Blasts from the Past - A House Divided: Generational Cycles of Abuse in the Penelopiad

Here's another doozy from a Mythology course I took a while back. A Psychoanalysis of Penelope in Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad, focusing on the cycles of childhood abuse that Penelope goes through and later subjects to those under her care. Enjoy!

Of all the tales of kings and conquerors and their queens awaiting their glorious return, Homer’s The Odyssey stands not only as the originator of the form, but also one of its most famous examples. This epic poem has not only given birth to the majority of the Western canon, but also to a wealth of speculation and new viewpoints which have striven to find deeper understanding of the original story itself. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is an example of this, as it is a personal account of the life of Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, from her earliest moments before the start of Homer’s The Iliad until well after her death following the events after The Odyssey. The book recounts Penelope’s tumultuous childhood, from her attempted infanticide by her father, to her marriage to Odysseus, which brought her into a no less abusive family unit. After Odysseus sets off for the Trojan War, Penelope is denied the right to raise her only child, and instead turns towards nurturing enslaved children as a foster parent. Penelope’s troubles only intensify, however, as Odysseus remains lost on his journey home for almost twenty years. In his absence, the petty nobility of Ithaca descend upon Penelope’s home to loot her larders and make off with anything not nailed down, potentially including her hand in marriage, willing or not. Penelope uses whatever little power she has to fight back against this, in the form of her wits and also in using her loyal, previously fostered as her own children, servants as informants. In abusing the trust of those who looked to her as a mother figure, Penelope opened her foster children up to grave cruelties at the hands of the suitors and eventually led to their executions as unclaimed spies left in the field. In this it can be seen that the story of Penelope is the story of intergenerational cycles of abuse, those who are abused as children have their development into emotionally and socially capable adults stunted, and in turn abuse those in which they hold power over. To help analyze Penelope’s stunted growth, Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development can be used to track how the major events, or crises, that occur in Penelope’s life inform her growth into an adult and how the consequences of these crises led her to use and abuse those who held their trust in her.

The development of a child into an adult is the development of a person’s identity and the continuing confidence that person ha­­s in their identity. Throughout a person’s life, several major events come along and how that person deals with these events either strengthens or shakes their confidence in their developed identity. Erik Erikson theorized that these crises, as he dubbed them, followed similar patterns for people along the course of their lifetimes and could be broken down into stages that each had their own consequences for success or failure. Failure in one of these stages did not necessarily mean a cascading failure to develop throughout a person’s life, but instead that each crisis would lead to either “a successful graduation, or alternately, an impairment of the life cycle which will aggravate future crises” (Atalay 16). Erikson isolated eight stages, the first one starting at infancy with the conflict between basic trust and mistrust, or the ability for an infant to trust that their basic needs and wants will be cared for and that their parents will protect them. The second stage consists of the struggle between autonomy and shame, with the burgeoning drive for self-control either encouraged or left to wilt through negligence or restraint, which would result in a lingering sense of doubt. Initiative versus guilt comprises the third stage, where with the increasing motor and language skills of a young child comes the first sense of building one’s identity by seeking out role models, usually with a parent of the same sex or another adult, typically based on their occupation. The fourth stage marks that most treacherous of trials, the integration of that person and their fledgling identity into a community of their fellows, either to their development of a sense of industry or to the growth of a feeling of inferiority. The fifth stage sees that person’s growth through adolescence and whether their identity jibes with what their community sees in them or if that “person fails to find himself and his place in the whole” and suffers from identity confusion (Atalay 21). Stage six takes place in early adulthood as friendships begin to intensify or wither based on whether that person has the self-confidence to accept and develop intimacy or chooses to remain isolated. The seventh stage covers adulthood as that person seeks either to leave a mark on the next generation of people, whether by raising a family or generating some sort of altruistic or creative work which will survive themselves or otherwise slide into stagnation and self-absorption. The final stage exists as a running tally, seeing whether one feels more satisfaction with their lives thus far weighed against that person’s regrets for time misspent and despair over the little time remaining. These eight stages comprise the evolution of a person’s identity and with it one can chart the course of Penelope’s life as she tries to weave her way safely through.

