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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jan-July, 2014



Feminist Perspectives in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad

Dr. Priya Sharma

Assistant Professor, School of Engineering and Technology,                                           
Sharda University, Greater Noida


Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is a reconstruction of Homer's "The Odyssey". The novel is structured around the famous myth of Odysseus and his quintessential wife Penelope. Homer had written "The Odyssey" from the perspective of the hero of his drama Odysseus. But Atwood has given an alternate vision to the myth and has retold it from the point of view of Penelope and her twelve hanged maids. Among the Canadian women writers Margaret Atwood occupies a significant position as a feminist writer. In most of her novels the basic concern has been manifold feminist issues, which are actually humanitarian conc  erns giving a voice to the unacknowledged plight of the second sex in the patriarchal society. In this regard it has been rightly pointed out that Atwood's feminist issues are basically "her wider humanitarian concerns with basic human rights and their infringement by institutional oppression"1 (Coral 7). She has presented the cruelties faced by women in patriarchal society as according to Maggie Humm, the fundamental aim of feminist perspective is "to understand women's oppression in terms of race, gender, class and sexual preference and how to change it"2 (x).
In "The Penelopiad" Atwood has presented that facet of feminine existence which is easily visible in the patriarchal structure of society. It is an account of the journey of a woman, who is a faithful wife and is known for her constancy. Penelope, Odysseus' wife and the cousin of famous Helen of Troy, was the daughter of the King Icarius of Sparta and a Naiad mother. During her childhood Penelope was deprived of parental affection. Her father ordered to throw her into the sea, the reason of which remained unknown to Penelope. Her father misheard the oracle that Penelope would weave his shroud and he thought that by killing her he would become immortal. While according to the prophecy Penelope had to weave the shroud of her father-in-law. She remarks:
"When 1 was quite young my father ordered me to be thrown into the sea I never knew exactly why, during my life time, 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."3 (The Penelopiad: 7).
But Penelope was saved as she was a daughter of a Naiad and water was her element. Penelope did not get affection from her mother as well. Whenever she tried to get closer to her craving for motherly love and care, her mother ignored and neglected her. She admits about her mother, "She was elusive, when I was little I often tried to throw my arms around her, but she had a habit of sliding away." (Penelopiad: 10). Her mother was fond of swimming and preferred it to the care of her own children whom she used to forget often. Penelope felt that if she would not have been thrown away by her father then her mother would have thrown her into the sea. She avows:
"She preferred swimming in the river to the care of small children, and I often slipped her mind. If my father hadn't had me thrown into the sea she might have dropped me in herself, in a fit of absent-mindedness or irritation. She had a short attention span and rapidly changing emotions". (Penelopiad: 10).
Thus Penelope longed for the affection of the mother and father. Though after drowning episode her father felt guilty about it and tried to exhibit caring attitude towards her, but Penelope found this affection delusive and unveracious and hence difficult to reciprocate. Her mother was always lost in her own world and didn't have time for her children. Penelope was a child who had to learn self-sufficiency as she could not expect parental support. During her childhood she learnt that the virtues of self-assurance and self-reliance are important for her to claim her survival in the narrow and selfish world. Penelope had to search her own identity and create a space for herself. She admits, "I could see that I would have to look out for myself in the world." (Penelopiad: 10).Through Penelope Atwood establishes the need for self-dependence required for an individual. Though this need rise in a different circumstance in the life of Penelope but it helps her all through her life. Atwood understood that the need for self-reliance also an indispensable component of women's emancipation on the whole.
