Presenting The Penelopiad
by Jessica Pearce
Introduction: The novel is basically a modern (2005) retelling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’
industrious and faithful wife. The story is written in a modern, comical parody style from the first person voice of Penelope.
The twelve maids, who were hanged, in the end of the epic, combine their voices to form the chorus as they contribute their
own point of view to Penelope’s story.
Ch. I A Low Art
The story begins with the now deceased Penelope recounting her version of The Odyssey from the dark recesses of
Made a fool of her and got away with it.
Used her as an unobtainable example for other women to follow.
Penelope warns others not to follow in her footsteps.
Do not look the other way.
Tell them (males) exactly what you think.
Argue with them.
Instead demand truth.
Make them squirm.
Gossip (after The Odyssey) about Penelope:
Multiple stories (both decent and the opposite)
Time to tell her own version, now that she is dead, has plenty of time, and no longer cares what people think.
Ch. III My Childhood
Father-King Icarius of Sparta
• Threw her into the sea.
• If he killed Penelope, she could never weave his shroud.
• Icarius wanted eternal life.
• He had heard wrong (gods mumble) as it was her father-in-law’s shroud, she was to weave.
• Ironically, her father then nicknamed Penelope “duck”.
• From that point on her father became very affectionate of her, which wore deeply on her nerves.
• Penelope credits her father’s attempted murder for her mistrust and the start of nervous bouts of weeping
(although “excessive weeping” was inherited from her Naiad mother).
Mother-A Naiad (type of water nymph)
• Penelope (semi-divine)
• Icarius failed—can’t drown a water nymph.
• Rescued by a flock of purple-striped ducks
• Penelope remembers trying to embrace her mother—who was always just out of her grasp.
• She wants to believe that her mother (through the ducks) saved her life—but she doesn’t really believe it.
• Penelope thinks her mother might have even put her in the sea if her father hadn’t—due to her elusive
emotional state and somewhat rattled brains.
Penelope had learned the hard way about being left to your own devices.
Ch IV—The Chorus Line: Kiddie Mourn, A Lament by the Maids
A mocking chant by the maids, after Penelope’s tale of her dreary childhood.
On their own childhoods:
• Born to “wrong parents”
• Not gods or even demi-gods
• Not nymphs or Naiads
• Fatherless, motherless—slaves.
• Slaves to the royalty:
• Dirty girls
• Survived any way they could
• Stealing meat, wine, happiness
• Winking and sneering as appropriate.
Ch. V Asphodel
Fields of white flowers that lighten the darkness of Hades.
Penelope inhabits one of the lighter/shallower levels.
She feels that the deep/dark levels are more interesting:
• Mental torture (no longer have bodies)
• The gods “conjure up” big banquets of food, but no one can eat—so they take it back.
• The gods most entertaining pastime is the forcing of people to push large boulders up steep inclines
(with their minds, I suppose, since they don’t have bodies).
• Penelope yearns to go down there so she can feel more human again (hunger/fatigue).
• Outsiders kill an animal (sheep/cow/pig) with blood filling a trench dug in the ground.
• The inhabitants of Hades smell the blood and are allowed to go to it “like flies to a carcass” (17).
• The price of our outing would be a prophecy or two—careful not to tell all at once to ensure more “outings”.
• We could also appear outside through dreams, but we didn’t gain much from that.
After many years past, the underworld is no longer popular; most would rather visit the flashier abode across the way,
with the bright pits of fire and all manner of demonic sounds and visions.
Penelope and other inhabitants of Hades are still called up by all sorts:
• “Materialize in a chalk circle”
• Or show up to be stared at in someone’s “velvet-upholstered parlour” (19).
They can even sometimes travel the “new ethereal-wave system that now encircles the globe and to travel that way,
looking out at the world through the flat, illuminated surfaces that serve as domestic shrines” (19).
• Penelope speculates that this way of travel must have been utilized by the gods as fast as they were able to get
Penelope admits that she was not called (by magicians) very often, but her cousin Helen was very much the going
• Helen—beautiful, snobby, and of a questionable birth.
• Penelope relates the story of how she hatched from an egg, after her mortal mother was attacked by
Zeus (a swan).
