Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Beyond the "Chorus Line": A Response to Susanne Jung *

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Beyond the "Chorus Line": A Response to Susanne Jung *

Article excerpt

Expanding from the 1974 poem about Penelope and from the 1981 "True Stories" poem, The Penelopiad, like many of Atwood's texts, provides an opportunity to explore the nature of stories in general. In her article "'A Chorus Line': Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad at the Crossroads of Narrative, Poetic and Dramatic Genres," Susanne Jung points out how the reader of The Penelopiad "is offered a myriad of stories, theories, points of view of what might have happened, but knowledge of the 'truth' of what happened is forever deferred" (Jung 52). While The Penelopiad allows Atwood to weave in many of the recurrent themes of her work from iconic representations to metafiction, the main focus of Susanne Jung's article is on trying to perpetrate or uncover "the true story" by giving a voice to silenced voices. The technique that Atwood adopts here is what Reingard Nischik calls "her technique of gender-oriented revisioning" (156), which, in this case, undermines Homer's Penelope and subverts the "icon of wifely fidelity" (Howells 57). Penelope's voice is "irreverent and skeptical as [she] mocks the posturing of male heroes" (Howells 59), and her emancipation is reminiscent of many of Atwood's female figures, including the witty Gertrude (Hamlet's mother) in "Gertrude Talks Back" in Good Bones (15-18), and Circe in You Are Happy (45-70). Furthermore, Atwood's Penelopiad foregrounds previously marginal ized characters and untold storylines, allowing Penelope and the maids-as-chorus-line to take center stage. Susanne Jung highlights the form chosen by Atwood in her particular rewriting of Homer's Odyssey and investigates the construction and function of the poetic insertions within Atwood's narrative which are reminiscent of "[b]oth ancient Greek chorus and modern musical number" and which "employ a range of poetic genres, from nursery rhyme to sea shanty to ballad and idyll, thus giving the maids voice as a collective" (Jung 42). Jung seeks to demonstrate the importance of the Maids' interludes in the narrative, all the while underlining the social privilege of the masters, clearly showing how the masters are blind to these privileges and how they are equally blind to the sufferings they cause.1

My comments concerning this article will simply serve to further highlight the unusual form chosen for the subject matter-a mixture of genres finely analyzed by Susanne Jung. This will lead me to comment on how Atwood offers a new brand of narrative that I will describe as a "metafictional and mythical cabaret-style confession" which works within an ethical framework serving the purpose of denouncing social privileges. I will also point to ur-material in Atwood's work, including her poetic work which I will consider as the seeds planted for The Penelopiad-in terms of exploring both recurrent themes and forms. Finally, having scrutinized Penelope's voice more closely, I will explore another possible interpretation of the ending of The Penelopiad that differs from the one suggested by Susanne Jung but does not exclude alternative interpretations.

Atwood's most recent work has been produced "in what has been described as a cabaret style" (Hengen 50), and it is the mixture of this cabaret style with several other ingredients such as the confessional voice, the posthumous voice, intertextuality, metafiction and not to mention ethical comments (in the form of a denunciation of social privileges) that gives The Penelopiad both a typical Atwoodian feel to the text and an unprecedented originality. The metafictional component, frequently to be observed in Atwood's work, is mainly present, as underlined by Susanne Jung, in the obsession with the true story. It is interesting to note that the conflicting stories are clearly highlighted by textual markers such as "said some," "No, [...] said others. [...] No, said another" (Penelopiad 91), thus finger-pointing the agents of the many Odysseus stories and providing the reader with the following implicit metafictional comment: stories are subjective, and different versions can be spun out by different people. …

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