Penelope was married to Odysseus at the tender age of fifteen. In Penelope's marriage contest of race was organized and whosoever won the contest would win the bride. Many suitors had come for the contest but Penelope's uncle Tyndareus helped Odysseus to win the race by unfair means. He mixed the wine of the contestants with a drug that slowed down their pace during the contest and to Odysseus a drug was given which had the opposite impact. Consequently Odysseus won the race and won the bride as well. According to the ancient custom daughters stayed at the father's place after marriage and the entire wedding loot stayed with the bride's family, in the bride's place. Penelope confesses that this might be the reason why her father became so concerned after trying to drown her. It was not the love for her daughter but the craving for the treasure she would get in marriage. She makes the confession:
"Under the ancient customs, the huge pile of sparkling wedding loot stayed with the bride's family, in the bride's family's palace. Perhaps that is why my father had become so attached to me after having failed to drown me in the sea: where I was, there would be the treasure. (Penelopiad:22)
But in the kingdom of Ithaca the custom was the other way round, the bride was supposed to go to the husband's family. Therefore after marriage Penelope left for Ithaca with Odysseus. There were no sentiments involved in the marriage. Penelope was only fifteen years old and she was only a teenage girl and too young to think anything about marriage. Penelope feels as a packaged product belonging to a a male-dominated society ready for consumption. She, as a bride, does not compare herself to a blooming flower, but to meat wrapped in gold and to blood pudding. She confesses: "And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you. A sort of glideds blood pudding".  (Penelopiad: 33)Atwood tries to represent that women in man's world merely get the importance like an eatable product which one likes to eat for taste and pleasure; symbolically, the simile of meat and blood pudding represent women as a commodity and object necessary for gratification in the patriarchal society. Through Penelope Atwood admits to her readers that the simile of meat is too crude but it seems that it gives an appropriate status of women in the patriarchal society during the times of Odysseus. Penelope compares not only herself to meat but she compares the entire women race to meat. Meat was highly valued among people those days. The royal people and the aristocrats were especially fond of it. Atwood tries to express that the aristocrats were fond of women and the reference of maids clarifies this point. The aristocrats ate a lot of meat means that the aristocrats kept a number of maids whom they used for their physical pleasure. Atwood has made reference to these maids during the course of the novel. These maids were the commodities for their owners and they had no identity of their own. These maids were considered dirty and these girls could not decide anything for them. They did not have parents as their parents either sold them or they were stolen. As children they had to work for their masters and when they grew up they still had to serve them but in a different manner. They were forced to sleep with their owners, visitors and their sons. The maids confess sorrowfully, “If our owners or the sons of our owners or a visiting nobleman or the sons of a visiting nobleman wanted to sleep with us, we could not refuse."(Penelopiad: 11)
These maids were merely instruments for their masters and they were not considered human beings by them. Atwood talks of the maids on humanitarian grounds also, and not only as a specific gender. They did all the work and did not get proper food to eat. The plight of these maids remained ineffable and disregarded. They gloomily confess their deplorable condition, “We ground the flour for lavish wedding feasts, then we at the leftovers, we would never have a wedding feast of our own, no rich gifts would be exchanged for us, our bodies had little value" ( Penelopiad:12).
They could neither weep nor display their pain as it was futile. The exploitation of these maids started in their childhood itself. Beauty was a nightmare for them and if they were pretty their lives become worse. The maids dismally express their plight, "All this happened to us when we were children. If we were pretty children our lives were worse.” (Penelopiad: 11)
These maids had learnt ways of attracting men in their childhood as if they were preparing themselves for these activities in future. They confess, “We swayed our hips, we burked, we winked, we signalled with our eyebrows, even when we were children, we met boys behind the pigpens, noble boys and ignoble boys alike." (Penelopiad: 12)
The maids were merely an object of male gratification in the patriarchal society and had no existence of their own. The only thing important was their body. The same kind of treatment is given to the animals also by men, the animals who are killed in order to provide the delicacies of meat to the people. Similarly these maids were slaughtered, though not physically but emotionally, mentally and physically. This has made Atwood compare Penelope and hence entire women race to "meat".
Though Penelope was won by Odysseus and many suitors had lost. But no suitors appeared sad for losing Penelope instead it seemed as if they had lost an auction for the horse. Penelope comments, “At any wedding preceded by a contest there were bound to be a few sore losers. But no unsuccessful suitor lost his temper at my feast. It was more as if they failed to win an auction for a horse".  (Penelopiad: 34) Here also Atwood has used animal imagery for describing a particular situation in a woman's life. This clearly indicates that Atwood feels that women were more or less considered as inhuman being having no existence and importance of their own.
After marriage Penelope takes little time to settle with Odysseus. He used to tell his stories to her and she appreciated his stories. Odysseus acknowledged his wife's quality of listening to his stories with so much patience and interest. Penelope says, "I think this is what he valued most in me, my ability to appreciate his stories. It's an underrated talent in women." ( Penelopiad: 38)
She according to the custom followed in Ithaca, had to leave for her husband's place but her father did not want her to do so. He ran after her departing chariot and begged her to stay with him; he wanted to know whether she wanted to go with Odysseus or wanted to stay with him. Penelope pulled down her veil in answer as she was laughing and found it humorous that the father who once tossed her daughter to die was now asking her to stay back with him. She didn't feel like staying there and wanted to get away from there. There was nothing in the palace which she would have longed for and wanted to begin a new life. She confesses,“Ididn't feel like staying. At that moment, I could hardly wait to get away from the Spartan court. I hadn't been very happy there, and I longed to begin a new life" (Penelopiad: 41)
Penelope left with Odysseus for Ithaca to begin a new life. She had an admiration for Odysseus in her heart and she held a high opinion about him. She was just fifteen years old and this was the reason why she was easily impressed by him. She honestly confesses during the sea voyage to Ithaca:
"I'd gained a great opinion of Odysseus since our wedding day, and admired him immensely, and had an inflated notion of his capabilities-remember I was fifteen- so I had the greatest confidence in him, and considered him to be a sea-captain who could not fail." (Penelopiad: 45)
But later Penelope changed her opinion about Odysseus and he was not very happy with him. She was left all alone in Ithaca after the death of her maid Actoris whom her father had sent with her from Spartan. She felt lonely in Ithaca and did a lot of secluded weeping. Though she was not happy with Odysseus but she tried to conceal her unhappiness from him. Though Odysseus was attentive and considerate towards Penelope but still she did not appreciate his elderly manner of treatment with her. She missed husband's love in Odysseus and always felt that he is trying to study her as if she was a puzzle. She makes a conscientious acknowledgement of her feelings and confesses:
"Itried to conceal my unhappiness from Odysseus, as I did not wish to appear unappreciative. And he himself continued to be as attentive and considerate as he had been at first, although his manner was that of an older person to a child. I often caught him studying me, head on one side, chin in hand, as if I were a puzzle; but that was his habit with all, I soon discovered." (Penelopiad: 46-47).
Penelope didn't get that affection in Ithaca, neither from her husband nor from her in laws, which she really wanted. Penelope was clever but she was not as good looking as her cousin Helen whom most of the men admired and she was very well aware of this fact. Penelope gave birth to her son Telemachus and everybody in the palace was happy. Odysseus too was very happy and was happier due to the fact that Helen didn't give birth to a son and his wife had. Penelope was glad that her husband appreciated her for this but could not understand why her husband recalled Helen at such a moment of joy. She expressed her confusion thus:
"Odysseus was pleased with me. Of course he was. 'Helen hasn't borne a son yet’ he said, which ought to have made me glad. And it did. But on the other hand, why was he still- and possibly always- thinking about Helen?" (Penelopiad: 52)
Penelope became more accustomed to her new home though the household authority was in the hands of Eurycleia, Odysseus' nurse and her mother-in-law. But Penelope was quite happy when a misfortune stuck her life, Helen, her cousin, ran away with Paris the prince of Troy, which led to the war to get Helen back. Odysseus had to leave for the war and Penelope was distressed because of this as without Odysseus she was left all alone in the palace. She expressed her grief in the following words:
"What joy would there be for me, alone in the palace? By alone you will understand that I mean without friends or allies. There would be no midnight pleasures to counterbalance the bossiness of Eurycleia and the freezing silences of my mother-in-law". (Penelopiad: 63)
In the absence of Odysseus the real ordeal of Penelope's life began. She had to wait for twenty long years for Odysseus and during this period she faced many problems and difficulties. Her mother-in-law had grown old and weak to carry on the responsibilities of the household matters and old Eurycleia and become even older. Her father-in-law, Laertes too became old and lost interest in palace life and went off to countryside to rummage around on his farms. Consequently the entire responsibility of the household and vast estates of Ithaca came on the shoulders of Penelope. She confesses, "Now I was running the vast estates of Odysseus all by myself." (Penelopiad: 68).Penelope had never thought in her life that she could even face such conditions; her mother had not set a good example before her. She had never worked in Sparta, therefore in Ithaca she had to learn from the scratch. Initially Eurycleia used to look after many things but she too was old and weak to carry on such responsibilities. Gradually Penelope learnt to do things all by herself and started taking caring of all the responsibilities of the palace herself. Penelope became a true representation of an empowered woman taking hold of the power in hands. Being a responsible and committed woman and her aim was to build up the estates of her husband Odysseus. She expresses her desire thus, "My policy was to build up the estates of Odysseus so he'd have even more wealth when he came back than when he'd left- more sheep, more cows, more pigs, more fields of grain, more slaves.” (Penelopiad: 71)
Penelope being a faithful and honest person always thought about the happiness of her husband. Atwood tries to explore into the psyche of a woman who though left alone in the blooming years of her youth, thinks about the welfare of her husband. She is never misled by her path and has strong will power and determination which is often found missing in men. Though Penelope had a busy schedule but still she felt lonely. She admits, "Despite all this busyness and responsibility, I felt more alone than ever". (Penelopiad: 71).She longed to meet her husband and found it difficult to bear the pain of loneliness any longer. She confesses, "Many nights I cried myself to sleep or prayed to the gods to bring me either my beloved husband or a speedy death". (Penelopiad: 71).She had to take care of her son Telemachus also, so during the daytimes he tried to pretend to be cheerful. She used to tell the stories of Odysseus and his bravery to her son and tried to convince her son that things would be wonderful once Odysseus returns home. She did not know whether Odysseus was alive or not she heard many stories about him but didn't know what to believe. There were a many suitors who were willing to marry Penelope not because they valued her virtue or loved her but because of the treasure trove she had. The suitors believed that the widows are supposed to be consumed with lust, especially if their husbands are dead or missing for a long time. Penelope did not have to face the problem of the suitors during the first nine or ten years of Odysseus' absence because everybody knew that he was at Troy. But after that the suitors started coming up to the palace like a hunter looking for its prey. Penelope describes the suitors thus:
"First five came, then ten, then fifty- the more there were, the more were attracted, each fearing to miss out on the perpetual feasting and the marriage lottery. They were like vultures when they spot a dead cow: one drops, then another, until finally every vulture for miles around is tearing up the carcass". (Penelopiad: 82)
Once again Atwood compares woman to flesh, i.e. to carcass which is the favourite of vultures. It seems that Atwood is trying to convey that a woman is not safe at any stage of her life. She has to strive hard to preserve her chastity. The suitors are like vultures looking for their prey in the form of Penelope.
Penelope had to preserve her chastity on one hand and had to save her son on the other. The suitors knew that Telemachus could be a hindrance in their way to achieve Penelope and therefore the suitors could be a threat to his life. The suitors tried their utmost to impress Penelope and praised her beauty, excellence and wisdom, Penelope tells about the suitors:
"They said they would continue in this manner until I chose one of them as my new husband, so they punctuated their drunken parties and merrymaking with moronic speeches about my ravishing beauty and my excellence and wisdom". (Penelopiad: 83)
But Penelope liked all these praises and loved to hear them, as it is a human weakness to hear the praise. She enjoyed such moments and honestly confesses, “I can't pretend that I didn't enjoy a certain amount of this. Everyone does; we all like to hear songs in our praise, even if we don't believe them."(Penelopiad: 83)
She had a craving for physical love also as she was young and her husband had not come since a long time. She had sexual desires in her heart and she openly admits that occasionally she used to day dream with which suitor she would go to bed. She admits, "I have to admit that I occasionally day dreamed about which one I would rather go to bed with, if it came to that." (Penelopiad: 84).But Penelope knew what she had to do and was clever enough to understand the hidden desires of the suitors. She had positioned twelve maids among the suitors who used to inform Penelope about the intentions of the suitors. She heard the malicious gossip about herself and the suitors through Eurycleia who always talked against the suitors as if she was trying to harden the heart of Penelope against suitors.