• Helen loved all the men staring at her, just like the days gone by—Trojan outfits were her favorites.
• Entranced all the men, who conjured her up, sometimes by exposing herself.
• Penelope—“people told me I was beautiful…because I was a princess…and a queen…I was nothing special to
look at. I was smart, though: considering the times, very smart” (21).
• What was Penelope famous for:
• These are the reasons that magicians do not often conjure up Penelope, but rather Helen, who drives
men crazy with desire and has the power to burn a great city.
Penelope questions (in closing the chapter) why Helen was “never punished, not one bit” (22).
• Others were by various means: eaten by sea monsters, drowned, or for “Eating the wrong cows. Boasting.
That sort of thing. You’d think Helen might have got a good whipping at the very least” (22).
Ch. VI My Marriage
“Immortality and mortality didn’t mix well: it was fire and mud, only the fire always won” (24).
Penelope (approx. 15 yrs. old) is about to be married off to the winner of some sort of contest.
• She waits in her upstairs room, peeking out the window, wondering which man will win the prize—“not
Penelope the Duck…(rather) the pile of glittering junk” or the treasure and wealth from marrying royalty (29).
• “I was a kind girl…I was clever, everyone said so…cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as
she is some distance away from him” (29).
• The contest was to be one of running (Penelope, when speaking to her maids speculates as to how fast
Odysseus can run).
• “’Not very fast, on those short legs of his,’ said one maid unkindly” (31).
• Helen then makes an entrance, saying what a good match Odysseus would be for “our little duckie” and how
she could live a quiet life with him on Ithaca tending his goats. (She also comments about them both having
• Penelope was greatly insulted and didn’t think her legs were short at all, but all the maids were
• Helen always noticed everyone’s failings (especially where outward appearances were concerned)—
after Paris, the best thing about Menelaus (in all the poems) “was that he had a very loud voice” (34).
• She then gloats that she’s glad that Odysseus never won her, because she never could
understand anything he said and that Penelope is clever enough to understand him. (I guess she
was saying that she was dumb).
• Odysseus had tried to win Helen, but failed and was now attempting to win Penelope as a
• Helen leaves and all the maids begin discussing her appearance, as if it is her wedding day.
• Penelope took to her bed to cry, something that she later became very good at.
• She didn’t see the race, which Odysseus won—by cheating.
• Helen’s father (Penelope’s uncle) put drugs in the wine of the other men to make them run slower and
in Odysseus’s something to speed him up. (The author—as Penelope—notes that this method has
become tradition and is still used in modern athletic competition).
Ch. VII The Scar
“And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you.
A sort of guilded blood pudding” (39).
• Odysseus tells Penelope of the story behind the scar on his thigh.
• Penelope thinks that the others on the boar hunt had set up a trap for Odysseus, so his grandfather,
Autolycus, wouldn’t have to give him the promised gifts.
• She concluded that Odysseus and herself had both been victims of attempted murder in their
childhoods (by family members).
• Penelope then tells him the story of her near drowning and rescue by ducks.
• Odysseus listened and was caring, called her his ‘poor duckling’ and told her that he “‘would never
throw such a precious girl into the ocean’. At which point [she] did some more weeping, and was
comforted in ways that were suitable for a wedding night” (48).
Ch. IX The Trusted Cackle-Hen
The voyage by sea to Ithaca was trying and nauseating for Penelope, but she was happy to be with Odysseus and
believed him to be a great sea captain.
As they came upon Ithaca, the inhabitants gathered along the shore to get a look at the prizes Odysseus had won.
“Ithaca was no paradise. It was often windy and frequently rainy and cold” (59). The palace was not as grand, nor the
nobles, but there was plenty to eat and with Odysseus as a husband, plenty of visitors, always asking for his advice.
Odysseus’s mother, Anticleia and father, Laertes still lived in the palace, also.
Odysseus’s mother made no secret that she didn’t approve of Penelope, but Eurycleia (the old nurse) gave her the
most trouble. The old nurse had to do every little thing for Odysseus—anything that Penelope did was never good
enough. However, the old maid did assist Penelope, when Telemachus was born, and took care of him as if he was her
• Odysseus seemed very proud of Penelope (after Telemachus’ birth), by remarking that Helen hadn’t had a son
yet, but all Penelope could think of is why is he still thinking of Helen?
Ch. X—The Chorus Line: The Birth of Telemachus, An Idyll
The maids sing of the birth of Telemachus, while also lamenting their own births as slaves (to him), who were later
killed by him and his father.
• If they had known, when they were all children, playing on the beach, they would have drowned him to save
their own lives. Questioning if they could have held his head under and then blamed it on the sea—could they
have done it?
• No one knows but the “Three Fatal Sisters”, because only they know their hearts (65).
Ch XI Helen Ruins My Life
Penelope begins this chapter by lamenting about how “little authority” she has in the household:
• Eurycleia and her mother-in-law control the house.
• Regarding her mother-in-law: “When I tried to speak to her she would never look at me while
answering, but would address her remarks to a footstool or a table. As befitted conversation with the
furniture, these remarks were wooden and stiff” (72).
• Regarding Eurycleia: “’You’re barely more than a child yourself,’ she would say, snatching my baby out of
my arms. ‘Here, I’ll tend the little darling for a while. You run along and enjoy yourself’” (72).
• Odysseus and Laertes control everything else.
• And so, Penelope was left to her own devices, with no friends her own age, striving to live up to the image of
a king’s wife.
• Weaving became her favorite pastime—she could enjoy the company of the slaves and avoid her
mother-in-law’s looks that seemed to constantly accuse her of idleness.
• Penelope also spent a lot of time in hers and Odysseus’s room, which overlooked the sea.
• “Odysseus had made a special bed in it, one post of which was whittled from an olive tree that
had its roots still in the ground” (73). He said that would prevent anyone from removing it and
would be good luck for children conceived in the bed. It was his big secret and if it was revealed,
he would know that Penelope had been unfaithful and “he would chop [her] into little pieces
with his sword or hang [her] from the roof beam” (74).
• Penelope believed him (sort of) and acted as if she was really scared and told him that
she “would never, never think of betraying his big post” (74). (She then admitted how
scared she really was).
The story of her cousin, Helen, running away with a prince of Troy, began to circulate around the kingdom by way
of a Spartan sea captain.
• She had run off with King Priam’s young son, Paris.
• Helen couldn’t resist the good looking prince, nor he her, and Menelaus was so busy feasting (for the prince)
that he never noticed. “That didn’t surprise me, because the man was thick as a brick and had the manners of a
• As soon as the king was away, the two took off in Paris’s ship loaded with Menelaus’s treasure.
• Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon were disgusted by this blight upon the family name.
• Odysseus told Penelope that he would have to go to defend the honor of Menelaus, as would all men that had
made an oath on a “sacred horse”.
• He would have to fight a war to bring Helen back.
• Penelope didn’t want him to go, but Odysseus said he had no choice.
• He did attempt to get out of the war though, by starting the rumor “that he’d gone mad, and to
back it up he’d put on a ridiculous peasant’s hat and was ploughing with an ox and a donkey and
sowing furrows with salt” (79). Penelope (carrying Telemachus) had led Menelaus, Agamemnon,
and Palamedes out to the field to show them just how mad Odysseus was, when Palimedes
grabbed Telemachus and laid him in front of the plow. Of course, Odysseus stopped and then
they knew that he did know his son, contrary to what Penelope had told them earlier, when she
was trying to help Odysseus get out of going to war.
• The men then told Odysseus that according to “an oracle…Troy could not fall without his
help” (80). Not surprisingly, Odysseus liked the sound of that and was ready to go in an
instant—only he could conquer Troy.
Ch. XII Waiting
Ten years of waiting.
• Sketches of news about the war.
• “Minstrels sang songs about the notable heroes—Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Aeneas…I
didn’t care about them…I waited only for news of Odysseus” (81).
• The news of Odysseus was always welcome, telling of speeches he made, or his many disguises, or
falsehoods, and even his brilliant idea of a “wooden horse filled with soldiers” (82).
• Finally—the news of the fall of Troy came.
• The Greek ships and Odysseus would sail for home.
• Every day, Penelope went up to the top of the palace, expecting Odysseus’s ship, but it never came.
• News came of what had happened:
• The men had either gotten drunk or eaten a plant and mutinied or lost their memories.
