Printer Friendly

The Penelopiad and Weight: contemporary parodic and burlesque transformations of classical myths.

Hilde Staels

The Penelopiad and Weight:

Contemporary Parodic and Burlesque

Transformations of Classical Myths

This essay closely examines the narrative form of Margaret Atwood's and Jeanette Winterson's revisionary stories about the mythical figures Penelope and Atlas. Both novelists rely on the narrative tools of parody and burlesque travesty to challenge the genre conventions of high epic art. They parodically use mythologizing and de-mythologizing devices to achieve a semantic transformation of the classical myths and employ burlesque travesty to bring about their stylistic modification. The revision of the ancient mythical stories is underscored by the prominent use of the trickster transformation archetype. In both The Penelopiad and Weight, the protagonists wish to liberate themselves from the limitations imposed on them by the traditional narratives. Atlas's desire to break free from the boundaries of the ancient epic story world is explored alongside the desire of Winterson's alter ego to free herself from the weight of her personal past and the burden of tyrannical (fictional) conventions.


Canongate publishing house launched a series The Myths in 2005 with the intention of having one hundred myths retold by the year 2038. Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson took up the challenge of rewriting the first discursive genre in creating novellas about the mythical figures Penelope and Atlas. In The Penelopiad and Weight, Atwood and Winterson respectively transform classical myths by means of parody and burlesque travesty. In spite of obvious differences, the two novellas display interesting similarities in terms of narrative technique and thematic concerns. The ancient myths about Penelope and Atlas appear as intertexts in a genetically hybrid text that parodically disrupts the hierarchy between 'high' and 'low' literary genres. The classical myths are transformed by means of demythologizing devices and burlesque conventions of the Greek satyr play and the Menippean satire. The various formal transformations are supported by the prominent appearance of the trickster figure who functions as a transformation archetype in the narrative texts. Next to liberating the text from generic constraints, both novelists aim at liberating the protagonists from the boundaries and limitations of the ancient epic story world.

In using parody and burlesque travesty as transformative narrative tools, the authors create a continuity with a tradition of rewriting classical mythology. They however also establish a discontinuity with the past in employing a technique of (metafictional) parody that the Canadian literary theorist Linda Hutcheon discusses as specific to contemporary literary practice. In A Theory of Parody, Hutcheon first deals with the definitions and confusions in literary theory and criticism with respect to the notion of parody, after which she offers a working definition of her own. For the analysis of parody in The Penelopiad and Weight, I shall rely on Hutcheon's own influential definition of postmodern (metafictional) parody as "repetition with critical difference" (1985, 32), whereby a text or genre convention is imitated and transformed by means of ironic inversion. In defining postmodern (metafictional) parody in these terms, Linda Hutcheon emphasizes parody's serious critical intent. Though she agrees that parody, burlesque and travesty are related, in her view they are distinct, for burlesque and travesty primarily involve comedy or ridicule while parody does not automatically imply a degradation:
 There is nothing in parodia that necessitates the inclusion of a
 concept of ridicule, as there is, for instance, in the joke or burla
 of burlesque. Parody, then, in its ironic "trans-contextualization"
 and inversion, is repetition with difference. A critical distance is
 implied between the backgrounded text being parodied and the new
 incorporating work, a distance usually signaled by irony. But this
 irony can be playful as well as belittling; it can be critically
 constructive as well as destructive. (Hutcheon 1985,32)

Hutcheon defines metafictional parody as a technique that focuses on inherent limitations of past forms of writing. It underlines the inbuilt historical character of modes of writing in terms of form, style and subject matter. In both The Penelopiad and Weight, metafictional parody is indeed used to seriously rework a literary model, the high epic genre, and to call attention to its conventions and limitations by putting it in a new, contemporary context.

Whereas Linda Hutcheon proposes to distinguish parody, with its serious intention, from travesty with its humorous or comic effects, the terms are used interchangeably by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Like Aristotle in The Poetics, Bakhtin speaks about parody while dealing with travesty in the Greek satyr play. In the ensuing analysis of burlesque transformations of the Penelope and Atlas myth, the novelists will be shown to rely, in part, on genre conventions of the satyr play. The latter was introduced to Athens after the rise of tragedy, at the beginning of the fifth century B.C.E. Bakhtin also refers to it as "the fourth drama," because it comically reworks, through "parodic travesty," the tragic trilogy preceding it (1981, 55). The satyr plays of the playwrights Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, amongst others, were meant to parody the preceding tragedies. (1) Bakhtin emphasizes that parodic travesty in the satyr drama was not "a naked rejection of the parodied object" (1984, 127). Ancient satyr drama primarily parodied the tragic heroization of epic heroes by creating a comic double, which explains the emergence of popular figures such as comic Odysseus, who was topped in popularity by comic Hercules/Heracles (1981, 54-55). Comic Odysseus will be shown to play a minor part in The Penelopiad whereas comic Heracles plays a central role in Weight.

Particularly relevant for the analysis of Weight is Dana Sutton's discussion of Heracles as a famous trickster in the satyr play. Sutton, a classicist scholar and specialist in the Greek satyr drama, argues that "The Greeks were always fond of stories of intelligent rascality, and their national heritage of mythology is replete with tales of roguery and tricksters" (1980, 150). Margaret Atwood, however, revises the tradition in giving prominence to female characters who function as tricksters. (2)

Like Mikhail Bakhtin, Dana Sutton uses the terms "parody" and "travesty" interchangeably while dealing with the satyr play as a comic revision of the tragic trilogy preceding it. (3) According to Sutton, the satyr play comically inverts mythology and tragedy by means of parodic travesty. She states that characters, events, and themes presented seriously in the tragic trilogy "reappeared in humorous and rather grotesque guise in the appended satyr play" (1980, 35). Yet even though myth and tragic heroization are treated grotesquely in the fourth drama, the chorus of satyrs still live in bondage. The characters are caught up in events that are capable of causing real suffering (123). Thus the satyr play should be regarded as a serio-comic form, because in spite of the ridiculing generic conventions, it affirms tragedy's normative, determinative world-order.

