Everything was perfect. Odysseus was a hero, a master of cunning and diguise. Telemachus was a brave young man following his father’s footsteps. Penelope (thanks to Toph Marshall) was a loyal, clever and incredibly lovable character. I loved The Odyssey, it was a book with an ending that left me completely satisfied until Margaret Atwood came along.
She is obsessed with the figure of the maids that are hanged by Odysseus for sleeping with the suitors. Hanging for this, if they were at all guilty, is excessive but to be fair they are portrayed as villains in The Odyssey. Taking into account the horrible ethical frame of the time, it wasn’t completely absurd or wrong that Odysseus hanged the maids. It served to protect him and his family from further harm.
As I read Penelope’s side of things I realized that maybe there is a different story to be told. Maybe the maids were innocent, probably they had no other option when it came to sleeping with the suitors, surely they were in an undesirable position.
They were slaves. That is all one needs to now. They were slaves before, during and after Odysseus. Upon his return their condition wouldn’t improve and suddenly they wouldn’t have to satisfy unpleasant men. Probably they would now satisfy whoever Odysseus wanted them to. They are completely incidental to whoever is around them. I don’t think they are evil or betraying. They have to be on the side of whomever is with them, that is how they survive and that is the only role they are expected to fulfill.
Who can know if they were really spying for Penelope on the suitors or if they were actually doing so for the suitors, maybe they did none. Maybe they were naturally and forcefully on the side that was present at the moment.
Their death sentence comes from Eurycleia. If what The Penelopiad says is true then Penelope sends the maids as double agents and tells them to openly flatter the suitors and disrespect Odysseus. She did not tell this plan to Eurycleia so when Odysseus trusts wise and loyal Eurycleia with the decision of the maids lives she does what is good for him. She fulfills her duty as a servant. Which would in turn mean that Penelope sent her beloved maids to their deaths. That is what really haunts me. She loved them so much and yet sent them to their deathbeds, the most innocent and misunderstood characters in The Odyssey.
Out of all the perfect images I had of Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope the one that ironically suffered the most was Penelope’s. I don’t know if this book is supposed to redeem Penelope or not but it certainly broke my admiration for the only person capable of outsmarting Odysseus.