Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood


The below commentary contains major spoilers.


Those looking to obtain this novel should note: the story was turned into a play that was also written by Atwood. The play version, which I have not read but seems to be somewhat different from the novel, is also available and has the same title as the novel. The two books are difficult to distinguish.



The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of parts of Homer‘s The Odyssey. It centers upon the experiences of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and of Penelope’s twelve maids. It is told in the first person, alternating between Penelope and the maids. These folks now exist in Hades. They have been there for centuries, and it is now present day. Much of the story is told in flashback.

In the original epic poem, Penelope stayed faithful to Odysseus during his twenty years absence during the Trojan War and his long voyage home. This was despite the fact that she was besieged by scores of aggressive suitors who were vying for her hand in marriage.

When Odysseus returned, he killed the suitors. He also discovered that twelve of Penelope’s maids had fraternized and slept with various suitors. He ordered these maids to be hung.

The work mostly consists of a first person narrative from Penelope’s point of view. Portions are also told from the maids’ point of view.

In this work, Penelope’s story is told with a very different perspective as that of the original epic. She is required to enter into an arranged marriage with Odysseus at the age of 15. In a world where most men are brutal and sadistic to women, including their own wives, Odysseus seems to be relatively sensitive and refrains from cruelty. Though later we find that he is deeply flawed and can be insensitive and manipulative, this aspect of his personality nevertheless adds complexity and nuance to his character. Penelope develops both a love and a loyalty to him.

When he departs to fight the Trojan War, Penelope is left alone in Ithaca to fend for herself in a city full of political and family machinations. She grows into a smart and competent ruler. As Odysseus’s absence stretches past fifteen years, many assume him dead. The suitors begin to arrive, and Penelope does not have the military or political means to dismiss them.

As in the original epic, when Odysseus finally returns, he kills the suitors. He also orders the execution of Penelope’s twelve maids for fraternizing with them. These murders are perpetuated despite the fact that some of these young women have been raped by the suitors.

Despite its serious plot and themes, this work is funny and very creative. It is mostly prose, but the chorus of maids speaks in verse. Even Penelope’s view is written in a prose style that is almost poetic.

Atwood fits so many things into this short book. Among the many fascinating aspects to this work are: an exploration of different perspectives and their influences on storytelling, history and culture; an examination of the role and plight of women throughout history; an assessment of certain aspects of feminist literary criticism with a healthy dose of parody thrown in; and ruminations on applying modern morality and ethics to ancient texts. These somewhat serious subjects are explored with humor and intelligence.

Penelope is a complex character. She is strong and intelligent. Yet, we find that she is deeply flawed and is an unreliable narrator. In some ways it turns out that she rivals Odysseus in cunning and in the ability to shape the narrative of one’s actions and life into a fabrication. We slowly learn that despite the narrative that she spins for herself, she did sleep with many of suitors. Worse yet, it becomes apparent that she may have been complicit in the murder of the maids.  

Odysseus is also not so simple. Despite his earlier sensitivity, it turns out that his ten-year voyage home was not what he claims that it was. His adventures were more about bar brawls as opposed to fighting Cyclopes and long stays in whorehouses as opposed to being entrapped by alluring goddesses. Of course, he is also primarily responsible for the killing of the maids.

Thus, the interactions between Penelope and Odysseus are similarly complex. At one point she describes the following scene that occurred after his return Penelope comments,


"Then he told me how much he’d missed me, and how he’d been filled with longing for me even when enfolded in the white arms of goddesses; and I told him how very many tears I’d shed while waiting twenty years for his return, and how tediously faithful I’d been, and how I would never have even so much as thought of betraying his gigantic bed with its wondrous bedpost by sleeping in it with any other man. The two of us were— by our own admission— proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said. But we did.

Or so we told each other. "


A good part of the narrative is dedicated to the plight of the maids. This encompasses an exploration of how the dispossessed and disenfranchised, as well as women in general, are often given short shrift in history, literature and culture as well as in real life.