In parodying and burlesquing the ancient Penelope and Atlas myth, Atwood and Winterson also rely on generic features of the Menippean satire or menippea, named after the Greek philosopher Menippus of Gadara. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin provides a list of basic generic features with which the menippea, as one of the serio-comical genres that precede the modern novel, parodies the monological style as well as the coherent perspective and world view of ancient genres such as the epic. Thus the polyphonic menippea parodically transgresses the generic norms of the monologic epic. Additionally, the menippea not only mixes various genres, which reinforces its "multi-styled and multi-toned nature" (1984, 118) but also various historical periods. Bakhtin emphasizes that "an absolute epic distance separates the epic world from contemporary reality" (1981,13), whereas serio-comical genres such as the menippea contemporize the heroes of myth: "they act and speak in a zone of familiar contact with the open-ended present" (1984, 108). Finally, the menippea destroys epic distance through carnivalesque laughter. The 'low' life of carnival includes the burlesque. (4)

Besides Mikhail Bakhtin and Dana Sutton, the French literary theorist Gerard Genette provides a working definition for the analysis of burlesque travesty in The Penelopiad and Weight. In Palimpsestes, Genette states that "burlesque travesty modifies the style without modifying the subject whereas parody modifies the subject without modifying the style" (1982, 29). In contrast to Hutcheon, Genette reserves the term "parody" for playful transformations of texts whereas he uses the neutral term "transposition" for serious transformations (36). According to Genette, travesty of myth is more aggressive and degrading towards the intertext than parody. His discussion of typical formal devices of burlesque travesty, which he does not restrict to the genre of the satyr play, offers a useful tool for its analysis in The Penelopiad and Weight. Genette shows that, in rewriting an epic text, travesty brings the past closer to the present by means of anachronism and the modification of a noble style into a familiar, vulgar and modern one (67). He emphasizes that comic rewritings based on burlesque travesty primarily have a satiric function (37).

(Metafictional) Parody in The Penelopiad

Metafictional parody in The Penelopiad is achieved through the technique of self-conscious mythologizing and demythologizing. In the guise of a contemporary narrator who does "a little story-making" (Atwood 2005, 3), the shade of Queen Penelope overtly re-affirms some major events from the transmitted Penelope myth and mythicizes unrecorded ones, thereby constructing a personal variant of the same story. She foregrounds the oral nature of her narrative and deals with the typical story world of myth by starting with the narrative of origin. (5) As a "dead" retrospective narrator, she skips the genesis of the world and extensively narrates her personal genealogy: "I'll begin with my own birth" (7), Chapter 3 "My Childhood" and Chapter 6 "My Marriage." Penelope affirms the mythical world in which the gods rape mortals (23), Fates spin people's lives (58) and Sibyls foretell the future (185). She affirms mythical or cyclic time in the metafictional treatment of eternal descent-ascent and concomitant death-rebirth archetypal patterns: "I suppose you know the rules. If we wish to, we can get ourselves reborn, and have another try at life; but first we have to drink from the Waters of Forgetfulness, so our past lives will be wiped from our memories." By adding: "Such is the theory; but like all theories, it's only a theory" (186), Penelope questions the logos or traditional interpretation of mythology, specifically the theory of the ritual origin of myth.

This overt thematizing of the logos of mythology is one of the novella's demythologizing devices. Especially Penelope's maids, whose voice can be heard in the chorus lines, target traditional allegorical interpretations imposed on ancient myths. In the chapter entitled "The Chorus Line: An Anthropology lecture," they allude to the early twentieth-century myth criticism of Sir James Frazer's "myth and ritual school of interpretation" at Cambridge University. In his massive study The Golden Bough (1890-1915), the classicist and anthropologist Frazer sees fertility rituals in all cultures, and he believes that the hidden meaning of myth lies in the cycle of vegetation. Penelope's maids ironically impose a mythical paradigm on themselves, a condoning one that explains the relentless hanging of the maids in Homer's Odyssey (Book 22) in terms of primitive vegetation ceremonies and the myth of the dying and resurrected god or king. In using the discourse of myth-ritualist literary critics, they ironically interpret themselves as companions of the moon goddess Artemis, as twelve Amazons or moon-maidens who are victims of fertility cults' "ritual sacrifices ... re-enacting the dark-of-the-moon phase, in order that the whole cycle might renew itself and the silvery new-moon-goddess rise once more" (Atwood 2005, 164). By exclaiming "Consider us pure symbol" (168) (6) of seasonal, vegetational and lunar phenomena, they attack Frazer's influential myth-ritualist theory among mythopoeic critics such as Jessie Weston and Northrop Frye.

The text contains another demythologizing device in playing with the boundary between truth and lies or historical fact and fiction. Whereas mythos is the Greek word for a story (about Gods and heroes) that used to be transmitted by poets and singers who did not make any claims to telling a true story, Penelope professes that in spite of many lies (Atwood 2005, 45, 143), "There's some truth" (49) to be found in myths and she deplores that she'll "never know" (161) the real reason why her twelve favourite handmaidens were killed. (7) Additionally, when speaking of myths as if they were historical narratives based on actual events, instead of products of the imagination, she says that she wants to remember what "real hunger" and "real fatigue" (17) were like while she was "living" in ancient Greece, or she says that she used to have dreams "that have not been recorded, for I never told them to a living soul" (123). In a similar vein, the maids sarcastically attack anthropologists of the myth and ritual school who merely interpret myth symbolically by saying "You don't have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice" (168).