As mentioned before, establishing the ability to trust is the foundation on which future development of a person’s identity is built upon. Penelope’s first crisis in her life robbed her of even this most basic step, as her father King Icarius attempted to kill her as a baby by drowning her, fearing an oracle’s prophecy. Though Penelope survived this encounter through the help of a flock of ducks, her ability to trust another person was shattered irrevocably. Later in life she finds that despite Icarius’ abrupt turn towards acting as a doting parent that she could not reciprocate, dreading that she would be: “strolling hand in hand with my apparently fond male parent along a cliff edge or a river bank or a parapet, and the thought would occur to me that he might suddenly decide to shove me over or bash me to death with a rock” (Atwood 10). This failure in the first stage of psychosocial development became the origin of her suspicious and withdrawn nature with Penelope admitting as much when she remarks that the incident “[attributed to] my reserve, as well as my mistrust of people’s intentions” (Atwood 7). However, considering her troubled life after this, having foundational mistrust in other people’s intentions may have helped her, allowing her “to discriminate between honest and dishonest persons” more easily (Sharkey). Although Penelope’s father’s abuse may have been the most dramatic crisis of her childhood, her mother contributed her fair share of abuse as well. During the third stage of development, a child starts building their sense of identity by seeking out role models, usually stemming from “the child’s identification with the parent of the same sex” (Atalay 18). However, Penelope could never get any attachment to her mother as she was capricious and totally unconcerned with her, with Penelope noting that “she preferred swimming in the river to the care of small children, and I often slipped her mind” (Atwood 11). On this subject, Erikson notes that “[overcoming] the crisis of this stage, offers a close, warm companionship which creates a sense of equality in worth between the child and the [parent]” (Atalay 18). Having no such warm connection, the majority of Penelope’s experiences with her mother resulted in Penelope exposing that her mother “was elusive. When I was little I often tried to throw my arms around her, but she had a habit of sliding away” (Atwood 10-11). With relationships like these, Penelope never developed a familial bond with her parents and could do not do anything besides “[learn] early the virtues – if such they are – of self-sufficiency. I could see that I would have to look out for myself in the world. I could hardly count on family support” (Atwood 11). When Penelope was married off as a teenager to Odysseus, she found that she had to integrate herself into a new group of peers, not unlike a crisis of the fourth stage. During this adolescent period of development, ready access to mentoring and education can allow for “successful experiences to give the child a sense of industry, a feeling of competence and mastery” (Sharkey). However, upon her entering her new family unit, Penelope received no such opportunities for growth. Penelope received no support from her mother-in-law Anticleia who remained aloof and seemed “content to sit silently and say nothing while I made a fool of myself, a tight little smile on her face” (Atwood 62). This left any education for the young girl up to Eurycleia, the household’s well respected nursemaid and surrogate mother to Odysseus. The only lesson Eurycleia taught Penelope was to stay well out of her way, as Eurycleia belittled her every attempt to assume household duties causing Penelope to comment that “[Eurycleia] left me with nothing to do, no little office I might perform for my husband, for if I tried to carry out any small wifely task she would be right there to tell me that wasn’t how Odysseus liked things done” (Atwood 63). With this marginalization as her constant companion, Penelope rapidly developed a sense of inferiority and inadequacy. As Vincent Azevedo points out regarding failure in this stage, “If society is too insistent, the teenager will acquiesce to external wishes, effectively forcing him or her to ‘foreclose’ on experimentation and, therefore, true self-discovery” (Azevedo 163). By the time the sixth stage comes, Penelope has completely withdrawn from her peers, finding that “it was more peaceful just to keep out of things” (Atwood 72). Lacking the self-confidence in her identity that would have been built up from successful development in previous stages, Penelope “shies away from interpersonal intimacy” and instead becomes isolated (Atalay 21). So by the time she reaches her seventh stage of development, which deals with turning ones attention towards future generations, she has almost no personal structure to build on. It is little wonder then that Penelope quickly accedes to her nursemaid’s cajoling when Eurycleia tells her that she is “barely more than a child yourself” and that she should just “run along and enjoy yourself” leading her to fall into self-absorption (Atwood 72). Indeed as Eurycleia says, Penelope is barely more than a child, having never fully emotionally matured to adulthood due to her stunted development. This is why she turns out to be an inadequate mother figure to those that she will eventually raise as her own. For though she did not get the opportunity to raise her biological son due to her lack of power in her family, this does not stop her establishing this bond over those she can hold power over. This is why Penelope seeks out and raises enslaved children as a foster parent-cum-slavemaster, which in her developmentally challenged state leaves her unable to properly give them the support they need to successfully graduate through their own stages of psychosocial development. This will eventually result with the only thing Penelope passing down to them being the same thing her parents and in-laws handed out to her, abuse and neglect.