• Odysseus was in a battle with a “one-eyed Cyclops”, or was it a “one-eyed tavern keeper,”
because he didn’t want to pay his bill.
• It was rumored that “some of the men might have been eaten by cannibals, said some; no, it
was just a brawl of the usual kind, said others, with ear-biting, and nosebleeds and stabbings and
• Odysseus, it was said, had stayed on an island with a goddess; “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” (84).
• It was also rumored that the reason Odysseus hadn’t come home was because a god wouldn’t
let him. Poseidon (the sea god) was mad because Odysseus had put out his son, the Cyclops,
• It was also said that other gods and even the fates were against him.
• The minstrels, of course, had to make it sound that way for Penelope’s benefit and they
only sang the most honorable songs in her presence.
Then Odysseus’s mother died.
• She thought he would never come back and blamed Penelope for his leaving, not Helen
(something about throwing the baby in front of the plow).
Laertes went off—to the countryside and in the head.
• Penelope was finally in charge—she took inventory and managed things fairly well, even the
• She liked to keep some of the prettiest slave children to raise. “Melantho of the Pretty
Cheeks was one of these” (88).
• By day, she was soon recognized as a shrewd business woman and set about building up
Odysseus’s wealth with an abundance of sheep, cows, pigs, slaves and prospering fields.
• But by night, Penelope cried and cried, while pleading that the gods either give her death or the
return of her husband.
• Through the coaxing of Eurycleia, Penelope was able to maintain the role of queen (in the
daytime, anyway) and the spirit of hope, more for Telemachus than for herself.
• She would often tell him stories of his father—what a great warrior hero he was and that
he would soon be home.
• Word came that “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” (91).
• Penelope didn’t really know what to believe—she wondered, if people were making up stories
just to torment her. Still, she was always glad to hear something, but then there was nothing.
Ch. XIII—The Chorus Line:
• The Wily Sea Captain, A Sea Shanty (As performed by the twelve Maids, in sailor
• The maids sing of Odysseus’s voyage:
• Lotus shore
• Cyclops (put out his eye)
• Poseidon (out to get him)
• Laestrygonians eat some men
• Circe (turned men into pigs, lover of Odysseus)
• Isle of the Dead (Teiresias the seer)
• Whirlpool Charybdis and snake-head Scylla
• Men disobey (forbidden cows)—lost at sea.
• Odysseus and Calypso—7 years
• Odysseus washed up on beach (Nausica)
• (Summarizes the entire journey in one song)
Ch. XIV The Suitors Stuff Their Faces
This chapter begins with a long conversation (down in Hades) between Antinous and Penelope. She wants to know
why the young suitors would risk their lives for a worn out, practically middle aged (35 yrs.) woman.
• Antinous admits that it was the riches and the kingdom that they wanted.
• He also admits that, since she was older and would die sooner, then they could have married any
young/beautiful princess they wanted—with all of her wealth.
Flashback to invasion of suitors
• Penelope of suitors: “They were like vultures when they spot a dead cow: one drops, then another until
finally every vulture for miles around is tearing up the carcass” (103).
• Butchered her animals (gorged themselves)
• Drunk her wine (harassed the maids)
• Stupid stories—about her beauty, cleverness, etc.
• Refused to leave
• Penelope: “I can’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy a certain amount of this. Everyone does; we all like to hear
songs in our praise, even if we don’t believe them” (104).
• Amphinomous was her favorite as he was very well behaved, though not really too interesting.
• The maids (eavesdropping while serving them) told Penelope what they were saying behind her back:
• Something about pretending she’s Helen
• Murder her son
• Wondering when “the old bitch” will finally choose.
• They are working together and must follow the rules.
• Eurycleia, the most frequent carrier of the gossip—probably wanted Penelope to remain faithful to
• Penelope played along, because she had nothing with which to fight them.
• She also had to be sure that Odysseus was not coming home.
Ch. XV The Shroud
The chapter begins with Penelope trying to figure out what to do.
• She could never go back to King Icarius, her father—“I had no intention of being hurled into the sea a second
• Anyway, where she went her dowry would go and Telemachus didn’t like that idea.
• Telemachus also didn’t like the idea of a stepfather bossing him around, especially if he were not much older
than he was.
