I started reading this book at bedtime, and after the first chapter, I couldn’t put it down. I had to stay up and finish it, just to find out if the Clinton-Lewinsky theme that I perceived in the first chapter, played out through the rest of the book. And for me, it did!
This is ‘The Penelopiad,’ one of Atwood’s lesser read books, and in it she retells the story of Homer’s famous epic, ‘The Odyssey.’ It’s a thin book, a fast read, and even if you are not familiar with Homer’s version it’s OK, because Atwood sticks to the original storyline. The story is about Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, and his wife Penelope. When Penelope’s beautiful cousin Helen of Troy is abducted, Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan war and returns home to Penelope after 20 years, and many adventures. And while he plays the field, making as many love conquests as war victories, Penelope remains loyal to him despite overtures from male suitors, who actually are more interested in the wealth and power she had hold over, than in her. Odysseus is unhappy about these suitors when he returns, and he kills them, as well as Penelope’s twelve maids-in-waiting by hanging them.
However, where Homer’s version is through the eyes of a male narrator and explored within a patriarchal context, Atwood’s version (not surprisingly), is through the eyes of a female narrator (Penelope’s eyes after she’s dead), and explored within a feminist context. And this is what makes it really interesting. This is the same story, yet the questions asked and the conclusions reached by a female narrator give this epic a whole different twist.
What for me was most fascinating was the Clinton-Lewinsky twist. It is true, that the lure of mythologies is that they provide a philosophical framework in which we can eternally recognize patterns of human behavior, responses and relationships. Yet, as I read on to the end, I did wonder, if Atwood was inspired by the Clinton-Lewinsky account in her reading of The Odysseus. Below I share some of these specific excerpts from the book. You decide!
This first excerpt is Penelope (assume to be Hilary Clinton) thinking about her husband Odysseus (Bill Clinton).
My eminent husband…what a fool he made of me, some say. It was a specialty of his. He got away with everything, which was another of his specialties…He was always so plausible…I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn’t think he would try out his lies on me. Hadn’t I been faithful? Hadn’t I waited and waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation…And what did I amount to once the official version gained ground? A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t [other women] be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been?
This second excerpt is Penelope’s view of herself, and what attracted her to her husband, and her analysis of her own response to him. It’s interesting how close it comes to how Bill and Hillary’s relationship is often viewed.
The darker grottoes are more interesting…Like a lot of goody-goody girls, I was always secretly attracted to men of that kind…People told me I was beautiful…because I was a princess, and shortly after that a queen, but the truth was that although I was not deformed or ugly, I was nothing special to look at. I was smart…very smart. That’s what I was known for: being smart.
Of course I had inklings about his slipperiness, his wiliness, his foxiness, his unscrupulousness, but I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut, or if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn’t contradict, I didn’t ask awkward questions…I wanted happy endings in those days.
But after the main events were over…I realized how many people were laughing at me behind my back – how they were jeering, making jokes about me. What can a woman do when scandalous gossip travels the world? If she defends herself she sounds guilty. I waited some more.
In the third excerpt below Penelope is thinking about her cousin Helen, and her husband’s attraction for Helen. Of course Helen here, is Monica Lewinsky.
I wasn’t known for doing anything notorious, specially of a sexual nature, and she [Helen] was nothing if not infamous…All she had to do was bare one of her peerless breasts and he was down on his knees and drooling…I’ve often wondered if Helen hadn’t been so puffed up with vanity, we might all have been spared the sufferings and sorrow she brought down on our heads by her selfishness and her deranged lust. She wanted to make a name for herself…to stand out from the herd.
This final excerpt has the words of Penelope’s twelve-maids-in-waiting who were hanged by Odysseus. I see them as representing women in general and the feminist movement that had catered to and supported Clinton in his Presidency and felt humiliated, used and discarded by him. Indeed there was also an element of a sad betrayal and devastation of a connected feminist sisterhood with Penelope herself.
There were in fact thirteen…the thirteenth was a High Priestess – Queen Penelope. Thus possibly our rape and subsequent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping, patriarchal father-god worshipping barbarians. The chief of them, notably Odysseus would claim kingship by marrying the High priestess.
[Maids to Odysseus]: Mr. Illusion…we’re the other ones without names. The ones with shame stuck onto us by others..the chore girls, the bright-cheeked girls, we brought water for you to wash your hands, bathed your feet, laughed at your jokes…you roped us in, you strung us up. How virtuous you felt…you got rid of the plump, young dirty, dirt-girls inside your head. You should have buried us properly. You should have begged for our forgiveness. Why did you murder us? It was an act of grudging, an act of spite…Yoo-hoo! Mr. Thoughtfulness, Mr. Goodness, Mr. Godlike, Mr. Judge.