Parody in The Penelopiad also involves the inscription and semantic transformation of classic story material. The maids who are represented as oppressed, silenced women in the ancient stories, confirm this condition in the text. Yet in Atwood's variant of the story, they are endowed with a voice and a perspective of their own while speaking freely from the symbolic Underground. Atwood regularly uses Underground space symbolism in her fiction to refer to the unconscious as the source of the main characters' free creative imagination and subversive speech. In The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace, for example, Offred's and Grace Marks's "other" repressed voice speaks disruptively from the Underground. (8) The same holds true for Queen Penelope and the maids who, as first-person narrators, boldly challenge and liberate themselves from "the official version" (Atwood 2005, 2) imposed on them.

The narrators to some extent confirm the mythical/ archetypal identity that literary history passed down. With a note of self-pity in her voice, Penelope speaks about her unwavering faithfulness: "Hadn't I been faithful? Hadn't I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation--almost the compulsion--to do otherwise?"(Atwood 2005, 2). Yet the first-person narrators largely defy transmitted stories by offering other, personal versions of the "facts" and displaying a human, contemporary, complex and highly individual identity. (9) The text participates in what Mikhail Bakhtin describes as the parodic-travestying "novelization" of the epic genre, or the transposition of epic into novelistic material:
 To portray an event on the same time-and-value plane as oneself and
 one's contemporaries (and an event that is therefore based on
 personal experience and thought) is to undertake a radical
 revolution, and to step out of the world of epic into the world of
 the novel. ... By its very nature the epic world of the absolute past
 is inaccessible to personal experience and does not permit an
 individual, personal point of view or evaluation. (Bakhtin 1981, 14-

While spinning threads of their own (Atwood 2005, 4), Penelope and the female slaves gain common human characteristics with which they establish a close relationship with the present-day reader, for they display emotions such as jealousy, aggression, distrust, insecurity and so on. Penelope appeals to the readers' knowledge of human psychology, when she asks: "Which of us can resist the temptation of being thought indispensable?" (80) or says "we all like to hear songs in our praise, even if we don't believe them" (104). In addition, she continuously tries to play on the readers' sympathy. Her account of petty details of everyday domestic life in Ithaca and Hell aims at verisimilitude and results in a "realistic" characterization in a context of profane historical time and material space. In relating her non-prophetic nightmares (123-24), Penelope does not act in accordance with her epic character, for as Mikhail Bakhtin says: "Dreams, daydreams, insanity destroy the epic and tragic wholeness of a person and his fate: the possibilities of another person and another life are revealed in him, he loses his finalized quality and ceases to mean only one thing ..." (1984, 117). Such depreciation of epic characters in The Penelopiad clearly also entails an appreciation, as the mythical figures acquire psychological realism and individualization.

The Penelopiad both spatially and temporally sets contemporary against ancient times, which is a common feature of the menippea. The idealization of the distant past is destroyed when the contemporary female narrators discursively cross the threshold between the present "here" in the Greek Underworld and "there," the readers' contemporary world, as when Penelope says: "In your world, you don't get visitations from the gods the way people used to unless you're on drugs" (Atwood 2005, 24). The boundary between the time of the ancient epic and that of the contemporary novel is also crossed when the maids summon twelve angry Furies to take revenge on Odysseus during the twenty-first-century trial. The Erinyes appear, and so does Athene who spirits Odysseus away in a cloud (184). The threshold with the real, contemporary world of the biographical author is even transgressed, when Atwood makes explicit in the paratextual 'Introduction' that she has "always been haunted by the hanged maids" (XV) like Odysseus and Penelope in the main text.

The Penelopiad not only mixes historical periods, but also upsets generic hierarchy. Even though generic hybridity is a specific feature of the menip-pean satire, the novella's participation in multiple genres is of course typical of much contemporary fiction. It mixes the Aristotelian division of the literary world into the three genres or universal modes--the lyrical, the epical (narrative) and the dramatic- with simple genres (various songs), an anthropology lecture and a video-taped twenty-first-century trial. In crossing the boundaries between serious and popular genres, Atwood creates a postmodern transgression and contamination of the physical setting and semiotic medium associated with a particular genre.10

In line with the polyphonic novel tradition, The Penelopiad is a multi-voiced and multiperspectival novella. According to Helen of Troy, Penelope is the boring, modest, and perennially devoted wife of ancient myth. In The Odyssey, Penelope is indeed shown to say: "I will not go alone among men. I think that immodest" (Lattimore 1967, 184) and "I waste away at the inward heart, longing for Odysseus" (136). Yet from the maids' standpoint their mistress is a cunning liar, who committed adultery, caused them to be seduced and raped by the suitors, and who ordered their execution. They interpret her as an incarnation of Artemis, a death-bringing moon goddess, whose arrows killed them (Atwood 2005, 165). (11) The maids thus counter their mistress' unreliable version of herself as someone who "had never transgressed" (21). As appears from the epigraph, the embittered shade of Agamemnon, betrayed and murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, passed the dominant version of Penelope's "faithful" and "flawless" nature on to Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey.

