The below commentary contains major spoilers.
Those looking to obtain this novel should note: the story was turned into a play that was also written by Atwood. The play version, which I have not read but seems to be somewhat different from the novel, is also available and has the same title as the novel. The two books are difficult to distinguish.
Odysseus during his twenty years absence during the Trojan War and his long voyage home. This was despite the fact that she was besieged by scores of aggressive suitors who were vying for her hand in marriage
Odysseus returned, he killed the suitors. He also discovered that twelve of
Odysseus at the age of 15. In a world where most men are brutal and sadistic to women, including their own wives, Odysseus seems to be relatively sensitive and refrains from cruelty. Though later we find that he is deeply flawed and can be insensitive and manipulative, this aspect of his personality nevertheless adds complexity and nuance to his character.
Odysseus’s absence stretches past fifteen years, many assume him dead. The suitors begin to arrive, and
Odysseus is also not so simple. Despite his earlier sensitivity, it turns out that his ten-year voyage home was not what he claims that it was. His adventures were more about bar brawls as opposed to fighting Cyclopes and long stays in whorehouses as opposed to being entrapped by alluring goddesses. Of course, he is also primarily responsible for the killing of the maids.
Thus, the interactions between Penelope and Odysseus are similarly complex. At one point she describes the following scene that occurred after his return Penelope comments,
A good part of the narrative is dedicated to the plight of the maids. This encompasses an exploration of how the dispossessed and disenfranchised, as well as women in general, are often given short shrift in history, literature and culture as well as in real life.
“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! Smell out Odysseus wherever he goes! From one place to another, from one life to another, whatever disguise he puts on, whatever shape he may take, hunt him down! Dog his footsteps, on earth or in Hades, wherever he may take refuge, in songs and in plays, in tomes and in theses, in marginal notes and in appendices! Appear to him in our forms, our ruined forms, the forms of our pitiable corpses! Let him never be at rest! “
The above references to theses, margin notes and appendices are, for me, a hilarious but insightful call for what seems to be cultural and literary justice.
This is an extraordinary book. It is full of interesting insights and wit. It contains several intriguing themes of which I have only touched upon above. The characters are complex. The writing styles are varied and very well crafted. However, it is best enjoyed by readers who are already familiar with the The Odysseyas it is structurally dependent upon the original work in terms of plot, character and themes. Ultimately this is an outstanding modern perspective on the original epic.