• Penelope soon determined the best solution for Telemachus: “graceful death on my part on for which he was in
no way to blame. For if he did as Orestes had done—but with no cause, unlike Orestes—and murdered his
mother, he would attract the Erinyes—the dreaded Furies, snake-haired, dog-headed, bat-winged and they
would pursue him with their barking and hissing and their whips and scourges until they had driven him
• On second thought, Telemachus couldn’t kill his mother—“A mother’s life is sacred. Even a badly
behaved mother’s life is sacred” (111). (Referring to Clytemnestra (her cousin), the adulteress, who
killed her husband in the Orestia).
• Penelope began to doubt the oracle (of Odysseus’ return)—maybe it was misinterpreted—maybe Odysseus
was already dead, but she still dared to hope.
And so began the weaving of Laertes’ shroud, as a way of buying time.
• She gave credit for her industrious idea to Pallas Athene, goddess of weaving (that way if it didn’t work, she
could blame the goddess).
• “Laertes was not very pleased by this kind thought of mine: after he heard of it he kept away from the palace
more than ever. What if some impatient suitor should hasten his end, forcing me to bury Laertes in the shroud,
ready, or not, and thus precipitating my own wedding?” (113).
• During the day Penelope was the picture of piousness with her weaving, but the nights were for deception and
unraveling (assisted by twelve of her best maids).
• She and her maids spent over three years together in the destructive scheme—she came to think of them as
The scheme worked until one of the maids (probably unintentionally) told of how she was tricking the suitors.
• Penelope of the maids: “I still don’t know which one: down here among the shadows they all go about
in a group, and when I approach them they run away. They shun me as if I had done them a terrible
injury. But I never would have hurt them, not of my own accord” (115).
• Penelope admits that the maids were sent to entice the suitors in order to bring her information—they
were actually her spies.
• The suitors caught Penelope in the act of unraveling and insisted that she complete the shroud and
• Penelope on her shroud being called ‘Penelope’s web’: “But I had not been attempting to catch men
like flies: on the contrary, I’d merely been trying to avoid entanglement myself” (119).
Ch. XVI Bad Dreams
Telemachus is twenty years old and has decided to take over the running of the palace.
• Penelope laments the way he orders her around and the way he left to try and find out about Odysseus without
even telling her.
• The maids (through their spying) had alerted her of the suitor’s plan to kill Telemachus (before the
• Of course, she and her maids had put on a show of surprise for Medon, so he wouldn’t be suspicious of
her ways of obtaining information.
• “Erycleia confessed that she alone had aided and abetted him. The only reason the two of them hadn’t
told me, she said, was that they hadn’t wanted me to fret. But all would come out fine in the end, she
added, because the gods were just. I refrained from saying I’d seen scant evidence of that so far” (123).
So Penelope weeps and weeps, until finally, she can go to sleep and then she dreams:
• Of Odysseus being eaten by Cyclops.
• Of Odysseus about to be torn apart by sirens.
• Of Odysseus cavorting with a beautiful goddess and loving it—the goddess then became Helen—“looking at me
over the bare shoulder of my husband with a malicious little smirk” (123).
• The last dream woke her up and she “prayed that it was a false dream sent from the cave of Morpheus
through the gate of ivory, not a true one sent through the gate of horn” (124).
• The chapter ends with Penelope’s description of her dream of her sister, Iphthime (sent by Athene) visiting her
to ease her mind about Telemachus.
Ch. XVII—The Chorus Line: Dreamboats, A Ballad
The maids sing of sleep as the only time they have for themselves. In their dreams they enjoy a happy existence, but
when they wake are once more—slaves.
Ch. XVIII News of Helen
Telemachus returns and avoids the trap set by the suitors.
• Penelope says it was just luck that he was not killed and rebukes him severely for (taking the boat without
permission) and going to sea.
• Telemachus becomes angry, telling Penelope that he is not a child, but a grown man and that Odysseus
would have approved of him for being brave enough to look for him and also for “getting out from
under the thumbs of the women” (128).
• Penelope knew she was who he was referring to as ‘the women’. She then proceeded to give
Telemachus the “Is—this—all—the—thanks—I—get” speech (of course, she also started crying)
and ended with “I—might—as—well—kill—myself” (128).
