The Penelopiad (Faber Drama) Main Edition, Kindle Edition
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Now that I’m dead I know everything. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn’t know before. It’s much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.
Since being dead — since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness — I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters. You think you’d like to read minds? Think again.
Down here everyone arrives with a sack, like the sacks used to keep the winds in, but each of these sacks is full of words — words you’ve spoken, words you’ve heard, words that have been said about you. Some sacks are very small, others large; my own is of a reasonable size, though a lot of the words in it concern my eminent husband. What a fool he made of me, some say. It was a specialty of his: making fools. He got away with everything, which was another of his specialties: getting away.
He was always so plausible. Many people have believed that his version of events was the true one, give or take a few murders, a few beautiful seductresses, a few one-eyed monsters. Even I believed him, from time to time. I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn’t think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me. Hadn’t I been faithful? Hadn’t I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation — almost the compulsion — to do otherwise? And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears — yes, yours! But when I try to scream, I sound like an owl.
Of course I had inklings, about his slipperiness, his wiliness, his foxiness, his — how can I put this? — his unscrupulousness, but I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut; or, if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn’t contradict, I didn’t ask awkward questions, I didn’t dig deep. I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.
But after the main events were over and things had become less legendary, I realized how many people were laughing at me behind my back — how they were jeering, making jokes about me, jokes both clean and dirty; how they were turning me into a story, or into several stories, though not the kind of stories I’d prefer to hear about myself. What can a woman do when scandalous gossip travels the world? If she defends herself she sounds guilty. So I waited some more.
Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself. I’ve had to work myself up to it: it’s a low art, tale-telling. Old women go in for it, strolling beggars, blind singers, maidservants, children — folks with time on their hands. Once, people would have laughed if I’d tried to play the minstrel — there’s nothing more preposterous than an aristocrat fumbling around with the arts — but who cares about public opinion now? The opinion of the people down here: the opinion of shadows, of echoes. So I’ll spin a thread of my own.
The difficulty is that I have no mouth through which I can speak. I can’t make myself understood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongues and fingers; and most of the time I have no listeners, not on your side of the river. Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams.
But I’ve always been of a determined nature. Patient, they used to call me. I like to see a thing through to the end.
The Chorus Line:
A Rope-Jumping Rhyme
we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed
we danced in air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair
with every goddess, queen, and bitch
from there to here
you scratched your itch
we did much less
than what you did
you judged us bad
you had the spear
you had the word
at your command
we scrubbed the blood
of our dead
paramours from floors, from chairs
from stairs, from doors,
we knelt in water
while you stared
at our bare feet
it was not fair
you licked our fear
it gave you pleasure
you raised your hand
you watched us fall
we danced on air
the ones you failed
the ones you killed
Where shall I begin? There are only two choices: at the beginning or not at the beginning. The real beginning would be the beginning of the world, after which one thing has led to another; but since there are differences of opinion about that, I’ll begin with my own birth.
My father was King Icarius of Sparta. My mother was a Naiad. Daughters of Naiads were a dime a dozen in those days; the place was crawling with them. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be of semi-divine birth. Or it never hurts immediately.
When I was quite young my father ordered me to be thrown into the sea. I never knew exactly why, during my lifetime, but now I suspect he’d been told by an oracle that I would weave his shroud. Possibly he thought that if he killed me first, his shroud would never be woven and he would live forever. I can see how the reasoning might have gone. In that case, his wish to drown me came from an understandable desire to protect himself. But he must have misheard, or else the oracle herself misheard — the gods often mumble — because it was not his shroud that was at issue, but my father-in-law’s shroud. If that was the prophecy it was a true one, and indeed the weaving of this particular shroud proved a great convenience to me later on in my life.
The teaching of crafts to girls has fallen out of fashion now, I understand, but luckily it had not in my day. It’s always an advantage to have something to do with your hands. That way, if someone makes an inappropriate remark, you can pretend you haven’t heard it. Then you don’t have to answer.
But perhaps this shroud-weaving oracle idea of mine is baseless. Perhaps I have only invented it in order to make myself feel better. So much whispering goes on, in the dark caverns, in the meadows, that sometimes it’s hard to know whether the whispering is coming from others or from the inside of your own head. I use head figuratively. We have dispensed with heads as such, down here.