At one point, in an absurd but hilarious scene set in Hades, Odysseus is on trial for the murders. The ghosts of the maids invoke the help of the mythological furies in their demand for justice,


“Oh Angry Ones, Oh Furies, you are our last hope! We implore you to inflict punishment and exact vengeance on our behalf! Be our defenders, we who had none in life! Smell out Odysseus wherever he goes! From one place to another, from one life to another, whatever disguise he puts on, whatever shape he may take, hunt him down! Dog his footsteps, on earth or in Hades, wherever he may take refuge, in songs and in plays, in tomes and in theses, in marginal notes and in appendices! Appear to him in our forms, our ruined forms, the forms of our pitiable corpses! Let him never be at rest! “


The above references to theses, margin notes and appendices are, for me, a hilarious but insightful call for what seems to be cultural and literary justice.

This is an extraordinary book. It is full of interesting insights and wit. It contains several intriguing themes of which I have only touched upon above. The characters are complex. The writing styles are varied and very well crafted. However, it is best enjoyed by readers who are already familiar with the The Odyssey, as it is structurally dependent upon the original work in terms of plot, character and themes. Ultimately this is an outstanding modern perspective on the original epic.



40 comments:

JacquiWine said...

I enjoyed your review, Brian - very interesting commentary as ever. I have to confess that I'm usually rather wary of these books that retell or revisit a classic from the perspective of certain characters. (I'm probably out on a limb here, but I didn't particularly take to Madeleine Miller's The Song of Achilles, a retelling of The Illiad from the POV of Patroclus. It was a book group choice, and I doubt whether I would have read it otherwise.) That said, The Penelopiad does sound very creative and thought-provoking!

ebookclassics said...

I read this book years ago and I think I was definitely at a disadvantage because I hadn't read The Odyssey and only had a vague idea of what happened in the story. But I was drawn to Penelope's perspective and seeing things through her eyes since we don't get to hear women's voices in ancient literature. Do you know what the major differences are between the novel and the play? For some reason in my mind there's singing in the play.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Your comment has gotten me to thinking, I also dislike the modern trend of taking classic literature writing books around them. I did not initially think of this work that way as the Odyssey and the Iliad as well as their base myths, have been spawning such literature since ancient time. Many of the Greek Tragic plays, The Aeneid, works by Shakespeare, Tennyson and many others are examples of such "spin off" works.

Yet when I think about it even these do fit into the category that you mention. Because of the long history, I think that this attempt bothers me less in this case.


I have not read Miller's The Song of Achilles. I have actually heard mixed things about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CJ - i am not really sure how the play differs. The maid's parts in this were almost all singing so you may have read the novel.

Indeed, myth from the perspective of women, and how women's voices have been pushed aside in culture and history is a major theme here.

JaneGS said...

I've never read anything by Atwood, but this seems like something I would really like. I'm glad you mentioned the humor in it because it sounds overall pretty grim, and until I read that it was funny as well I wasn't sure that I wanted to read it.

Great review!

James said...

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors and while I have read several of her novels I am not familiar with this one. It sounds like she has imagined a view of Penelope and Odysseus that is deftly imaginative while honoring the original epic. She seems to have incorporated some aspects of the Oresteia into her work through the use of the Furies (Eumenides) and the trial.
I enjoy books like these having read Ransom by David Malouf and The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel by Zachary Mason; so I must consider Atwood's novel for my forward list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Atwood digs deep into all kinds of mythology in this book.

I did find this different from her other works. I had previously read Surfacing, The Handmaid's Tale, and various short stories.

I have not read the books that you mentioned.

I have heard really good things about the Mason book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - There vs a lot of really dark humor in this book.

I would also highly recommend both the Handmaid's Tale as well as Surfacing.

Sharon Henning said...

H Brian! Really good review, as usual. I've never read Atwood and I must confess that your review, while well written, doesn't encourage me. Like Joseph, I'm leery of modern takes on enduring epics. It's no secret that Greek culture was heavily influenced by a sense of fate and no mercy. If they treated women that way, it simply reflects their worldview and values.

Having said that, I don't like to read books that portray women as victims.
I do like Greek literature, but they really don't portray women as victims, anymore than the men. In fact, men often seem to be portrayed more as slaves to women because of their insatiable desire for them. Something the women in Greek literature use as a source of power.

Of course I don't care to think of men as degraded either. Both attitudes are self-defeating.