Burlesque Travesty in The Penelopiad

Besides semantic modifications achieved through (metafictional) parody, the novella contains typical formal features of burlesque travesty that bring about stylistic transformation. According to Gerard Genette, travesty causes stylistic modification by means of anachronism. The Penelopiad clearly teems with anachronisms, as when Penelope refers to her mother's "short attention span," (Atwood 2005, 11) or when Eurycleia adapts Dr. Spock's famous saying: "Spare the rod and spoil the slave!" (90). Genette also mentions another typical feature of travesty that brings the past closer to the present, that is, the modification of an elevated style into a familiar, colloquial and modern one. Atwood's "noble" Penelope incongruously says: "She was quite stuck-up about it, was Helen" (20) or Odysseus "made mincemeat of every last one of the Suitors" (158). Penelope even uses vulgar speech when calling Helen of Troy a "septic bitch" (131) or sneering at Helen's "bare-naked tits-and-ass bath treat for the dead" (155).Yet it is especially the maidservants who use vulgar speech in the chorus lines: "Once more we toil and slave/ And hoist our skirts at their command/ For every prick and knave" (126). In this way, Atwood's burlesque first-person narrators undermine high Homeric style by using a trivialising transgressive speech. The shared carnivalesque discourse also neutralizes ancient class distinctions between Penelope and her maids.

The first chapter of The Penelopiad is significantly entitled "A Low Art," for Penelope creates a low comic (folk) double of high epic art as do her maids in the chorus lines. Especially in the latter, we notice the debasing effects of travesty that are achieved by the use of "the plebeian rhyming four-beat line, the colloquialisms, and the occasional piece of exuberant ribaldry" (Dentith 2000, 104-05). Specifically in the chorus lines "A Rope-Jumping Rhyme" and the "Envoi," plebeian rhyming four-beat lines give expression to the maidservants' anger about the brutal violence and sexism to which they fell victim. The maids' constant emphasis on their victimization confirms Dana Sutton's statement that characters in the serio-comic satyr play are capable of genuine suffering.

Transgressive carnivalesque discourse is present in the debunking of epic events and characters, for example when Penelope degrades herself: "no unsuccessful suitor lost his temper at my (wedding) feast. It was more as if they'd failed to win an auction for a horse" (Atwood 2005, 41). For the debunking of epic events, the novella relies on intertextual allusions to James Joyce's Ulysses, itself a parody of Homer's Odyssey. Joyce does not intend to mock or ridicule The Odyssey, for Ulysses "is to be seen ... as an ideal or at least as a norm from which the modern departs" (Hutcheon 1985, 5). Leopold Bloom visits a Dublin tavern run by an aggressive one-eyed landlord in the "Cyclops" chapter and Mrs Bella Cohen's brothel, the palace of Circe/Zoe, in the "Circe" chapter. The Penelopiad alludes to these scenes in juxtaposing noble versions from The Odyssey with indecent versions, or literal interpretations and profanities appropriated from Joyce's Ulysses: "Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern-keeper, said another ..." (Atwood 2005, 83); "Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some ... no, said others, it was just an expensive whorehouse, and he was sponging off the Madam" (83-84). In the context of "the postmodern ironic contesting of myth as master narrative" (Hutcheon 1988, 50), The Penelopiad characterizes Odysseus as both a wise epic hero and a buffoon.

Travesty of myth in The Penelopiad creates a discordance between a noble and low register and provides "the corrective of laughter and criticism" (Bakhtin 1981, 59) towards high epic art. Penelope significantly uses carnivalesque terms while describing her clandestine act of unravelling her father-in-law's funeral shroud: "these nights had a touch of festivity about them, a touch--even--of hilarity. ... We told stories as we worked away at our task of destruction" (Atwood 2005, 114). Like this nightly unravelling of the shroud for Laertes, the burlesque treatments of myth in the text are at once playful, cheerful and mischievous, because showing disrespect to power and authority.

Transformation Archetypes in The Penelopiad

Atwood's formal transformations by means of parody and burlesque travesty are underscored by the thematic use of the trickster and Great Mother archetypes, which Carl Gustav Jung treats as symbols of transformation. To Jung, who believes in myths as the symbolic expression of archetypes that are stored within the collective unconscious, the trickster and Great Mother archetypes bring about transformation through knowledge and wisdom (1972, 16, 152). In The Penelopiad, Atwood specifically honours and actualises these archetypal images, as she does in many of her writings. Yet she also honours and modernises other archetypal images, such as the hero archetype that Odysseus incarnates: "He's been a French general, he's been a Mongolian invader, he's been a tycoon in America, he's been a headhunter in Borneo" (2005, 189), or the erotic and seductive aspect of the anima archetype that Helen incarnates: "who is this 'Marilyn' everyone is so keen on?" (186).

In The Penelopiad, references to the Great Mother are a means for the artist to allude to a lost matriarchal culture and female-centred religion that belongs to the Minoan-Mycenaean civilisation of Crete in the 14th-12th century BC, before the patriarchal civilisation of Greece. Atwood recreates the eclipsed pre-Homeric Great Goddess myth by associating Penelope with Artemis, the powerful goddess of fertility (as moon-goddess) and the maids with her followers (2005, 166). During the twenty-first-century trial of Odysseus, this ancient story of Greek patriarchal oppression is ironically reiterated as soon as the male judge and attorney for the defence marginalize the moon maidens' personal voice and silence their history of victimization.

The Penelopiad affirms the official version of Odysseus as a trickster-artist, "a spinner of falsehoods" (Atwood 2005, 137). Yet Atwood also delegates the role of the cunning artist to Penelope who repeats and ironically criticises ancient myth. Penelope performs the role of cunning trickster in literally fooling the suitors with the funeral shroud, for she promised to marry one of them as soon as it would be finished (118). As a metaphorical shroud weaver, she is endowed with the power of destruction ("unravelling") and creation ("reweaving"). Her ruse of creative destruction--her parodic repetition and unmasking of male dominated myth---is part of her resistance to male power. Penelope however shares the trickster's ambiguous status, for she is also a fool in Atwood's revisionary story. She feels guilty about having foolishly sent the maids among the suitors to spy on them, as a result of which they were sexually abused and ultimately punished by Odysseus.