Telemachus just rolled his eyes (it wasn’t the first time he had heard the speech),
but soon things went back to normal.
As the maids bathed, fed, and waited on her son, Penelope is sickened by how pampered he is—especially by the “old
hen Eurycleia”, who would never allow her to discipline him.
Penelope didn’t care for his choice of friends either—Piraeus and Theoclymenus.
After they had finished eating, Penelope asked if he had heard any news of his father.
• Telemachus related that King Nestor knew nothing, but Menelaus did.
• He had heard from some “Old Man of the Sea” that “Odysseus was trapped on the island of a beautiful
goddess, where he was forced to make love with her all night, every night” (131).
• Penelope is not really affected by the news—it’s not like she hasn’t heard it all before.
• She then asks how Helen is, whereupon Telemachus first gives a glowing review, but then—
sensing his mother’s disappointment—says she only looked good, when they were really, really
• Penelope was proud of her son for taking his mother’s side (lying), deciding that he was
indeed his father’s son.
Ch. XIX Yelp of Joy
Penelope’s twenty years of prayers are finally answered—Odysseus is home, or rather Odysseus “the beggar” is
• Penelope on Odysseus: “His disguise was well enough done—I hoped the wrinkles and baldness were part of
the act, and not real…I had a deep suspicion, which became a certainty when I heard he’d broken the neck of a
belligerent fellow panhandler. That was his style: stealthy when necessary, true, but he was never against the
direct assault method when he was certain he could win” (136-37).
• She knew Telemachus was in on it too, as he was not quite as adept as his father in the art of falsehoods.
• When all the suitors started abusing Odysseus (the old beggar), she couldn’t tell her maids, who he really was,
so they joined in with the jesting (especially Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks).
• Penelope played along when the old beggar told her news of Odysseus—that he would soon be home. She
told in detail of her hardship and longing for her husband’s return for twenty long years.
• She even asked him what he thought of her bringing out Odysseus’ bow to challenge the suitors to shoot an
arrow through twelve axes—she would then marry the winner, if there was one.
• The “old beggar” loved her idea and encouraged her to go ahead with it.
• Penelope, of course, knew that only Odysseus would be able to achieve such a daunting task.
• She then tells the beggar of a dream—white geese (which she loves) are killed by an “eagle with a crooked
• The beggar interprets the dream with the geese being the suitors and Odysseus the eagle. “He said
nothing about the crooked beak of the eagle, or my love for the geese, and my anguish at their deaths”
• Penelope then says (to the reader) that Odysseus didn’t interpret the dream correctly. He was the eagle,
the geese, however, were my maids.
• She then reveals that she also set up the old maid, Eurycleia, to wash Odysseus and find the scar on his
leg. “The songs say I didn’t notice a thing because Athene had distracted me. If you believe that, you’ll
believe all sorts of nonsense. In reality I’d turned my back on the two of them to hide my silent laughter
at the success of my little surprise” (140-41).
Ch. XX Slanderous Gossip
In this chapter Penelope feels it necessary to address the gossip circulating, about her relationship with the suitors,
• “The songs say I found his conversation agreeable, or more agreeable than that of the others, and this is
true; but it’s a long jump from there into bed” (143).
• She does admit to encouraging some of the suitors, but she had no choice.
• “The more outrageous versions have it that I slept with all of the suitors, one after another—over a hundred of
them—and then gave birth to the Great God Pan” (144). (She doesn’t see how anyone could believe such
• Some believed that since she allowed her maids to be so promiscuous that she must have also been engaging
in the “sluttery”.
• The gossip that bothers Penelope the most, though, is the fact that Odysseus didn’t allow her to know, who he
was when he first arrived. It was said that he didn’t trust her and wanted to catch her in the act.
• In fact, Odysseus (Penelope relates) knew that she would cry out with happiness and reveal his
identity—“he knew me well—my tender heart, my habit of dissolving in tears and falling down on
• She is sure that is why he behaved the way he did.
Ch. XXI—The Chorus Line: The Perils of Penelope, A Drama
Presented by: The Maids
Prologue: Spoken by Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks:
• Melantho dramatically tells of Penelope’s affair with Amphinomus, whereas immediately thereafter, the other
maids illustrate Penelope “caught in the act” as Odysseus returns home (in the form of a short play).