Have a great week!

Guy Savage said...

I'm not a fan of Atwood's novels but I have enjoyed some of her short stories

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I do think that this work at least tries to illustrate how women have been treated unfairly by history and society without going to far into declaring them victims. Penelope does for the most part hold her own. The maids are victims but they are also slaves so there is another dimension entirely to their depiction.

I thin k that when it comes to Greek literature there were indeed a handful of powerful women. But there was also a lot of rape and enslavement. One might sat that was product of the culture. However, when I read The Trojan Women by Euripides, it seems he at least recognized these things as wrong.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I read both The Handmaid's Tale and Surfacing. While I liked them both a lot, this work is so different it is difficult to compare it to those novels.

Suko said...

It sounds like this talented author was up to the task of retelling this profound epic work, and did so in an imaginative way that manages to be humorous at times. This sounds quite intriguing to me, although my reading pace this summer has been pitifully slow. Excellent review, Brian Joseph.

Gautam said...

This book has been on my reading list for a while, although I'm still to get to it. I'm very intrigued by the fact that it's not *just* about Penelope, but also about the twelve maids. Often, literature that aims to retell popular stories by subverting one dominant paradigm (e.g., gender) ends up reproducing others (e.g., class). Unsurprisingly, Atwood seems to have been aware of this. It reminds me of the retelling of our great Indian epic, The Mahabharata, by one of our great writers, Mahasweta Devi - in her stories, it's not only the female perspective, but the female *servant's* perspective (as opposed to the female queen) that is taken.

Incidentally, another famous epic retelling with the silent woman at the forefront is Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin, which tells the Aeneid from Lavinia's perspective. Unfortunately, I haven't read that either, but it might be an interesting next one up for you!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I always feel that my reading is too slow :)

At least this one was short.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gautam - It is part of what impresses me how Atwood fit so much of this book, including ruminations on class as well as gender.

I have read a translation of much of the Mahabharata. Devi's work sounds fascinating.

I have read a few books by Ursula Le Guin, but not the Lavinia,. I had not heard about that one. I will add it to my list. I think that I might want to read the Aeneid first. I recent reread of the Odyssey enhanced me reading experience of Atwood's book.


JoAnn said...

Mythology has always been a real weakness for me. My favorite Atwood novels are Cat's Eye and Robber Bride, but maybe I should give The Odyssey another try and then read The Penelopiad.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi JoAnn - I recently read a new fairly new translation of the Odyssey by Stephen Mitchell. I found it to be very accessible while retaining the grandeur of the work. I highly recommend it.

I read Cat's Eye but I have not the Robber bride, though I have heard good things about it.

If you have not read them, I highly recommend both Surfacing as well as the Handmaid's Tale, I thought that they were both superb.

Parrish Lantern said...

Hi Brian

This is part of the Canongate myth series, of which I read another one recently & want to explore more, as it has some wonderful writers reinterpreting the myths in their own style. Authors in the series include: Margaret Atwood, Karen Armstrong, AS Byatt, David Grossman, Milton Hatoum, Natsuo Kirino, Alexander McCall Smith, Tomás Eloy Martínez, Victor Pelevin, Ali Smith, Su Tong, Dubravka Ugresic, Salley Vickers and Jeanette Winterson.

Blaine Hill said...

Good afternoon, even though my new (which I hope you will visit) keeps me focused almost exclusively on Shakespeare, I am nevertheless so intrigued by your posting that I will be seeking out this book in the library. I've read some of Atwood in the past, and often her transparent political motives bother me. Perhaps I need to be less critical of Atwood

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - I read that this was part of the Canongate series. I have not read any of the other works however. I would like to give some a try. Thanks for the list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Blaine - Think you for stopping by.

I have read Cat's Eye, The Handmaid's Tale, and Surfacing by Atwood. Though I generally agree with her politics, I do think that a book being too political tends to get in the way of greatness.This is true regardless of my sentiments on the particular politics. I sometimes think that might be factor with The Handmaids' Tale.

I did not find an issue with Surfacing however, which, in my opinion, is a great novel.

I do not consider this book political all all.

Blaine Hill said...