Talking about herself and Odysseus, Penelope says: "The two of us were--by our own admission--proficient and shameless liars of long standing" (Atwood 2005,173). She states that classical myths are merely narratives, of which many versions exist, and that the truth can never be known. Yet as a deceitful storyteller, Penelope paradoxically creates the illusion of a reliable first-person narrative, as when she says "Now you've heard the plain truth" (139) while bragging about the clever trick she played on Odysseus upon his arrival back home, setting the test of the bow. She claims never to have been deceived by the supposed beggar who "knew how to say many false things that were like true sayings" in 'The Odyssey (Lattimore 1967, 203).

Atwood associates the trickster figure in her writings with characters that help others achieve deeper knowledge about themselves. Tricksters such as Zenia in The Robber Bride and Alex in The Blind Assassin are story-tellers (liars) and unmaskers. They build up an illusion and subsequently destroy it, so as to bring light and healing in the main characters' lives. (12) The trickster in his role as catalyst displays wisdom in helping individuals confront their shadow. Penelope's maids, women who possess as much tricky intelligence as Odysseus ("too wit", Atwood 2005, 195-96), indeed want to confront the legendary hero with his repressed evil side. From their perspective, clever Odysseus is a fool in that the fabulating hero refuses to recognize his own shadow, the repressed "other" inside his unconscious. They believe their master murdered them--"those careless hussies" (Lattimore 1967, 154)--because he refused to acknowledge his sexual escapades with female temptresses: "you'd got rid of the plump young dirty dirt-girls inside your head" (Atwood 2005, 192).The maids uncannily and relentlessly haunt Odysseus as soon as the homecoming husband crosses the threshold of the Underworld: "We'll never leave you, we'll stick to you like your shadow ..." (193). In dealing with the nether world as the realm of the unconscious, where memories of past transgressions lie buried, the epic "wholeness and finalized quality" (Bakhtin 1984, 117) of Odysseus is destroyed.

The trickster as a transformation archetype also applies to the author's revisionist practice. Hermes, who is referred to as an "arch-cheat" (Atwood 2005, 133) and Odysseus' possible ancestor (46), was not only a trickster, but also a god of eloquence and an artist in Greek culture. Margaret Atwood, the cunning female artist who possesses knowledge and wisdom, reaffirms this archetype. Her use of past texts presupposes knowledge of the canon, while her critique requires wisdom, or irony. As a cunning trickster, she parodically inscribes (or reweaves) and undermines (or unravels) classical myths and mythical interpretations. The central metaphor of reweaving and unravelling applies to Atwood the artist who, as the master weaver of intertexts, uses postmodern parody and burlesque travesty.

It is no coincidence that Atwood ends this generically hybrid text with an image of metamorphosis, as the maids transform into owls. (13) The owl is a symbol of Athene, the Great Goddess who helps Odysseus murder the suitors and who possesses the power of wisdom and transformation. The image of metamorphosis foregrounds the narrative process of mythologizing and demythologizing thanks to parody and burlesque travesty, mechanisms that essentially honour past texts by renewing them. The Penelopiad self-consciously confirms that timeless myths and archetypes are infinitely malleable and will survive as intertexts as long as artistic creativity exists.

Last but not least. The Penelopiad metafictionally deals with the artist's symbolic journey into the dark Underworld, the realm of the dead who possess the stories from the past. The Underworld is the source of knowledge and inspiration, from which the artist ideally returns with a tale. In her essay "Descent: Negotiating with the Dead" Who makes the trip to the Underworld and why?, Atwood reflects on this metaphorical journey:
 All writers must go from now to once upon a time; all must go from
 here to there; all must descend to where the stories are kept; all
 must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past. And
 all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation, depending on
 how you look at it. The dead may guard the treasure, but it's useless
 treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living
 and allowed to enter time once more--which means to enter the realm
 of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.
 (Atwood 2002, 178-79)

As has been shown, Atwood's excavation and adaptation of the ancient Penelope myth results in a highly experimental text in which the author not only liberates the epic story from its generic constraints, but also Penelope and her twelve maids from the limitations imposed on them by the traditional narratives. A similar intention seems to underlie Jeanette Winterson's novella.

(Metafictional) Parody in Weight

In Weight, Winterson overtly deals with her desire to excavate the ancient Atlas myth and "tell the story again" (2005, xx), though differently. Not only through this motif of storytelling does she establish a continuity with her other writings, but also because of her "multiple border-crossings and fantastic journeys through space, time, genre and gender" (Andermahr 2005, 108), the exploration of familiar themes of "love, desire and boundaries" (111) as well as the metafictional self-reflexiveness and parodic inter-textuality of the novella.

The paratext preceding the introductory frame text self-reflexively comments on the novella's plural narrative levels and lays bare the device of one narrative level and ontological border intruding into another. In doing so, it uses the language of geology: "The strata of sedimentary rock are like the pages of a book ... strata become twisted or folded, or even completely inverted by enormous geological forces ..." (Winterson 2005, xiv).This paratext self-consciously deals with Winterson's creation of various story worlds, based on genre conventions, and metaphorically speaks about her violation of generic boundaries by means of transformative narrative techniques.