• Penelope: “While he was pleasuring every nymph and beauty, Did he think I’d do nothing but my duty?
While ever girl and goddess he was praising, Did he assume I’d dry up like a raisin?” (149). (Penelope
then asks Eurycleia which of the maids know of her affairs, whereupon Eurycleia replies “only the
twelve” and they both agree that they must be “silenced”). [The maids believed that Penelope had a
part in their murder].
The drama ends with the twelve maids (chorus line) in tap shoes dancing and chanting: “Blame it on the maids!
Those naughty little jades! Hang them high and don’t ask why—Blame it on the maids!” (151).
Ch. XXII Helen Takes a Bath
Penelope meets up with Helen (in the underworld). She is followed by her many admirers (men who died in Troy) and
is about to take a bath.
Helen asks Penelope to come along, whereupon Penelope reminds her that they have no bodies, whereas Helen says
she will take a spiritual bath and allow the men to watch as payment for dying for her.
When Penelope refuses her offer, she scoffs at her modesty and proceeds on her way, “followed by her excited
Ch. XXIII Odysseus and Telemachus Snuff the Maids
Penelope assumes that Eurycleia drugged her, since she slept through the whole battle and murders.
However, Eurycleia told her everything that happened—how Odysseus had defeated the suitors, with only the help of
Telemachus and two herdsmen.
She also told of how Odysseus made her “point out the maids who had been, as he called it, ‘disloyal’. He forced the
girls to haul the dead bodies of the Suitors out into the courtyard—including the bodies of their erstwhile lovers—and
to wash the brains and gore off the floor, and to clean whatever chairs and tables remained intact” (158).
Telemachus had then hung the maids “all in a row from a ship’s hawser” (159).
• Penelope then laments the deaths of her maids (spies) in silence for fear that she will also be found out.
• She wonders if Eurycleia knew that the maids were her spies, but she hadn’t yet “been able to confront her
about it, down here. She’s got hold of a dozen dead babies, and is always busy tending them. Happily for her
they will never grow up” (161).
Ch. XXIV—The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture presented by: The Maids
The maids contemplate the significance of the number twelve: twelve apostles or maybe twelve months (moons).
They conclude that they must have represented “the twelve moon-maidens, companions of Artemis, virginal but
deadly goddess of the moon” who had participated in “fertility-rite behavior with the Suitors”, thereafter making
themselves pure again (from cleaning up the blood). They then offered themselves as sacrifices to the moon
They also conclude that the hanging by the “ship’s hawser” is important because “the new moon is a boat” (164).
The maids are certain that the bow represents “the curved old-moon bow of Artemis, used to shoot an arrow through
twelve axe-heads—twelve!” (164-65).
• “What’s that, Sir? You in the back? Yes, correct, the number of lunar months is indeed thirteen, so there ought
to have been thirteen of us…But wait—there were in fact thirteen! The thirteenth was our High Priestess, the
incarnation of Artemis herself. She was none other than—yes! Queen Penelope!” (165)
Finally, they conclude, again, that they symbolize the “overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of
usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians” (165).
• The leader of the barbarians was, of course, Odysseus, who married our High Priestess in order to become king.
The maids then explain that the axes (which the author notes have never been explained by thousands of years of
scholarly analysis) must be the “double-bladed ritual labrys axes associated with the Great Mother cult among the
Minoans, the axes used to lop off the head of the Year King at the end of his term of thirteen lunar months! For the
rebelling Year King to use Her own bow to shoot an arrow through Her own ritual life-and-death axes, in order to
demonstrate his power over Her—what a desecration!” (166-67) [The winner would have served for one year and
then been hanged, but Odysseus had found a substitute—the maids).
Ch. XXV Heart of Flint
After the slaughter, Penelope decided to give Odysseus the silent treatment; mostly because she feared that he would
see how upset she was over the killing of her maids.
Telemachus rebuked Penelope for her behavior: “Flinty-hearted he called me scornfully”. Penelope wants the best for
her son, but in that instant longed for “another Trojan War so I could…get him out of my hair” (170).