Brian, I think you nail it when you point out that excess politics can damage a book's qualities; I think the Oryx and Crake trilogy comes close to suffering this shortcoming. But I might be over-reacting. And, having seen Atwood interviews and essays, I am almost certain she and I would vote differently if I were to live and vote in Canada. Still, I think she is a very good writer.

Maria Behar said...

I had no idea that Atwood had written something like this, so I really appreciate this review, Brian!

This post was a totally fascinating read! I greatly enjoyed your analysis of Atwood's work, and especially in reference to the plight of the women of the time. Since I only read parts of the Odyssey in high school, I never knew that Odysseus had ordered the execution of Penelope's maids, as well as the suitors. I loved the passage you quoted, in which the maids demand justice from the Furies, and I liked Atwood's subtle humor in detailing the places Odysseus might hide, such as "marginal notes and theses".

I definitely need to get out my copy of "The Odyssey", and refresh my memory of those passages I am more familiar with, as well as actually read the entire work.

Atwood's retelling of this classic, from Penelope's point of view, reminds me of a similar retelling, but of the tales of King Arthur, done by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This book, which you've most likely heard of, is titled "The Mists of Avalon", and it retells the Arthurian tales from the point of view of the women in the original stories, such as Guinevere. I must sheepishly admit that I have not read it, although it IS in my possession.....

You know, I think there are probably quite a few literary classics that would benefit from a retelling, but from a woman's point of view. We thus find that the original story will have quite a different impact and meaning when read and reviewed, whether by a man or a woman!

I must quickly find this book and add it to my collection!

Thanks for the very informative, well-written post!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I have heard of The Mists of Avalon. I myself would want to brush up on the Arthurian legends before giving it a read though.

It is interesting that in the Odyssey many pages, and subsequently mush attention is given to the killing of the suitors. Only a few lines are devoted to the killing of the maids. I think that one of Atwood's points here is to give a voice to those who historically have none.

So many books, so little time said...

I haven't read this and like others often skeptical of revisiting a tale. However I love the idea of hearing from a characters point of view that wasn't covered in the original story.

Thought provoking review as always Brian and I may give this a go when before reading this I most likely wouldn't not have.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Tracy Terry said...

At last, an author we have in common. Though I haven't read this book I have read and enjoyed several of her other books. Away to see if we have this on our shelves, thanks for yet another great post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I too am really wary of the rash of retellings of classic fiction that seem so popular these days. I do think that stories about the Odyssey and Iliad are a little different as there have been retellings from different points of view from the beginning.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy -Thabks for the good word.

I found this very different from other Atwood that I have read. With that, it was excellent in its own way. If you decide to read it I would love to know what you think.

Harvee Lau - Book Dilettante said...

Fascinating to learn about this book, Brian, and to see what Atwood tried to do!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - When I first heard about this concept I was immediately fascinated.

The Bookworm said...

I enjoyed your review Brian. Margaret Atwood has been on my TBR list for some time now, The Penelopiad sounds like a well written re-telling. That passage you quoted about Penelope and Odysseus being liars is humorous.
Glad you enjoyed this one!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Atwood is one of my favorite living writers. In addition to this book I highly recommend both Surfacing and the Handmaid's Tale.

That is indeed a great quote.

Caroline said...

I'll return to your review once I've read it will should happen soon. Not so much because of the spoilers but because I prefer reading a review of a book I'm about to read afterwards - to compare - and not beinfluenced by your interpretations.

Lory said...

That is interesting about the book also being a play -- I would like to hunt that down and see how she did that. Though the modern slant on ancient mythology is not my favorite thing (I prefer books that try to get more into the mindset of the past), I did appreciate how playful and thought-provoking Atwood's treatment was. Glad you found it a worthwhile read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I am the same way. I do not like to read someone else's commentary until I have finished a book and written mine. I fear that I will inadvertently steal their ideas.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - Reading this version I can see how this might make a good play. There is already a chorus of maids, and as this is written in first person, Penelope spends most of the time addressing the reader.

HKatz said...

This looks like a good one. I like the flawed, dark characters, and the idea of Penelope as an unreliable narrator.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hilda - Penelope as an unreliable narrator adds so much complexity to this work as in it entirety, the book is very sympathetic to her.

janny magsayo said...
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