Like the rest of Greek society, Penelope’s Ithaca revolved around slavery. In an agricultural age, land was wealth and for those who could not till their own small parcel of land for subsistence farming, extreme poverty and death were all that awaited them. Those who held large amounts of land often won these tracts at the tip of the spear and kept them through alliance and marriage with those who had done the same. In such a martially inclined society of such extreme inequality, social classes were rigid with the only advancement possible through the means of loot and conquest. So war was frequent and among the many pieces of loot that was stolen were the people of those defeated cities, who along with those who were born into powerlessness and poverty formed the lowest social class in Greece, slaves. So it was for Penelope who managed the estate of Odysseus which included his many slaves. In Penelope’s household, her slaves could not even find love with one another without her express permission and she often sold off the children of such disallowed relationships. However, for a handful of children, Penelope plucked them away from this fate, when it happened that “a pretty child was born of these couplings, I would often keep it and rear it myself, teaching it to be a refined and pleasant servant” (Atwood 88). Though Penelope might have thought she was doing these children a kindness in her diminished emotional capacity, she was in essence raising her own children to be the slaves, which is what they were. This indoctrination which combined the love one has for a parent with the subservience demanded from a slavemaster, created in these children a will to do whatever is ordered of them without question and fully out of love and loyalty. And such they did, when Penelope asked them as a favor that one might do for a loved one, to “hang around the Suitors and spy on them, using whatever enticing arts they could invent” in order to learn more of the suitors’ plans (Atwood 115). Penelope knew well what this implied, as she notes that, “[t]o provide a lively night’s entertainment was considered part of a good host’s hospitality, and such a host would magnanimously offer his guests their pick of the girls” (Atwood 116). This most heinous of abuses, the pimping out of one’s own children to be raped in order to overhear some bit of gossip, is noted by Penelope as little different from the suitors taking and butchering her livestock, it being merely “an act [amounting] to thievery” (Atwood 116). Afterwards, Penelope attended those who were abused and “comforted the girls as best I could. They felt quite guilty, and the ones that had been raped needed to be tended and cared for” (Atwood 116). The fact those who were violated felt guilt after the fact when with their foster mother, harkens back to the third stage of psychosocial development. This points towards the fact that these girls have struggled to match their identities with their role model, their same sexed parental figure, Penelope, who has failed them as a parent by leading them to their degradation, and that the enslaved girls blame themselves for their parent’s abuse. Perhaps some lingering guilt of her own caused her to delegate caring for these abuses further to her old domestic rival Eurycleia “who cursed the bad Suitors, and bathed the girls, and rubbed them with my very own perfumed olive oil for a special treat” (Atwood 116). This guilt was not enough to convince her to stop her plan as she assumed a more authoritarian tone when she ordered her enslaved children to “pretend to be in love with these men” and that it would be “one way of serving your master, and he’ll be very pleased with you when he comes home” (Atwood 117). Notice how she has transformed this mission from a familial request to a master’s demand, invoking her husband to them for the first time, now that their trust in her role as protective parent has been shaken so badly. The fact that Penelope is blind to her dual role as foster parent and slavemaster does not seem to consciously trouble her at the time with her pressing forward, and it is only at some distant time later that she admits “in retrospect I can see my actions were ill-considered, and caused harm” (Atwood 118). Her regret in hindsight only comes about after the murder of her foster children by her returning husband who is informed of their nightly visitations with the hated suitors by Eurycleia, who knew nothing of Penelope’s plans. This is her final bit of neglect as she does not take the opportunity to provide a safeguard for her children, in this case by never informing Eurycleia of their coerced roles. This too can be charted back to Penelope’s stunted psychosocial development, this time of the fourth stage, with Penelope never having had a “the healthy adaptation … to the thing-world which, unlike the small world of manageable toys, has its own laws: it may resist rearrangement or it may simply break to pieces; it may prove to belong to somebody else and be subject to confiscation by superiors (Atalay 19). By treating her children as ‘manageable toys’, she does them a grave disservice and cannot save them from being ‘confiscated’ by her superiors, who takes the form of the only person who outranks her socially in Ithaca, her husband Odysseus who “enforces [his] patriarchal prerogative” by executing the handmaidens (Suzuki 272). This whole chain of events comes about as a result of her being unable to establish bonds of intimacy with someone who is one of her peers, Eurycleia and instead only knowing how to operate via domination, such as is her role with her slaves and conversely her role with her parents and in-laws. In the end, her fostered children learn the same lessons that Penelope learned once upon a time, refusing to forgive her in death despite her many attempts to reconcile just as Penelope refused to do so with her own father. Indeed, the handmaidens inherited Penelope’s parental mistrust and “had no intention of being hurled in the sea a second time” (Atwood 109).

As her own parents did during her childhood, Penelope both abused and neglected her foster children, opening them up to heinous crimes and stunting their psychosocial development. By tracking Penelope’s childhood traumas, one can see them repeated again when Penelope revisited them on her enslaved foster children, perpetuating the cycle of intergenerational abuse. This cycle, which surely would have continued were the handmaidens allowed to raise children of their own, is intractable and very difficult to break even in modern times. In the times of Ancient Greece they formed the backbone of the entire repressive society, allowing for barbarous cruelty and casual oppression to be normative, whether on the national scale to all the way down to that of the family home.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006. Print.

Atalay, Mehmet. "Psychology Of Crisis: An Overall Account Of The Psychology Of Erikson." Ekev Academic Review 11.33 (2007): 15-34. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

Azevedo, Vincent. Confrontation: The Struggles We Face Each Day and How to Overcome Them. Xlibris, 2012. eBook.

Sharkey, Wendy. "Erik Erikson." N.p., May 1997. Web. 12 May 2014. <>.

Suzuki, Mihoko. "Rewriting The "Odyssey" In The Twenty-First Century: Mary Zimmerman's "Odyssey" And Margaret Atwood's "Penelopiad.." College Literature 34.2 (2007): 263-278. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.


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