Winterson employs the technique of metalepsis in the parodic process of textual transformation. With this term, Gerard Genette designates the transgression of narrative levels. It involves "any intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narratee into the diegetic universe (or by diegetic characters into a metadiegetic universe, etc.), or the inverse ..." (1980, 234-35). Weight displays such playful crossing of ontological borders between different story worlds. The latter are narrated alternately by Winterson's alter ego, Atlas, Heracles, and an omniscient third-person narrator. The story worlds include the modern world of science and technology (logos), the imagined world of ancient myth (mythos), and the author's biographical realm of existence. The "Introduction" or frame text narcissistically foregrounds the autobiographical story world as a narrative level that interpenetrates the diegetic universe, or the embedded story worlds: " Weight has a personal story broken against the bigger story of the myth we know and the myth I have re-told," says Winterson's persona (2005, xviii-xix).

The novella's metalepsis or frame-breaking device involves the technique of mise en abyme, that is, the mirroring of events and discourse between the different story worlds. (14) Thus both the embedding and the embedded narratives overtly thematize the act of narrating, or the storytelling relationship between the narrator, the narration and the narratee. There is a thematic analogy between Jeanette Winterson and Atlas, "the long-suffering one," telling their life story again and their motive for doing so. They are both weighed down by boundaries and desire to be freed from them. Winterson's persona, who is said to suffer from "an Atlas complex" (2005, 97), tells the story again of how she is burdened by her total ignorance about her biological parents. She cannot escape being haunted by the loss of her natural mother who decided to give her away to an orphanage immediately after birth. She rejected her adoptive parents who imposed unbearable limits on her life. She says: "The pull of the past and the future is so strong that the present is crushed by it. We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour. The burden is intolerable" (99). The utterance "leaning on the limits of myself" (95, 145) in the context of Winterson's autobiographical story world is repeated by Atlas in the epic story world (14). The three story levels are interconnected by a thematic concern with boundaries, desire and "the longing for infinite space" (16). The mirroring of events and discursive forms between the internally duplicated narrative levels with multiple voices and narrative viewpoints, necessarily results in a semantic transformation of the ancient Atlas myth.

Like Atwood, Winterson inscribes and subverts an epic tale by means of mythologizing and demythologizing devices. In telling his own story, the Titan Atlas starts with the myth of his own origin as the son of bounded earth and boundless sea. Like Penelope in Atwood's novella, he speaks of myth as if it were a historical narrative based on true events: "It is certain that Cronus cut off the genitals of Uranus, and then took power himself. It is certain too, that Cronus bore a child, Zeus ..." (2005, 19). Atlas feels weighed down by an epic world-order, which is "normative and determinative ... a coherent world-order, partly embodied in the gods, partly in Fate" (Sutton 1980, 126). He contemplates: "Who is strong enough to escape their fate? Who can avoid what they must become? ... I would always be here. ... Time was turning me to stone" (Winterson 2005, 22-23). Atlas is burdened by the chronotope (the conventions of time/space) of ancient myth that Bakhtin describes in terms of "absolute conclusiveness and closedness" (1981, 16). (15)

Heracles similarly narrates the myth of his own origin and affirms his archetypal identity as the athletic champion who wins glory by performing twelve labors under compulsion, in penance for the murder of his children. Heracles, however, suddenly "thought about who he was. ... What if he bent the future as easily as an iron bar?" (Winterson 2005, 43-44). Under the influence of Heracles, who contemplates modern existential freedom, Atlas starts questioning his absolutely fixed identity and considers his personal freedom in determining the course of his life. Atlas's escape from his predetermined position, his irreversible fate--"the punishment of forever. Forever to be the same person. Forever to perform the same task" (69)--is formally explored in the narrative text through the novelization of the epic genre. Mikhail Bakhtin's description of the latter process throws an interesting light on the novella's demythologizing device:
 From the very beginning the novel was structured not in the distanced
 image of the absolute past but in the zone of direct contact with
 inconclusive present-day reality. At its core lay personal experience
 and free creative imagination. ... A lengthy battle for the
 novelization of the other genres began, a battle to drag them into a
 zone of contact with reality. (Bakhtin 1981,38)

In Weight, Atlas is shown to change from being an absolutely bounded and preformed epic hero, in a story world dominated by a single unifying perspective, to becoming a novelistic character who gains a new perspective on himself. This transformation entails the penetration of profane space and historical time, which belong to the novella's non-epic story worlds, into the story world of mythical space and cyclic, sacred (synchronic) time. While Atlas is "watching Mars" (Winterson 2005, 103) in the modern story world of science and technology and reinventing himself thanks to the "limitless universe of his imagination" (104), he is likened to the persona of the novelist whose creative spirit and linguistic medium challenge the constraints of (genre) conventions while "spinning her globe" (143).

At the end of Weight, Atlas appears as a character in the modern world of space travel, in the "measureless sea of space-time" (Winterson 2005, 132), together with the dog Laika, a fictionalized historical "character" who tells Atlas about life on earth (133-34). In the context of modern technological innovation, Atlas first changes the course of Laika's history by deliberately choosing to free the dog from the Russian sputnik in 1957. Subsequently, in the early twenty-first century, he has "a strange thought" about his monstrous weight: "Why not put it down?" (134). Atlas's transgressive act of putting down the universe, which liberates him from the generic constraints of the ancient story and from his fully finished mythical identity, is mirrored in the creative artist's ability to "put down" (7) a variant of the Atlas myth in the novelistic universe.

Weight ends with an emphasis on the inconclusive present and unknown future in the three story-worlds. The final line: "I think it is Atlas and Laika walking away" (Winterson 2005, 151) implies that Atlas, who is temporarily liberated from the frames of the epic genre, also escapes from the limits of the novella's universe, thanks to the author's freedom of fantasy. The line echoes "I am good at walking away" (98), with which Winterson's persona expresses her escape from her adoptive parents' authority and her frustrated yet never-ending attempt at liberating herself from the burden of the past and the present in the biographical story world. As the final image of the epical hero's rescue from bondage recalls the ending of many satyr plays (Sutton 1980, 147), it may very well be a convention inscribed in Weight.