From the Hardcover edition. --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
About the Author
- ASIN : B00PISEAR8
- Publisher : Faber & Faber; Main edition (October 23, 2014)
- Publication date : October 23, 2014
- Language : English
- File size : 2091 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 118 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #200,137 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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Atwoods keenmind and wry wit angle sharply with the precision of a skilled surgeon to demonstrate before us the view upon Odysseus and his "great feats", his legend, through the eyes of Penelope.
Her words and intellect slice through to the heart of matters, and never shies away, nor flinches in her pursuits. She sets before us a different view, far different than that of Homer. She shows her heart and shows what it was to exist in those times. She paints an excellent view of Penelope, her good, bad and ugly. But she goes much deeper than that by far.
Her eagle eyes see and write of everyone. She is distinctly feminist without bring shrill. That is a feat in itself, for the word feminist calls up visions of man-hating harpies for some reason. Hating men is not feminist, it is misandry-an entirely different beast. Feminists just call for true equality. But, I apologise for my digression.
Atwood's skill is definitely on display and her message is clear. She does not tip toe, nor howl. She is a truth-bearer, a better Hermes to the masses today. She makes the world of ancient Greece relatable and interesting. She lays it before us to listen, see, judge, and above all, LEARN.
There is a reason Atwood is a modern day legend. She is a force unlike to any other. She is a treasure trove of intellect and it is very evident here. This story flows with unerring force in her unique manner of writing. It is raw, it is dizzying, it is an important work, though Atwood is both intimate and distant in her voice. But, her voice always rings true.
So, come. See the other side of the coins. You will come away with your own view. You will be entertained. You will be educated. And, you will be...well, that is for you to decide. I do not merely recommend "The Penelopiad", I implore you to read it. It is the work of a master artist who toiled for us to understand or, at least, give a very differing slant. I am very pleased to have experienced it.
As Always I Wish Happy Reads to All from the Unapologetic Book Junkie 😉!
Margaret Atwood is a prolific Canadian writer whom I have regrettably never read before. I do recall seeing her work, The Blind Assassin: A Novel on the convenient dining room table of one of the Canadians that I knew in Riyadh, who read serious books, way back in the year 2000, when Atwood was awarded the Man Booker Prize for that work.
Sure, the focus has always been on the soldier, Odysseus, who went away to a foreign war, took a long time to get back home due to numerous pleasant and unpleasant distractions, and received the classic “bad homecoming” when he arrived. With a bit of gender-empathy, it was only natural for Atwood to reflect upon that “ever-faithful” wife, as well, as the author says, the fate of the 12 maids that Odysseus hanged – the “collateral damage.”
In the introduction, Atwood calls her work an “echo” to the sixth power… an “echo of an echo of…” etc. First, you had the original event… the siege of Troy, somewhere in the 12th or 13th century BCE. Then you have Homer’s telling of the story, some four centuries later… Atwood says: “Penelope is perhaps the first desperate housewife to appear in art.” Atwood’s “Penelopiad” is a play, an additional four “echoes” later, that was first performed at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2007.
Penelope is in Hades, with the Maids that have been hanged. Ah, the truth can now come out. Indicative of Atwood’s more modern, “hip” style, she has Penelope declare early on: “For hadn’t I been faithful? Didn’t I wait, and wait, despite the temptations – almost the compulsion – to do otherwise? And yet what have I amounted to, now the official version has gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why can’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I was? That’s the line they take, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears…” It’s brilliant. “A stick used to beat…”
There were aspects of my reading of Odyssey that I had forgotten, perhaps because at the time they seemed like minor points. Penelope was the daughter of King Icarius, of Sparta, who feared that she might kill him when she grew up, due to a prophesy, so he ordered her drowned, which did not, obviously work out. Penelope was a cousin of Helen, yes, the face that launched those proverbial 1000 ships, and Atwood plays on that relationship. “They were all staring at Helen, who was intolerably beautiful, as usual. Like every other man on earth, Odysseus had desperately wanted to win her hand. I was at best only second prize.” Atwood empathetically describes the lives of the Maids, who are only “deep background” for Homer.
