The Penelopiad: The chorus of 12 young women

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The Penelopiad: The chorus of 12 young women

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jun 2, 2014, 12:00pm

What was the significance of the 12 slave girls: their place as chorus, their relationship with Penelope, and subsequent execution?

jun 2, 2014, 4:43pm

For me, the characterization of the 12 slave girls was Margaret Atwood's biggest contribution to the mythology of Penelope and Odysseus. She's fleshing out different ideas that has to do with their representation and she makes them the chorus because they are pretty voiceless when it comes to The Odyssey. It's even suggested that it's because of them that Odysseus can't have a successful second life. According to Penelope, she understands their behavior but doesn't share this with anyone else which is what led to their doom. All in all, it makes the story interspersed with the choral poems and plays an interesting juxtaposition of the wealth and privilege of Penelope with the poor slave girls who have none of this.

jun 2, 2014, 6:11pm

The chorus represents the powerlessness of women in earthly life. But in death, they have a kind of power of the Furies. Check out "The Chorus Line: We're Walking Behind You, A Love Song" (which is anything but).

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."

jun 2, 2014, 7:30pm

Choruses were also key elements of Greek plays, anonymously commenting on the proceedings with lamentations and scorn. By including the 12 maids as The Chorus, Atwood is subverting another element of Greek drama.

jun 2, 2014, 10:10pm

Samantha, interesting. It seems to me that the maidens DO comment with lamentation and scorn, especially toward Odysseus and Penelope. So how do you see Atwood's chorus as subverting that element of Greek drama.

It's been decades since that Greek drama course in grad school, so maybe a couple of particulars?

jun 3, 2014, 10:09am

I just started the book last night and am about 50 pages in. I really like the chorus, both as an element of Greek drama as mentioned by >4 SamanthaC:, and as characters that add to the overall story in a unique way (mentioned by >2 jeshakespeare:). Obviously I'm not very far along, but it's my favorite part of the story so far.

Redigerat: jun 3, 2014, 12:41pm

I thought I would include some lines from book 22 concerning these 12, since they are so important:

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)

And also:
"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.

Redigerat: jun 3, 2014, 6:11pm

I love the chorus also. They filled in information and highlighted things. I felt Atwood did this so well with humor.

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?

jun 3, 2014, 6:49pm

Didn't she retire to her rooms so as not to have to witness the bloodshed of the suitors and not know what her husband and son had planned for the servant girls?

jun 3, 2014, 11:16pm

It is clear in the original that Penelope is confined to the women's quarters while the slaughter of suitors and maids takes place. Telemachus sends her away before the contest with the bow, Athena puts her to sleep. Telemachus is also prime mover in hanging the maids rather than killing them with a sword. A little jealousy there--do we surmise that they spurned his youthful advances?

Redigerat: jun 3, 2014, 11:27pm

It was my understanding though, that she knew what was going to happen.

jun 4, 2014, 12:49am

Homer has Penelope conduct an interview with Odysseus in book 19 at night, pretty much knowing it's Odysseus she's talking to. Melantho, "taken in as a ward in childhood by Penelope, who gave her playthings to her hearts content" but who "felt nothing for her mistress, no compunction," accompanies her to meet O.

Melantho and Odysseus exchange really nasty words, and P remonstrates:

"Penelope, being near enough to hear him,
spoke out sharply to her maid:

Oh, shameless,
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.

jun 4, 2014, 11:54am

>11 DanaJean: I've already returned the book to the library, but as I recall Penolope was planning to tell Odysseus about the charade with the maids but didn't get a chance to before he slaughtered them. I don't think she knew what Odysseus was going to do but feels guilty for not filling him in that they were acting under her orders sooner.

jun 4, 2014, 12:10pm

>12 matthewmason: I think you may be relying too much on Homer. Didn't Atwood have Penelope say that the stories as handed down were wrong and she's offering us the correct version?

jun 4, 2014, 12:56pm

Atwood has complete literary license, but she sticks with the story so closely and perceptively, that it's worth reading them alongside each other.

jun 4, 2014, 1:03pm

>13 jjwilson61: That's the funny thing about it, though: Penelope recognized Odysseus in the beggar all along, but didn't reveal her knowledge to him until a very calculated moment. In theory, she should have had plenty of time to let him in on the plot. But she didn't.

jun 4, 2014, 1:17pm

>16 lorannen: She said she didn't want to hurt his pride by revealing that she could see through his disguise so easily, but that does seem minor compared to the lives of the girls she was risking. Despite her claims to care for the girls her actions show that she wasn't above the prejudice of her age and had a callous disregard for their safety.

Redigerat: jun 5, 2014, 12:00am

What I found most interesting was how power is portrayed in the Iliad. Penelope's strategic ability seem to be reflected glory from Odysseus, and melts swiftly into helplessness on his return. To Homer, the women are all, to state the obvious, objects: even the powerful ones, like Circe, whose desire to enslave him really establishes how she is a slave to his masculinity. The men all are loyal to their leaders, but the smallest conspiracy among women falls swiftly apart: a maiden reveals Penelope's nightly unweaving; Eurycleia's alliance is only to Odysseus and Telemachos; Penelope fails to protect the maidens doing her own bidding. The women, even when they have power, fail, unlike the men, to make good use of gender commonality.
. 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.

jun 4, 2014, 5:51pm

jun 4, 2014, 5:55pm

I tend to also believe that Eurycleia might have known more about Penelope's use of the maids, even though Penelope did not confide this to her. Eurycleia was shrewd and prided herself in having her fingers on the pulse of the palace.

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

jun 4, 2014, 6:07pm

>20 DanaJean:

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.

jun 4, 2014, 9:08pm

As I recall, choruses were anonymous. Atwood names the maids, gives them personalities, and then turns them into a unified chorus. Each one does not air her specific, personal grievances, though as readers we know each one would have a little different issue.

jun 4, 2014, 9:55pm

kiparsky -- someone else mentioned that it would be interesting to hear Helen's viewpoint. I agree it would be, as well as Eurycleia's.

jun 7, 2014, 3:03pm

Telemokhos sent her to her room before the bow contest started. A crucial part of the story is that Telemokhos is coming of age, determined not to be treated as a child anymore, defending his birthright, asserting that he is no longer to be ruled by women, etc. Some critics feel that he is also uncertain of his own birth--when identifying himself on his travels he keeps saying things like, "men say that I am the son of Odyssus," implying some doubt about a father he cannot remember.

jun 20, 2014, 2:03pm

All these are very illuminating. The thing for me was the image of the bare feet and the toes. Somehow when we studied the Odyssey in 8th grade, we never got that tactile sense.

Redigerat: jun 21, 2014, 1:31pm

DanaJean #23

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.