Do you remember the Illiad? Homer’s Oddyssey? Do you remember Odysseus who sailed the seas and fought monsters and escaped mermaids to return to his faithful wife who waited for him for more than 20 years? Well, this is not his story, it’s hers.
It’s the story of Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy— the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids.
In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?”
The book is organized like a Greek tragedy – having even a choir made out of the 12 maids to entertain the public with their songs between the main acts of the play.
The story starts off with Penelope’s childhood, how her father tried to offer her to the gods of the sea and how her mother was a nymph.
And how her riches, not her looks draw her suitors. Some women are born beautiful, like Helen of Troy, reveling in the attention of men anywhere, making each and every one around her fall in love, never loving herself. Other women are smart, faithful and while not very good looking are pretty enough to keep a man interested. The story of Penelope is the same as any other women and this is what makes her so down-to-earth.
She gets married to Odysseus after he wins his hand in marriage by allegedly getting his competition drunk and unable to compete. When she was about to enter the marriage, her nymph mother, the one with the dripping dresses and sharp teeth, gives her advice on how to be a wife, a mother and a wife in a man’s world.
Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it . Water does .
She gently tells her to silently do her own thing, set up her own rule, regardless of any obstacles put in her path.
When she gets to Ithaca, she finds out she has no power. Her mother-in-law and Odysseus former nanny hold the house in reins and her only tasks are to take long walks and carry his child. When he goes off in the world to fight in the Trojan war, she finds herself besieged by male suitors, taking advantage of the rules of hospitality and coming to her house and eating her food and slowly dwindling her fortune to make her marry them.
To escape them, she deploys 12 maidens she has hand-reared herself, 12 slave girls, to be her eyes and ears among the men. Some get raped due to the proximity to the drunken men, some fall in love. But these 12 women are hers in soul and loyalty.
The maids sing about their status during the chorus times and you can make out the dire conditions they were living in.
We were told we were motherless. We were told we were fatherless. We were told we were lazy. We were told we were dirty. We were dirty. Dirt was our concern, dirt was our business, dirt was our specialty, dirt was our fault. We were the dirty girls.
In the mean time, her only son is growing up to be more disgruntled seeing how his mother is treated and how his fortune is falling apart. He does not join his mother in her quiet hours to inquire about her train of thought but looks down on her as a pathetic woman stuck on waiting for his father.
Children were vehicles for passing things along. These things could be kingdoms, rich wedding gifts, stories, grudges, blood feuds. Through children, alliances were forged; through children, wrongs were avenged. To have a child was to set loose a force in the world.
If you had an enemy it was best to kill his sons, even if those sons were babies. Otherwise they would grow up and hunt you down. If you couldn’t bring yourself to slaughter them, you could disguise them and send them far away, or sell them as slaves, but as long as they were alive they would be a danger to you.
If you had daughters instead of sons, you needed to get them bred as soon as possible so you could have grandsons. The more sword-wielders and spear-throwers you could count on from within your family the better, because all the other noteworthy men around were on the lookout for a pretext to raid some king or noble and carry away anything they could grab, people included. Weakness in one power-holder meant opportunity for another, so every king and noble needed all the help he could get.
Penelope tries to find out what her suitors want by finding the secret door to their innermost desires.
He told me once that everyone had a hidden door, which was the way into the heart, and that it was a point of honour with him to be able to find the handles to those doors. For the heart was both key and lock, and he who could master the hearts of men and learn their secrets was well on the way to mastering the Fates and controlling the thread of his own destiny. Not, he hastened to add, that any man could really do that.
When she found out that her suitors were only after her wealth, she decides to make a shroud for her father-in-law which she unravels every night. This constant work pleases Odysseus nurse as her motto’s in life ranged from
She who weeps when sun’s in sky / Will never pile the platter high.
She who wastes her time in moan / Will ne’er eat cow when it is grown.
The same nurse tells her to keep her maids in check as they are quite rude.
Years pass and one day Odysseus returns, but when he sees how many people were in his house courting his wife and eating his food, he fears for his life and disguises himself as a poor beggar asking to be let in as well for some dinner and a wash.
Penelope recognizes him immediately but sends his nurse to wash him. As she does, she sees a birthmark and can barely hide her excitement.
Also, if a man takes pride in his disguising skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognise him: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.
As he reclaims his rightful spot and kills all pretenders, he also kills, to the despair of Penelope, her 12 faithful maids, who only did what she told them and never disobeyed.
She never asked him about his voyage, about his sleeping with a goddess or a beautiful witch, but he instantly accused her of being unfaithful. Even the nurse could not swear to her innocence, but the 12 maids could. She is locked up and eventually forgiven, but the deed is done. She will be forever remembered as the faithful wife, ever waiting for her husband to return, maybe sleeping on the side with a suitor or two.
What I really liked in this book is the distinction between myth and reality – especially when it comes to Odysseus;
[…] They had mutinied, said some; no, said others, they’d eaten a magic plant that had caused them to lose their memories, and Odysseus had saved them by having them tied up and carried onto the ships. Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper, said another, and the fight was over non-payment of the bill. Some of the men had been eaten by cannibals, said some; no, it was just a brawl of the usual kind, said others, with ear-bitings and nosebleeds and stabbings and eviscerations. Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some; she’d turned his men into pigs – not a hard job in my view – but had turned them back into men because she’d fallen in love with him and was feeding him unheard-of delicacies prepared by her own immortal hands, and the two of them made love deliriously every night; no, said others, it was just an expensive whorehouse, and he was sponging off the Madam. […]
Odysseus had been to the Land of the Dead to consult the spirits, said some. No, he’d merely spent the night in a gloomy old cave full of bats, said others. He’d made his men put wax in their ears, said one, while sailing past the alluring Sirens – half-bird, half-woman – who enticed men to their island and then ate them, though he’d tied himself to the mast so he could listen to their irresistible singing without jumping overboard. No, said another, it was a high-class Sicilian knocking shop – the courtesans there were known for their musical talents and their fancy feathered outfits.
But in the end, this is and will always be a story.
To end it, I will let the maids sing again:
Sleep is the only rest we get;
It’s then we are at peace:
We do not have to mop the floor
And wipe away the grease.
We are not chased around the hall
And tumbled in the dirt
By every dimwit nobleman
Who wants a slice of skirt.
And when we sleep we like
to dream; We dream we are at sea,
We sail the waves in golden boats,
So happy, clean and free.
In dreams we all are beautiful
In glossy crimson dresses;
We sleep with every man we love,
We shower them with kisses.
They fill our days with feasting,
We fill their nights with song,
We take them in our golden boats
And drift the whole year long.
And all is mirth and kindness,
There are no tears of pain;
For our decrees are merciful
Throughout our golden reign.
But then the morning wakes us up:
Once more we toil and slave,
And hoist our skirts at their command
For every prick and knave.