So Penelope set her heart (of stone) against Odysseus, not rushing to him, surprised that he was there all the time as
the old beggar.
She had to do one last test, whereupon orders were given to move Odysseus’ bed—of course then he got really mad
and threw a fit.
• Penelope finally acknowledged him (as Odysseus) since “he’d passed the bedpost test” (171).
• Later, Odysseus told Penelope of his difficult journey and Penelope told Odysseus of her horrible time with the
suitors. “The two of us were—by our own admission—proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a
wonder either of us believed a word the other said. But we did. Or so we told each other” (173).
Ch. XXVI—The Chorus Line: The Trial of Odysseus, as Videotaped by the Maids
A courtroom scene set up as a short play, with Attorney for the Defense (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!” (183)
• The Maids ask that the twelve Furies follow and harass Odysseus forever.
• Odysseus’ attorney then summons Pallas Athene to protect Odysseus.
Ch. XXVII Home Life in Hades
Penelope speaks of Odysseus’s visits to her in Hades: “We’ll take a peaceful stroll, snack on some asphodel, tell the
old stories; I’ll hear his news of Telemachus—he’s a Member of Parliament, now—I’m so proud!” (189)
• Just when she is ready to “accept him with all his faults”, when she is “starting to believe that this time he really
means it, off he goes again… It’s the maids. He sees them in the distance, heading our way. They make him
nervous. They make him restless. They cause him pain. They make him want to be anywhere and anyone
• Penelope relates that he has been many people from a “French general” a “headhunter in Borneo” to a
“film star”—but his many lives eventually ended in death, whereupon he would jump into the “River
Lethe to be born again” (189).
• Penelope pleads with the maids to leave Odysseus alone, “but they only run away. Run isn’t quite
accurate. Their legs don’t move. Their still-twitching feet don’t touch the ground” (190).
Ch. XXVIII—The Chorus line: We’re Walking Behind You, A Love Song
The twelve dead maids follow Odysseus, singing of the wrongs he did to them:
• “You roped us in, you strung us up, you left us dangling like clothes on a line…You should have buried us
properly…Now you can’t get rid of us, wherever you go: in your life or your afterlife or any of your other
Ch. XXIX—Envoi (Sung to the tune of the Chorale song “Movin’ On” by the twelve Maids).
we had no voice—we had no name—we had no choice—we had one face—one face the same—we took the blame—it was
not fair—but now we’re here—we’re all here too—the same as you—and now we follow—you, we find you—now, we call—
to you to you—too wit too woo
too wit too woo
(The Maids sprout feathers, and fly away as owls).
Analysis: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is one in a series of myths rewritten by prominent authors. The novel
provides an illumination, as well as a variation of The Odyssey through the first person point of view of Odysseus’s wife,
Penelope. Atwood’s modern, humorous language assists in portraying the heroine in a very down-to-earth manner.
Penelope’s faults, as well as Odysseus’s are brought to life, through parody, sometimes in perhaps a somewhat crude
manner. E.V. Rieu’s and D.C.H. Rieu’s translations of the epic and Robert Grave’s The Greek Myths were utilized by Atwood in
order to bring the other side of the story to life and to also provide background information, regarding Penelope’s family, her
personal life (affairs), and her role as a possible cult leader. The Chorus of the Twelve Maids, modeled after Greek choruses,
illustrate the main theme of the novel—the uncalled for killing of the maids and Penelope’s sorrow upon their deaths.
Although the maids (in their choruses and plays) have us to believe that Penelope had a part in their deaths, Penelope’s
point of view says the opposite.
Overall, the book is insightful, entertaining, and humorous, but perhaps only if you are familiar with the epic. Actually, I feel
that the book may give a more accurate depiction of reality as far as the characters are concerned, than The Odyssey. I tend
to agree with Atwood when she says: “The story as told in The Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many
inconsistencies, I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself” (xv). The
novel transforms Penelope into a multi-dimensional, believable character, by giving the reader a glimpse into her thoughts
through a first person point of view. The Odyssey told her story, while The Penelopiad is her story.
Animation, illustrations, and clip art (Jessica Pearce)
Maids Instrumental Performance (Jessica Pearce)
Maids Voices (Rhonda Pearce)