Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, published in 1969, added loud resonance to the written resistance against prescribed women’s and men’s roles, ridiculing the culturally upheld notions that women were baby-making homemakers who needed a man’s hand to guide their feeble thoughts, and that men were brawny sacks of muscle who earned money and shot things. Atwood’s The Penelopiad, published in 2005, retells the Odyssey narrative through the eyes of Odysseus’s steadfast wife, Penelope, and her 12 maids. Despite being set in ancient Greece, gender expectations remain (originated?) the same: Penelope is expected to play the part of virginal mother, and Odysseus the wily, swashbuckling manly-man.
In both books, narrators Penelope and Marian guide the reader through a Wonderland of cultural patriarchy in ancient Greece and Vietnam-era Canada, where one’s body and soul is a featured item on life’s menu. Penelope, the daughter of a king, is a prize to be won in a tournament, bearing the title of “wife” rather than “trophy” at the event’s conclusion. The larger the dowry and greater the beauty of the bride-to-be-won, the more feverishly the men struggle to out-wrestle, run, and archery each other. Woe to the sensitive man who would rather write poems or study insects when it came to wife-winning; bachelorhood or a lowly scullery maid awaited him. Penelope is well-aware of her status in these contests, as none of the men were allowed to see or speak to her before the competition began:
The Edible Woman’s Marian, a twenty-something, college-educated working girl navigating the dangerous waters of ‘not-married-yet-dom,’ edits surveys for a market research firm, in an office where new flavors of canned rice pudding are a source of excitement. As a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo begins to rise, Marion comes to see herself as a commodity no different than rice pudding. When invited to dinner by male friends, she finds herself on the receiving end of soliloquies and philosophical lectures, all the while asked nothing except her thoughts on the elegance of the dinner plates:
Despite having plenty to add to the conversation, Marion steers the course preferred by Penelope when interacting with Odysseus:
The Rabbit Hole
As Marian tries to hide the food on her plate in her purse, her dinner companions explain the “sexual-identity-crisis” in Alice in Wonderland to her:
As the graduate student, Fish, continues his speech, Atwood cleverly aligns each of the stunted Alice characters with the population of her own story. Marian’s friend Clara “rejects Maternity when the baby she’s been nursing turns into a pig.” Her roommate, Ainsley, is the Queen with “her castration cries of ‘Off with his head!’” Duncan, a misanthropic graduate student, is the Mock-Turtle, “enclosed in his shell and his self-pity, a definitely pre-adolescent character.” Peter, Marian’s boyfriend turned fiancé, is the “dictatorial Caterpillar,” telling Marian what to order in restaurants, how to better style her hair, and what he expects of her as his wife.
While the most overt critique in each book focuses on the treatment of women, both the male and female characters suffer from their prescribed gender roles. In both books, each character is stunted by fears of growing up. Where the men have Peter Pan syndrome and are coerced into a machismo characterized by brawling, warring, fishing, and drinking Moose Beer (anything less would make one a “fairy”), the women are silenced and cloistered into the image of idealized, virginal motherhood (where anything less would be to have “loose morals”).
1960’s Peter gets to be both child and ideal man by crying over his last single friend’s engagement while posing his lip-sticked girlfriend in front of his gun collection. Odysseus gets to play both roles by stalling his return from war, where he fought like a hero, to his wife and child. His adventures may be well recollected through a mythical lens, but Penelope has a more pragmatic interpretation of what he was doing all those years at sea:
Penelope gains her insight into the dangerous expectations placed on women and men through both her long waiting period, and in the afterlife. Marian begins to gain perspective as she comes to see her food as a consumable commodity no different than herself:
Blame it on the Sluts
Penelope shares narration with her 12 maids, who punctuate her story with a sometimes embittered, sometimes sorrowful retelling of their own story: their murder at the hands of Odysseus and Telemachus. Enlisted as spies by Penelope to keep tabs on the unruly suiters, the maids use their bodies to keep the hall of unwelcome men occupied. For sexual promiscuity that disgraces the master of the house, Odysseus has them hung from a ship’s mast. In Marian’s world, sexual purity was equally valued. Her friend, Len, only has an eye for young, virginal girls:
Despite his desire for the sexually pure, his Peter Pan syndrome makes the idea of marriage and children as abhorrent as a “spoiled” woman:
Len is a predator just as Penelope’s suitors were, wanting the woman as prize rather than the woman herself. When the tables are turned on him by Marian’s roommate, Ainsley, he is none too pleased to learn he has been fooled into sleeping with and impregnating a woman closer to 30 than 20:
This revelation into her friend’s true nature leaves Marian further unsettled, both with her own sense of self and her friendship with a man of Len’s caliber:
Len is another candidate for the book’s adolescent Mock Turtle, with his prime education in Lewis Caroll’s fictional curriculum:
To escape pending fatherhood, Len quits his life and takes refuge in Clara’s nursery, finally fulfilling his true desire to remain an adolescent forever. Len’s downfall helps Marian see the trap she’s walked into more clearly: that rather than partner, she’ll be a mute side-dish to Peter’s life. She shares this insight with him by baking a cake in the shape of a woman and feeding it to Peter, an edible effigy in place of herself.
Unfortunately for Penelope, she didn’t have the safety-net of college and work to insulate her from her fate as edible goods:
Atwood is well-aware of her indulgence in symbols, and gives the hanged maids the last word: