently waits for her husband. However, Atwood manages to develop Penelope's personality and compares her with her husband when saying that both of them were "proficient and shameless liars of long-standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said." (Atwood, 2005, p. 85). Therefore, Penelope justifies the use of polyphony in the re-telling because she recognises herself as a deceitful narrator. Atwood defines both Odysseus and Penelope as cunning tricksters that defy archetypical and traditional models and, for that reason, cannot be defined as heroes. In another way, Penelope represents the lack of importance that women had. However, her abilities are far more impressive than people thought, but nobody recognizes her invaluable achievements because she is seen as an insignificant wife (Nischik, 2020).

Atwood manages to make Penelope relatable to the modern audience since she displays examples of jealousy, fear, and rage. Penelope constantly tries to gain the readers' empathy as she continuously recalls insignificant details about her domestic life that create a bond with the audience. Thus, Atwood dismantles the ideal image of Penelope as the eternal wife waiting for her husband but does not detract from her natural abilities. Consequently, a human Penelope is shown, although the mythical character is not completely rejected, her accurate personality is brought to light through the expression of the most basic emotions (Staels, 2009). In this way, another version of her persona is exposed when the twelve maids consider Penelope to have committed betrayal against them. They think that she is a cunning liar and that her description as a modest housewife is just a cover to hide her true personality (Staels, 2009). The maids even try to mimic Penelope's voice during the stanza in the chorus stating that they should be punished: "Hang them high and don’t ask why/Blame it on the maids!/Blame it on the slaves!" (Atwood, 2005, p. 151). However, not only do the maids have their version of Penelope, but they also have defined Odysseus' character. For them, Odysseus is not a hero, but a fool who represses his inner temptations and, therefore, has murdered them because he is unable to recognize his sexual affairs with other women in his return to Ithaca. For that reason, they promise to haunt him forever once he crosses the entrance of the Underworld. (Staels, 2009).

Penelope and the Suitors. John William Waterhouse. 1912.

In conclusion, Atwood manages to counter-write the classical legacy by using two contemporary literary devices such as parody and polyphony. The metaliterary parody is a perfect vehicle that combines the educated tradition with classical legacy and the commercial one. Thus, Atwood reflects the 'herstory' (Spongberg, 2002) of Penelope dismantling the omissions of the original source through polyphony and resorting to the versions of apparently minor characters, such as the twelve maids. Consequently, Atwood's version defies the patriarchal aspects of the original text and exhibits its reactive character.

Bibliographical References

Atwood, M. (2005). The Penelopiad. New York: Canongate.

Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S. (2000). The madwoman in the attic: The woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination. Yale University Press.

Hauser, E. (2018). “There is another story”: writing after the Odyssey in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Classical Receptions Journal, 10(2), 109–126.

Homer. (2015). The Iliad (P. Green, Trans.). California: University of California Press.

Homer. (2017). The Odyssey (S. Butler, Trans.). New York: Open Road Integrated Media.

Hutcheon, L. (1985). A Theory of Parody. The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. London and New York: Methuen.

Jayabharathi, M. (2016). Rewriting Epics: Homer’s Penelope and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. HyperCultura, 5(2), 1–7.

Miralles, C. (2009). THE USE OF CLASSICS TODAY. Quaderni Urbinati Di Cultura Classica, 93(3), 11–24.

Nischik, R. M. (2020). Myth and Intersections of Myth and Gender in Canadian Culture: Margaret Atwood’s Revision of the Odyssey in The Penelopiad. Zeitschrift Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, 68(3), 251–272.

Spongberg, M. (2003). Writing Women's History Since the Renaissance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Staels, H. (2009). “The Penelopiad” and “Weight”. Contemporary Parodic and Burlesque Transformations of Classical Myths. College Literature, 36(4), 100–118.

Suzuki, M. (2007). Rewriting the Odyssey in the Twenty-First Century: Mary Zimmerman’s Odyssey and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad. College Literature 34(2), pp. 263–78.

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1 Comment

Aug 09, 2022

Amazing article on Atwood's feminist counter writing and her methods with quotations snapping into place like a clockwork! Keep up the great work!

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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