Burlesque Travesty in Weight

Jeanette Winterson clearly uses conventions of the satyr play to stylistically transform the ancient Atlas myth. She does so by confronting Atlas with Heracles. The latter has a double nature, for not only is he both a god and a human being, but he is also a tragi-comic hero whose "doubleness is his strength and his downfall" (2005, 35). According to Dana Sutton, "when a hero does stand at the center of a satyr play, he is usually Heracles, the most popular Greek hero, precisely since he is the most human and accessible, because of his fallibility, his Gargantuan appetites, and his occasional clown-ishness" (1980, 168).

In Weight, comic Heracles is the only one who uses a burlesque discourse that is dissonant with high epic discourse. His colloquial and vulgar speech contaminates the boundaries of the epic genre, as when he speaks about the labors imposed on him by Eurystheus: "My punishment is to work for a wanker" (Winterson 2005, 29). His speech and thoughts are contemporary and teem with anachronisms, for example, in the following lines: "Ladon's not a monster, he's a tourist attraction" (34); "Hera was beautiful. She was so beautiful that even a thug like Heracles wished he had shaved" (39). He is depicted as a stereotypical macho man, a womanizer and a buffoon whose behavior is grotesquely marked by sexual excess: "His prick kept filling and deflating like a pair of fire bellows" (40); "his prick went kangaroo" (90). The comic exaggeration of the "low" life of the body, especially its digestive and sexual functions, is a typical formal feature of the burlesque or the carnivalesque.

The Trickster Transformation Archetype in Weight

Heracles is a famous trickster in the satyr play. Winterson repeats his tale of devious cunning that used to make "a fine subject for satyric treatment" (Sutton 1980, 87). It is the story in which Atlas devices a scheme to make Heracles hold up the world temporarily while he fetches the apples of the Hesperides. Upon Atlas's return, Heracles tricks the Titan and makes him carry "his monstrous burden" (Winterson 2005, 70) again. The third-person narrator comments on this scene by saying: "Wily Heracles had no brains but plenty of cunning" (83).

According to Jungian psychology, the trickster is a collective shadow figure, the "summation of all the inferior traits of character in individuals" (Jung 1972, 150). Heracles indeed appears in the text as one who steps "out of the shadows" (Winterson 2005, 29) as Atlas's "other." As a trickster, he makes Atlas face his own shadow, his unexplored potential for change, growth and becoming, by raising the question: "Why are we doing this, mate? ... You're holding up the Kosmos and I'm spending twelve years clobbering snakes and thieving fruit" (49). In raising existential questions, he is Atlas's helper, even his saviour (Jung 1972, 144). Heracles's role as saviour also appears from a scene, based on a story from classical myth, in which he saves the Titan Prometheus, Atlas's brother, from his chains on Mount Caucasus where Zeus punished Prometheus for deceiving him (Winterson 2005, 93).Yet as befits the traditional trickster, the fate befalls Heracles of being tricked by the centaur Nessus. Heracles experiences a death-struggle while wearing a tunic drenched in the centaur's poisonous blood. Thus Weight affirms the imprisonment of Heracles's mortal part in the tragic epic plot about which the mythical hero has prophetic nightmares (79, 92).

The Artist as Trickster

Jeanette Winterson displays the art of trickery and deception in an attempt to escape from the weight of tyrannical (fictional) conventions. She playfully crosses the border of genres, mixing genre conventions of autobiography, epic tale and fantasy. Like Atwood, she celebrates fabulation and free imagination by making narratives (masking) and unmasking their artifice. Linda Hutcheon says: "The laying bare of the mechanism of fiction-making--the element of the trickster, the charlatan, the magus--has always existed in the novelist's role" (1984, 63). Both novelists under discussion clearly perform this role.

Lewis Hyde claims that "the best way to describe trickster is to say simply that the boundary is where he will be found--sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it, but always there, the god of the threshold in all its forms" (1998, 7-8). Like the trickster, Atwood and Winterson are rule breakers, boundary testers and creator transformers who delegate this role to some of the characters in their narratives. Atwood's and Winterson's use of parody and travesty results in a multi-generic text--an ingeniously woven web of contemporary and classical intertexts and discursive types--with which the authors bring about semantic and stylistic innovation. Both novelists have created a cunningly faulty narrative that playfully crosses the borders of genres and that denies labelling.

Not only do the traditional stories about Penelope and Atlas survive thanks to the fact that they are rewritten in a new context with the use of transformative narrative tools, but Atwood and Winterson wield the novella as a free, ever questing literary form that Maurice Blanchot so aptly described in The Book to Come:
 Only the book matters, such as it is, far from genres, outside of
 categories--prose, poetry, novel, testimony--under which it refuses
 to be classed, and to which it denies the ability to assign its place
 and determine its form. A book no longer belongs to a genre; every
 book belongs to literature alone ... the essence of literature is
 precisely to escape any essential determination, any assertion that
 stabilizes it or even realizes it: it is never already there, it
 always has to be rediscovered or reinvented. (Blanchot 2003,200-01)

In The Penelopiad and Weight, the escape from generic constraints in the universe of literature goes hand in hand with the escape from limits set by the dominant social and moral order. Coincidentally, Atwood and Winterson both invented an ending that visualizes mythical characters in the historical present flying away as owls or simply walking away. With this final image, they celebrate the idea of liberation and transformation in a formal and thematic sense while "telling the story again."


