The Penelopiad: The chorus of 12 young women
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The voice is cheeky, but the tone is taunting, threatening, especially the last paragraph:
"We're the serving girls, we're here to serve you. We're here to serve you right. We'll never leave you, we'll stick to you like your shadow, soft and relentless as glue. Pretty maids, all in a row."
It's been decades since that Greek drama course in grad school, so maybe a couple of particulars?
Eurykleia: "...Twelve went bad,
flouting me, flouting Penelope, too.
Telemakhos being barely grown, his mother
would never let him rule the serving women—
but you must let me go to her lighted rooms
and tell her. Some god sent her a drift of sleep."
But in reply the great tactician said:
"Not yet. Do not awake her. Tell those women
who were the suitors' harlots to come here." (22.474-483)
"When the great room was cleaned up once again,
at swordpoint they forced them out, between
the roundhouse and the palisade, pell-mell
to huddle in the dead end without exit.
Telemakhos, who knew his mind, said curtly:
"I would not give the clean death of a beast
to trulls who made a mockery of my mother
and of me too—you sluts, who lay with suitors"
He tied one end of the a hawser to a pillar
and passed the other about the roundhouse top,
taking the slack up, so that no one's toes
could touch the ground. They would be hung like doves
or larks in the springès triggered in a thicket,
where the birds think to rest—a cruel nesting.
So now in turn each women trust her head
into a noose and swung, yanked in the air,
to perish there most piteously.
There feet danced for a little, but not long." (22.509-527)
Translation by Robert Fitzgerald
I've always been very haunted by Homer's simile—who wouldn't be? Perhaps Fitzgerald has imbued this translation with more tragic resonance than is owed to it, but I don't think so.
I don't understand Penelope's reason for keeping quiet and I definitely wouldn't trust her as a friend. These girls did what she asked and then died because she wouldn't speak up for them. I know, I know, it was the time and the social hierarchy of things, but, as smart as she supposedly was, she couldn't think of anything to save them? After they had so faithfully served her? Or, was she secretly just glad to be rid of pretty young things in the palace now that O was home?
Melantho and Odysseus exchange really nasty words, and P remonstrates:
"Penelope, being near enough to hear him,
spoke out sharply to her maid:
through and through! And do you think me blind,
blind to your conquest? It will cost you your life.
You knew I waited—for you heard me say it—
waited to see this man in hall and question him
about my lord; I am so hard beset."
So does Penelope effectively create an understanding/warning between Melantho and the beggar, the true identity of whom she already knows—likely even in the original? I could be. Something about the tone here, and P's evasive hints to O about what's going to go down, veiled in a dream, suggest to me that she doesn't really trust Melantho at all.
Another little-big thing: Atwood leaves out a numerical problem that conflicts with her Penelope's narrative: she doesn't mention that there are twenty geese in P's dream, not twelve. If the number was equal to her number of maids, I'd give more credence to Atwood's claim that Odysseus messed up interpreting her dream—and even give Robert Graves' female cult hypothesis a whirl. This is all very nitpicky, however; Atwood's doing fascinating stuff with interpretive problems Homer, and I really admire that.
. I think Atwood wants some equal treatment, after 2500 years of male hegemony, from a world in which women do not even qualify for the relatively noble treatment accorded beasts. So she introduces an element from a different writer who gave female figures more autonomy and real power, Aeschylus (The Eumenides). The maidens had no gods interested in avenging Odysseus' crime against them; Atwood brings some into play, to give her Iliad a new ending, if not happier (how could it be), then at least with a sense of wrongs being acknowledged.
. Of course, if you read Aristophanes (Lysistrata), the women are more effective. (And I would enjoy Atwood writing a play from Helen's viewpoint.) My favorite myth rewriter was Kleist. In his circle (Goethe, Schiller) updating myth was de rigeur. But he, shockingly, chose to make women the subjects of his play about the queen of the Amazons, Penthesilea (though I'd classify it, ultimately, as a drawing room comedy set on the battlefield). Penthesilea admires Achilles from afar, but, unschooled in maidenly technique, decides the way to 'win' him is to best him in battle. She does so, but loses herself in her passion and instead of just subduing him, kills him and eats him. Hilarity ensues.
Eurycleia is the one who pointed out the 12 maids and may have done so to make sure Penelope knew that she still had power.
Okay, I'm reading this between the lines, but it was just my feel of the relationship between Eurycleia, Penelope and Odysseus
Having read Atwood's treatment of Penelope, I immediately started wondering what Helen and Eurycleia would have to say for themselves. Which I think is a win for Atwood, really.
Oh! An interesting way to do that would be to have them all trying to tell Odysseus their sides of the story. Helen wouldn't fit into that too well, but the household stories — including the slave girls' versions could be great fun to explore and write.