Bachelor of Arts
Dr. Elizabeth Savage
Professor Allison Wilkins
Dr. Cheryl Coleman
Homer’s Odyssey details not only the trials of the legendary man Odysseus, but also the customs and culture of Ancient Greece. The Odyssey's story began in oral form, passed down from generation to generation, constantly reinterpreted and revised first inherently by the nature of oration and later by authors who translated and transformed the classical text. However, these interpretations and revisions have always been created by a man: the women’s voices in the Odyssey have rarely been heard. Margaret Atwood, in her contemporary writings, has attempted to provide alternative perspectives on the Odyssey by giving voice to Penelope in her novella The Penelopiad and Helen in her poem “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing.” The Odyssey acts as one of the foundational texts of the literary canon, and although it cannot be used as a direct historical text, it does reflect many of the cultural tendencies of Ancient Greek society. Since many Western countries have been founded on the ideological and cultural aspects of Ancient Greece, imagining and examining the voices of Penelope and Helen helps to show history from an alternate perspective thereby influencing the way we view cultures of the past and present. The roles assigned to women can be, to a great extent, traced back to Ancient Greek ideas and have developed over time; Atwood’s contemporary texts work to reveal the way that women have begun to escape and transcend those roles assigned to them. She throws women’s roles in Ancient Greece versus today into stark contrast. Her works not only outline the ways in which women have been able to gain some semblance of power and tear down patriarchal ideology, but also reveal what women still need to do in order to gain full agency. Atwood’s rewritings follow in the footsteps of many female authors intent on revising male-written canonical literature, such as Sylvia Plath, H.D., and Louise Gluck. By writing Penelope and Helen’s perspectives, Atwood sets these historical women up to gain agency and power, to transcend the ideology of the patriarchy, through two main forms of agency retrieval: giving Penelope and Helen voices to speak their perspectives and having Penelope and Helen reclaim their bodies after men have tried to appropriate them. In Penelope’s narration, Atwood asserts Penelope’s voice into the world and calls into question the veracity and completeness of the Odyssey's account. Penelope challenges the authority of the author, thereby both calling into question her own authority as an author while also setting up her account as one point of view amongst many. Penelope also reveals the ways in which her body has been appropriated and speaks against this commoditization. Similarly, Helen addresses the commoditization of her own body; she gains agency by reversing the male gaze and asserting her body as whole. Atwood shows Helen as a woman with the power to rise above the social constructions of “woman” and assert herself as a completely new figure. While Penelope tends to work within the structures already set up for her within the patriarchy in order to gain power, Helen attempts to transcend the patriarchal confines altogether. Through these revisionist myths, Atwood takes characters previously silenced and subjugated by the patriarchy and begins to give them their own agency. However, both Penelope and Helen’s agency is threatened by the presence of women shaming women in both texts. In essence, “shaming” occurs when a woman berates or judges another women for her behavior, undermining the shamed woman’s agency and bolstering the shamer’s supposed power. This shaming occurs in Atwood’s texts on two different levels: patriarchal women shaming subversive women with agency and women with agency shaming patriarchal women. The former category shows the women in “Helen of Troy” immersed in the patriarchy protecting the ideology of the patriarchy from Helen in order to protect the privileges they gain from its existence. The latter shows Penelope shaming The Penelopiad’s Helen for upholding the ideology of the patriarchy; Penelope attempts to gain power through the subjugation of another, which is exactly the system that she is trying to escape from. Atwood uses both types of shaming to comment on the one missing piece necessary for agency: women supporting other women. This gynocentric misogyny ultimately works against Penelope and Helen as it does not allow for them to reach their full potential as women with agency.
Scanlon, Deirdre, "THE ODYSSEY'S RE-VISION: FEMALE AGENCY AND WOMEN SHAMING WOMEN IN MARGARET ATWOOD'S "HELEN OF TROY DOES COUNTERTOP DANCING” AND THE PENELOPIAD" (2015). Undergraduate Theses and Capstone Projects. 145.