(1) Referring to Aristotle's Poetics, Dana Sutton says that "tragedy evolved from the satyrikon. The latter cannot, however, be equated with the satyr play" (1980, 2). In the paratextual "Notes" following The Penelopiad, Atwood mentions her reliance on the satyr play. She however erroneously states that "the convention of burlesquing the main action was present in the satyr plays performed before serious dramas" (2005, 198).

(2) Lewis Hyde argues that the standard tricksters in patriarchal mythologies are male (1998,335).

(3) Dana Sutton is not indebted to Mikhail Bakhtin in her book The Creek Satyr Play (1980), as Bakhtin's treatment of the satyr drama in the essay "From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse" included in The Dialogic Imagination appeared in English translation only in 1981.

(4) Dominique Bertrand points out that the term "burlesque" is extremely rare in Russian language. This explains why Bakhtin uses the notion "carnivalesque" instead (1998,13,22).

(5) As Paul Veyne says: "This old oral literature spoke only of origins, foundations, and warlike exploits, of family dramas with princely actors" (1988, 76).

(6) Mihoko Suzuki rightly points out that the lines "Consider us pure symbol. We're no more real than money" are indebted to Levi-Strauss's The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969).

(7) Paul Veyne states that "Myth was a tertium quid, neither true nor false" (1988, 28) and "Myth is truthful, but figuratively so. It is not historical truth mixed with lies; it is a high philosophical teaching that is entirely true, on the condition that, instead of taking it literally, one sees in it an allegory" (62).

(8) See Staels (1995, 458-63 and 2000, 436-44).

(9) According to Paul Veyne "The content of myth was situated in a noble and platonic temporality, as foreign to individual experience and individual interests as are government proclamations or esoteric theories learned at school and accepted at face value. In other respects, myth was information obtained from someone else" (1988, 27).

(10) According to John Frow, "the semiotic medium and physical setting constitute a material and technical matrix within which genres are embedded. They are not themselves a component of genre, but they form part of the framing conditions which govern and may signal generic structures, and they have direct consequences for the structural organisation of genre" (2005, 73).

(11) Karen Armstrong emphasizes Artemis's destructive powers: "Artemis is simply one embodiment of the Great Goddess, a fearsome deity who was not only the Mistress of Animals, but the source of life. She is no nurturing earth mother, however, but is implacable, vengeful and demanding. Artemis herself is notorious in exacting sacrifice and bloodshed, if the rituals of the hunt are violated" (2005, 38).

(12) See Staels (2004, 159).

(13) Dana Sutton stresses the importance of "magical operations such as transformations, rejuvenations and resurrections" as narrative elements in satyr plays (1980, 151).

(14) See Dallenbach (1977).

(15) The chronotope is a term used by Mikhail Bakhtin for the set of distinctive features of time and space within each literary genre (1981, 84-5).

Works Cited

Andermahr, Sonya. 2005. "Cyberspace and the Body. Jeanette Winterson's The PowerBook." In British Fiction of the 1990s, ed. Nick Bentley. London and New York: Routledge.

Armstrong, Karen. 2005. A Short History of Myth. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Atwood, Margaret. 2002. Negotiating with the Dead. A Writer on Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

--. 2005. The Penelopiad. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

--. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Mineapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Bertrand, Dominique, ed. 1998. Poetiques du Burlesque. Paris: Honore Champion.

Blanchot, Maurice. 2003. The. Book to Come. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Dallenbach, Lucien. 1977. Le Recit Speculaire. Essai sur la mise en abyme. Paris: Seuil.

Dentith, Simon. 2000. Parody. The New Critical Idiom. London and New York: Routledge.

Frow, John. 2005. Genre. The New Critical Idiom. London and New York: Routledge.

Genette, Gerard. 1980. Narrative Discourse. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

--. 1982. Palimpsestes: la litterature au second degre. Paris: Seuil.

Hutcheon, Linda. 1984. Narcissistic Narrative. The Metafictional Paradox. London and New York: Methuen.

--. 1985. A Theory of Parody. The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. London and New York: Methuen.

--. 1988. A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction. London and New York: Routledge.

Hyde, Lewis. 1998. Trickster Makes This World. Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: North Point Press.

Jung, Carl Gustav. 1972. Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster. London and New York: Routledge.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. 1967. The Odyssey of Homer. New York: Harper & Row.

Staels, Hilde. 1995. "Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Resistance Through Narrating." English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 76.5 (September): 455-67.

--. 2000. "Intertexts of Atwood's Alias Grace." Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (Summer): 427-50.

--. 2004. "Atwood's Specular Narrative: The Blind Assassin." English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 85.2 (April): 147-60.

Sutton, Dana, F. 1980. The Greek Satyr Play. Meisenheim am Glan: Verlag Anton Hain.

Suzuki, Mihoko. 2007. "Rewriting the Odyssey in the Twenty-First Century: Mary Zimmerman's Odyssey and Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad." College Literature. 34.2: 263-78.

Veyne, Paul. 1988. Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination. Trans. Paula Wissing. University of Chicago Press.

Winterson, Jeanette. 2005. Weight. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Hilde Staels is an associate professor of English literature at the University of Leuven in Belgium. She is the author of Margaret Atwood's Novels: A Study of Narrative Discourse (1995).
COPYRIGHT 2009 West Chester University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Essays
Author:Staels, Hide
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
Previous Article:Beyond "Authenticity": Migration and the Epistemology of "Voice" in Mary Prince's History of Mary Prince and Maryse Conde's I, Tituba.
Next Article:Godwin's Caleb Williams: "a half-told and mangled tale".

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters