© 2006 Margaret Atwood
Which is worse, waiting twenty years for a rascal of a husband to return home while simultaneously managing his kingdom, raising his son, and fending off scores of suitors – or being upheld as a saint for doing it? Everyone mocked Penelope for her loyalty while she lived, and derided her for not doing more to discourage the suitors dining locust-like from his orchards, but now that she’s dead, she’s become a paragon of chastity and wifely duty? It’s a little too much to take, and from the Asphodel Fields, the shade of Penelope reflects on her life. The Penelopeiad is the story of the Odyssey from her view, largely comic though sometimes regretful as she explains why she acted as she did. Penelope’s narrative is interrupted from time to time by a chorus of maids, in keeping with Greek theater. The maids, Penelope’s servants before Odyssesus ordered their deaths, are the touchstone of her regret. For decades they were her daughters by proxy, her conspirators against the gold-hunting boors infesting her hall, her only friends – and Odysseus slaughtered them! Helen of Troy makes frequent appearances as Penelope’s opposite, a beautiful and wicked betrayer of men who even in death enjoys teasing them. Although The Penelopiad is fully grounded in Greek mythology, modern quirks abound; the chorus parts move from verse to anthropology lectures and then a mock-trial that ends in a fantasy showdown between Athena and the Furies. It’s great fun that doesn’t diminish the original source.