Re-conceptualizing Reality: Atwood’s The Penelopiad, A Rewriting
Mahinur Akşehir (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey) [BIO]
Homer’s The Odyssey is one of the most widely studied works of Western literature. It has been the object of study of many specialists in various fields. Especially during the mid-twentieth century and afterwards, it has provided a ground of study for feminist scholars and revisionist women writers. The Odyssey has been criticized for being a male-oriented text by feminist scholars, and fragments of it have been rewritten by many women writers. These women writers have preferred to write, in Gayle Greene’s words, “against [this male-oriented story] but also within it, finding it both constraining and enabling”. The book’s imposition of male dominance and its representations of women in a secondary role have been the target of feminist scholars since the mid-twentieth century. Women writers have subverted the epic’s male-oriented discourse by replacing the dominant male voice with the marginalised female voice, claiming their right on language.
Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is one of these rewritings that displaces the male voice and replaces it with a female perspective, retelling the story from Penelope’s point of view. Yet Atwood takes one step further in her rewriting. While deconstructing the male gaze in the epic, she also subverts the concept of reality and canalises her readers to question their perception of reality. Apart from other revisionist woman writers, she not only comes up with alternative realities, but she also questions the nature of the concept of reality itself, which she denotes as the legitimation of stories in The Penelopiad.
Throughout the novel, Atwood questions a more fundamental feature of human beings: their story-telling. While demystifying the patriarchal myths created by men and subverting the imposition of a gender hierarchy –something that is apparent in Homer, who creates a cultural polarization between the masculine and the feminine -- she also reveals that what people call reality is merely a justification of invented stories and myths. In John Fowles’s words, “[y]ou do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it … fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on the shelf — your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in flight from the real reality. That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens”. Hence The Penelopiad is much more than merely a feminist rewriting; in fact it reveals that every narrative is inevitably manipulated by the narrator and being removed from the reality. This paper aims to show that Atwood does not present the reader an alternative reality like other revisionist women writers; rather, she undermines the concept of reality by revealing the fictitiousness of both Odysseus’s and Penelope’s ‘real’ stories.