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An Analysis: The Penelopiad

Margret Atwood’s novella The Penelopaid is a response to the issues unaddressed within Homer’s epic The Odyssey. Complications regarding class and gender divisions are explored through techniques such as irony. Odysseus’ glorification within The Odyssey is challenged as Atwood provides the dialogue to female characters such as the maids. The traditional use of comedia was utilised to overshadow the tragic elements of the court case. The effectiveness of the technique Deus ex Machina is challenged by satire and anachronism. Ultimately, through the use of various techniques Atwood effectively creates postmodern perceptions of The Odyssey.

Book cover to Margaret Atwood's 'The Penelopiad'
Book cover to Margaret Atwood's 'The Penelopiad' | Source

The Odyssey by Homer

The poem mainly focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths) and his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War.
The poem mainly focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths) and his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. | Source

Overview of chapter 26

Ch. XXVI—The Chorus Line: The Trial of Odysseus, as Videotaped by the Maids.

This was a courtroom scene set up as a short play, with Attorney for the Defence (Odysseus’ lawyer), a laughing Judge, and a witness (Penelope), who tries unsuccessfully to defend the dead maids. After the judge decided to dismiss the case against Odysseus, the Maids, who were determined to get justice, called upon twelve Furies: “Oh Angry Ones, Oh Furies, you are our last hope! We implore you to inflict punishment and exact vengeance on our behalf! Be our defenders, we who had none in life!” The Maids ask that the twelve Furies follow and harass Odysseus forever. Odysseus’ attorney then summons Pallas Athene to protect Odysseus.

The Penelopiad Act 1

Class and gender divisions

Atwood’s response to The Odyssey explores the societal expectations of sexuality created by class and gender divisions. Through intertextuality to The Odyssey’s book 22, Atwood challenges the validity of the maids’ execution. The defence attorney claims the maids, “had sex without permission,” objectifying the maids to highlight the injustice of their slave status. The term “permission” implies that the slavery class was not entitled to their own bodies in Ancient Greece. Hence, The Penelopaid contrasts with The Odyssey since most ancient writings focalise the patriotic achievements of males. Consequently, Atwood challenges traditional male-oriented history through focusing on female characters. The plural pronoun, “they” further objectifies the maids as they are grouped into a single unit rather than being addressed by their names. This distances the maids’ identities from the audience who are only able to sympathise with their victimisation rather than connect with them on a personal level. This turns the maids into enigmatic products of the wrath dealt against them whilst Odysseus is now reinvented into a megalomaniac. Accordingly, the focus of female characters creates insight into gender and class issues within The Odyssey.

The Penelopiad Act 2

Irony

The Penelopaid successfully reconstructs and provides a voice to characters in order to address contradictions overlooked in The Odyssey. In prose the maids sing, “we had no voice, (The Penelopaid, Ch. XXIX, line 1)” where the use of past tense “had” implies that Atwood attempts to provide words to how they viewed their execution. The repetition of the line attributes to the significance of their story being told. This reveals postmodern interpretations of Odysseus that arise from the irony of his behaviour. Penelope explains that the mentality in which Odysseus executes the suitors is for committing adultery and squatting in his house. This contradicts his actions as he commits adultery with Circe (The Odyssey BK X:123) and he invades the Cyclopes’ home under the expectation they would be hospitable (The Odyssey Bk IX:152-192). Hence, the repetition of the lines creates a power shift as Odysseus was the one in a position of power in The Odyssey, however, the irony of his actions belittles his reputation. Thusly, the use of repetition and irony are devices that Atwood uses in order to highlight complications within Odysseus’ behaviour.

Photo of Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario. She earned a BA from Victoria College, University of Toronto, and an MA from Harvard. Photo credit: George Whiteside
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario. She earned a BA from Victoria College, University of Toronto, and an MA from Harvard. Photo credit: George Whiteside | Source

Comedia and Tragedy

Atwood utilises techniques of comedy and tragedy to provoke the audience. Laws within modern society has deemed rape is illegal in most western societies such as Australia. Atwood takes the negative perceptions of rape into account as she utilises tragedy to address rape within the court case. The element of traditional tragedy reconstructs Odysseus into an unstable persona who executed the maids out of megalomania. This is since the audience is morally inclined to sympathise with the maids. Nonetheless, Atwood emotionally conflicts the audience with elements of comedy. The verb the “Judge chuckles” puzzles the audience on to how to react to the scene. The misdirection of tone from the judge’s chuckle is utilised to stun the audience. This creates irony since judges are expected to comply with human rights. The type of laughter contrasts with the verb the maids “laughed bitterly,” highlighting the difference between the oppressed topic of rape and the law’s light-hearted laughter. The judge’s dismissal of the topic builds frustration within the audience as if provoked to feel the powerlessness the maids experience. Therefore, the use of contrast of traditional techniques is utilised to challenge the audience’s perceptions of the maids’ treatment.

Comedia

The use of comedia is utilised in order to challenge the power of authority within the court case. Satirical elements that challenge twenty-first-century court systems highlight how the complexity of Deus ex Machina and anachronism creates issues in maintaining seriousness within the text. Emphasis on this satire is shown through the Deus ex Machina where the repetition of the word “order!” is used to challenge authority. The word “order” is challenged by the unrealistic inclusion of gods. The dialogue from the judge, “get down from the ceiling!” ends with an exclamation mark, encapsulating his/her desperation to reclaim order. Hence, the use of Deus ex Machina is utilised to diminish authority as “order” becomes meaningless in the face of the randomness the technique instils, whilst the tragic elements of the scene are overshadowed by comedia. This implies that Deus ex Machina creates unnecessary complications to texts regardless of the era it is utilised. Ergo, the emphasis on satirical elements that Deus ex Machina produces challenges the legitimacy of the technique.

Pallas Athene

Source

Deus ex Machina

Complications of Deus ex Machina are further explored through Atwood’s use of the technique. Atwood explores the problematic nature of the technique since it is utilised when a writer does not know how to resolve plot complications. Intertextual references to mythological figures such as the “Furies” and “PallasAthene” creates confusion in distinguishing reality from fantasy within the chapter. The inclusion of gods in the courtroom symbolises disorder, contrasting to the setting which signifies order. The division of the gods references the divisions created within Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. This implies the cycle of chaos that persisted from The Iliad to the bloodshed in The Odyssey would continue out of the control of judicial law since the use of Deus ex Machina invites spontaneity. Furthermore, the chapter ends without solving the major issue, showing novelistic discourse with open-ended qualities. Consequently, this leaves the audience restless without a completed picture towards how the court case ended. This highlights the issues that arise from utilising literary devices used 2500 years ago creating ambiguous, anachronistic element to the text. Henceforth, through utilising Deus ex Machina Atwood highlights the convolution the technique adds to the plot of a text.

The Fury near the top of the vase is adorned with her characteristic snakes.
The Fury near the top of the vase is adorned with her characteristic snakes. | Source

The reinvention of characters within The Odyssey presents postmodern perceptions of The Odyssey. The objectification of the maids due to their slave status and the irony created by Odysseus’ actions challenge his glorification in The Odyssey. Issues of Deus ex Machina are investigated through the anachronistic spontaneity it invites to the text. The Penelopaid makes it exceedingly clear that The Odyssey is far more complex than an epic entailing the adventure of Odysseus

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