These aspects of Sprague’s critique on the classical sociological canon are present in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Penelopiad. This is a book that revolves around the story of Homer’s Odyssey, but is told from the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. The book gives a voice to Penelope’s life as she is made to run her husband’s kingdom while he is away at war. Her cousin is Helen of Troy, who is the primary reason for her husband’s departure. Penelope’s story is overshadowed by the legend and rumor of Odysseus’ experiences as well as by her infamous cousin Helen. They give the dominant narratives, while Penelope’s narrative remains inferior and almost non-existent. Meanwhile, there are twelve maids under Penelope’s roof who are subject to their own silencing because of the gender inequalities during that time. There are many prime examples where Penelope’s narrative, such like the narratives of people who are excluded from the classical sociological canon, is unknown and sometimes even conjured up by other people. In the beginning of the book, Penelope says, “…how they were jeering, making jokes about me, jokes both clean and dirty; how they were turning me into a story, or into several stories, though not the kind of stories I’d prefer to hear about myself” (Atwood 3). Her personal narrative was silenced because the legend of Odysseus and the infamy of Helen were canonized and thus seen as more important.
Another example of the silenced narrative is the children in The Penelopiad, especially Penelope’s maids. There are twelve maids in this novel who are also given voice and speak about their upbringing and eventual murder by Odysseus. In the beginning of the book, they give light to what it was like growing up as a young girl in those times. They said, “If our owners or the sons of our owners or a visiting nobleman or the sons of a visiting nobleman wanted to sleep with us, we could not refuse. It did us no good to weep, it did us no good to say we were in pain. All this happened to us when we were children” (Atwood 13-14). Due to the gender inequalities of the time, these young maids were excluded from importance and worth. According to Sprague, this compares to the exclusion from importance and worth in the classical sociological canon as well.
Another example of Sprague’s critique of the classic sociological canon in The Penelopiad is the concept of Helen of Troy and how she is subjected to abstract individuation. In the novel, Penelope describes Helen, saying, “She thought she could do anything she wanted, just like the gods from whom – she was convinced – she was descended” (Atwood 76). Penelope envies Helen for her good looks, desirability to the other sex, and ability to get her way. What Penelope doesn’t see is a woman trying, however dangerously, to create agency for herself in a world that would grant her none at all. She describes Helen as the kind of woman who thought she could do anything she wanted, which directly contradicts what any woman was allowed to do at the time. Penelope goes on to say, “She wanted to make a name for herself. She longed to stand out from the herd” (Atwood 76). Penelope and others take Helen out of context as a woman who started a war out of selfishness and promiscuity, without including her interpersonal, historic, and physical context. This is a similar abstract individuation process to which Sprague claims occurs through the classical sociological canon.
To conclude, aspects of Sprague’s critique on the classical sociological canon are present in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. The canonization of Helen and Odysseus’ legends overshadowing Penelope’s narrative, the exclusion of importance and worth of the twelve maids, and the abstract individuation of Helen of Troy are all examples of Sprague’s critique on the classical sociological canon.
Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. New York: Canongate, 2005. Print.