Penelope too did not wish to succumb before the suitors as she knew their real feelings. But she could not understand how to find out a way to stop the suitors. She expresses her distress, "What could I do to stop these aristocratic young thugs?" (Penelopiad: 84).The predicament of Penelope was that she had no manpower to fight the suitors and her son Telemachus was alone while there were about hundred and twelve suitors. It was not possible for him to fight those men. If she would have tried to stop them by force they could have reacted in an outrageous manner. She expresses her dilemma:
"I knew it would do no good to try to eject my unwanted suitors, or to bar the palace doors against them. If I tried that, they'd turn really ugly and go on the rampage and snatch by force what they were attempting to win by persuasion". (Penelopiad: 86)
Therefore she had to delineate a safer means of avoiding the suitors. At this moment of her life she recalled the advice of her mother and said to herself, "Behave like water, I told myself. Don't try to oppose them. When they try to grasp you, slip through their fingers. Flow around them." (Penelopiad: 86)
Thus Penelope pretended to view their wooing favourably in order to keep them under delusion. She tried to find out a way as her son started looking at her in an odd way as if she might give his inheritance to some other person. Her distress over her misfortune comes out thus:
"I would lie on my bed and weep, and wonder what on earth I should do. I certainly didn't want to marry any of those mannerless young whelps. But my son, Telmachus, was growing up-he was almost the same age as the Suitors, I more or less-and he was starting to look at me in an odd way, holding me responsible for the fact that his inheritance was being literally gobbled up". (Penelopiad: 87)
At last she devised a solution to avoid the suitors and it was that she declared that she was weaving a shroud of her father-in-law Laertes and she could not choose a new husband for her until and unless she completed the weaving. She wove it during daytime and undid during nights so that it never completes and continued thus for three years. Her task was so pious that no one could oppose it. But it was not the shroud for Laertes; actually it was a garment for her who was doomed by the fate not to live peacefully in her own palace. She expresses her grief,                                                                   "This shroud would be fitter garment for me than for Laertes, wretched that I am, and doomed by the gods to a life that is a living death". (Penelopiad: 90)
This scheme protected her for some time but her secret of interminable weaving was soon disclosed and she found herself amidst more serious problems. The twelve maids whom she had positioned to spy on the suitors were raped by them. She confesses,"This plan came to grief, several of the girls were raped, others were seduced, or were hard pressed and decided that it was better to give in than to resist". (Penelopiad: 92)
At last Odysseus returns and kills the suitors, but her twelve maids are also killed by Odysseus and Telemachus. Both the father and the son did not know that the maids were pretending to be on the side of suitors and thought that the maids were disloyal. Though Penelope was a faithful wife still she had to pretend not to recognize Odysseus at once so that he might not think that she had been behaving with all men in the same manner. She said:
"So I looked at him blankly, and said it was too much for me to swallow, the idea that this dirty, blood- smeared vagabond was the same as my fine husband who had sailed away, so beautifully dressed, twenty years before". (Penelopiad: 136)
She also asked him the secret of bedpost in order to convince him. The plight of this woman is that though her husband comes after twenty years and still hopes that she would be chaste and faithful to him. Odysseus enjoyed a carefree life; he was not a responsible son, husband and father. For twenty long years he was lost in his own world and never thought about the welfare of his family and kingdom.
In The Penelopiad Margaret Atwood has depicted the arduous journey of a woman's life who faces the hardships and ordeals all alone and still carries out all her responsibilities and duties honestly and confidently. In the novel, Atwood tries to establish the fact that though women are considered weaker in the patriarchal structure of society but they have an inner strength to overcome sufferings and afflictions faced during the adverse situations in life. In the beginning Penelope is a weak and ordinary woman but her posture rises to that of a strong, empowered and intelligent woman who takes a firm stand during the absence of her husband and lack of support from any other side. The Penelopiad is a representation of a woman's grievances in life and her struggle for a peaceful and safer life.

Notes and References

  1. Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. New Delhi: Penguin Books. 2005. Print (All subsequent quotations in the text are cited from this edition only).
  2. Coral, Ann Howells. Margaret Atwood.  London: Macmillan P Ltd.1996.Print.
  3. Humm, Maggie. The Dictionary of Feminist Theory. Columbus,USA: Ohio State UP. 1990. Print.