Indeed, what is the appropriate conduct for an “ever-faithful” wife when she knows her husband has been servicing the goddess Calypso for several years? Atwood hints at the answer towards the end. “The two of us were now proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said. But we did. Or so we told each other.”
A 5-star spin of a classic myth.
Atwood sets the story in Hades, where Penelope tells it to the reader and explains some of the mechanics of the Greek underworld. The maids act as a traditional Greek chorus, interjecting between chapters to give their input into events using modern forms of media, such as a college lecture, a show tune, and a transcript from a courtroom video. By granting Penelope the ability to witness our modern world, Atwood frees herself from the limitation of trying to fully recreate Greek settings, but also gives herself the freedom to interject humor and a cosmological worldview in which the Greek gods' power has waned and a new afterlife was set up near Hades, but it's full of suffering and torment. Fans of Atwood's work will find plenty to enjoy and her use of Greek mythology will entertain those interested in the classics.
Top reviews from other countries
Presented as a normal prose tale as such, there are intervals where we hear the chorus, mirroring in many ways traditional Classical Greek drama. Taking in many themes and ideas, as well as genres, so the story that we are told here, by a woman who has been dead for many centuries, does show a certain amount of wry humour, as the story is retold for us.
Did Odysseus really do all the things that is claimed in the Odyssey – or have they been rather blown out of proportion? Was the killing of for instance Cyclops more of a tavern brawl over payment?
Presented as it is here with a normal narrative, but with added scenes from the chorus, this does make for an interesting and relatively quick read, that is quite enjoyable. I would personally think that you do not have to be fully knowledgeable on the Odyssey, or the way that ideas have changed over the centuries with regards to Helen and the whole Troy battles, but it does help if you at least understand a bit about what the original text is, and have a vague idea of current thoughts on someone like Helen of Troy.
I felt betrayed by this book. I thought agency was going to be given to the maids. That we were going to see their side of the story. And to see more of Penelope. Often in the original myths/texts, the female characters are sidelined for the male ones. So I was thrilled to have a novel that made them centre stage. But....it didn't? And it was bland? The maids had random, sporadic choruses, in between Penelope either a) complaining about them or b) dismissing them....and none of it made logical sense?? Like what was the aim here??
I don't know. Atwoods writing style was just so bland and patronising. Did not like.
Penelope is Odysseus’ wife and whilst she’s not as “popular”, I did at least recall two things about her:
1) When Odysseus had not returned in years, many men took over the palace grounds and hounded Penelope to pick one of them as her next husband. To bide time she would claim to be weaving a cloth (a shroud, if we are being pernickety) for her father-in-law, but each night alongside her twelve maids, she would unpick the day’s work to slow the decision down… but I never knew anything more than just this line, Penelope was always a sub-story and not the main story. Nevertheless I had always admired her for this.
2) When Odysseus finally returned, he killed all his wife’s pursuers and her maids.
Why the maids? It’s a question that isn’t clearly answered in any of the textbooks that analyse the myths, and so Atwood offers her take on it all.
I mentioned earlier that the tale is told in an unusual way and again there are 2 aspects why I think this:
1) The book is told from two perspectives: from Penelope’s voice and also a singing chorus from the maids.
It is told in modern times, i.e. Penelope is reflecting on her events from the underworld but also well aware of the current times playing on in the world.
2) Both aspects added such uniqueness to this tale, that there is no doubt that you’ll recall this book in years to come, whether you enjoyed or did not.
When I was studying classics in school, women in greek mythology always appeared to shine because of their beauty and not their brains; but Atwood alongside Miller, Barker, Haynes and many others are changing my perceptions and are teaching me the ingenuity, quick thinking and determination that many of these unsung heroines exhibited numerous times throughout their lives.
Atwood’s style is self-assured and provokes the reader to question, to think and to learn.
Having gone into this story knowing only two things, not only do I now understand these in more detail, I also know much more about Penelope’s childhood, personality and her marriage. Penelope’s story is fascinating and not well known, I am grateful that Atwood has allowed Penelope to be the star in her own story and come out of the shadows of Odysseus.
This is a fantastic short read.