Homer's Odyssey is not the only version of the story. Mythic material was originally oral, and also local -- a myth would be told one way in one place and quite differently in another. I have drawn on material other than the Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope's parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumors circulating about her. I've chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus, which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of the Odyssey: What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in the Odyssey doesn't hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I've always been haunted by the hanged maids and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself. The author of The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin presents a cycle of stories about Penelope, wife of Odysseus, through the eyes of the twelve maids hanged for disloyalty to Odysseus in his absence.
Ah, Margaret Atwood. I've only read two of your works - your quite obscure short story collection, Bluebeard's Egg, and this retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope's point of view - and still I know for certain I will love the rest. I have yet to read your award-winning books, but I will hold on to The Penelopiad and claim it as my favorite of yours (so far).
"Half-Dorothy Parker, half-Desperate Housewives," so says the blurb from The Independent (UK), and while I haven't read anything by Dorothy Parker and am no big fan of Desperate Housewives, I will go on a limb here and assume they must be really great, to be half-and-half of something as wonderful as this book.
Written in two alternating forms - in a narration and in varying styles of poetry, for isn't Atwood known for both? - The Penelopiad is the story of the loyal and cunning Penelope, Odysseus' wife, who really isn't all that popular or well-known in Greek literature as her husband (I didn't even know about her until I read the book, but then again I haven't read The Odyssey - such a shortcoming, I know). She is sassy, in a refined sort of way; she is hilarious, the kind that makes you want to guffaw but for some reason you try to stifle it all in a prolonged chuckle. Penelope is sarcastic and ironic and grave and serious, and she makes you laugh even though she's sad, and I am still in awe with how Atwood perfected such a voice. Penelope is a character that is such a character, if you know what I mean.
The story is told by Penelope herself (the narration) and by her twelve maids - the twelve maids who were hanged by Odysseus upon his return after years of absence - as a sort of Chorus that kept asking one question: why were they hanged? And here we find out that The Odyssey is plagued with intrigue; that upon closer inspection, it wasn't just about Odysseus and his adventures. That maybe, just maybe, Penelope wasn't the quintessential faithful wife history claims her to be. "What can a woman do when scandalous gossip travels the world? If she defends herself, she sounds guilty."
There so much duality in The Penelopiad: the styles of writing, the versions of each episode in the story, the characters themselves. Well, everything and everyone except Odysseus, I guess - known as a trickster, a great persuader, a liar and a con-man, which he all is, consistently, even to his own wife. And she to him, maybe, could be.
"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."
Ultimately, The Penelopiad makes you think of how the truth is obscured by the passing of time, and how nothing is ever reliable, not even one's self.
PS. In keeping with Atwood's everything-isn't-what-it's-said-to-be, Helen of Troy - who happens to be Penelope's cousin - is quite the little bitch.
Originally posted here.
Drawing from this depiction, Atwood proposes another side to Penelope. In The Penelopiad, Penelope gains her voice and emerges as a smart, decisive and emotional character. She weighs in on Odysseus's adventures (aka philandering), her suitors (aka opportunists) and her 12 maids that were hanged for treason upon Odysseus's return (aka a miscommunication). She also voices her opinion about Helen, who she is jealous of and blames for her husband's disappearance. The story is written part memoir, part Greek chorus and part court transcript. Take my word for it; it's very cleverly organized, and Atwood pulls it off beautifully.
The Penelopiad is an interesting and fast read. It's definitely not as earth-shattering as many books out there, but it's worth a look if you want to read about the woman's side of a famous myth.
I came back to it recently thanks to a literature class that introduced me to "The Odyssey." I discovered that I actually knew very little about "The Odyssey" after all (I thought I'd read it as a teenager, but it turns out I'd actually read "The Iliad" -- for shame.) I soon found myself obsessing over Odysseus -- I was obsesseused! Like totally!
So, I came back to "The Penelopiad" five years later, and this time around, I got so much more out of this reading. I actually understood what the heck was going on, and I loved the voice that Atwood gave Penelope. I love how that Penelope herself fully acknowledges that she is quite boring and nothing special; and honestly, there's nothing in Homer that gives Penelope anything else to work with. She's an average-looking princess (with a cousin -- Helen of Troy -- that would have outshone her anyhow) that happens to luck out and marry what the Greeks depict as their "ideal man." She loses him for two decades, she sits, she waits, she weaves, she allows hundreds of men to walk all over her - including her son - and she weaves some more.
But Atwood took all that and ran with it.
Luckily, she didn't run too far, as this book is about as long as it needs to be -- which is pretty short. Penelope is still Penelope -- steadfast, heartsick, and dull dull dull. Odysseus is the one who had all the fun, and Atwood doesn't try to change that.
We begin with her childhood and how she came to marry Odysseus. Penelope has a warm voice, but it is filled with loss, bitterness and irony at the same time for what she lost and felt she never had. Odysseus tricks his way into their marriage bed and sets the tone for the rest of his part in the story. We also learn more about how Penelope puts off her suitors and the character of her son Telemecus.
Part of Penelope's trouble is Odysseus and his trickster nature. She feels comforted by him, one of the few people who comapres her favourably to her beautiful cousin Helen. However, how can she believe anything he says as she knows the lies that trip off his tongue like honey. Her other nemesis is Helen of Troy. She talks down to plain Penelope who always falls short when comparing herself to Helen.
One of the best things about it is every now and then we get a chorus from the maids summing up the story so far. These take on different forms from a play to poetry to songsetc. It was a really good and novel way to break up the main prose tale.
This was such a great edition to the series. The quote on the cover says "Half-Dorothy Parker, half-Desperate Housewives" which is a really good way to sum it up. It like a spot on black comedy. It doesn't affect the story knowing the outcome form the start, it makes it more haunting.
Acclaimed as the most faithful wife, awaiting for twenty years the return of Odysseus, Penelope in Atwood's hands takes umbrage at being used as a measuring stick used to delineate and beat a woman into obedience and ever-faithful wifery. Providing a counterpoint to 'The Odyssey' by filling in the homebound gaps of the epic, Atwood regales us Greek-style with a fleshed out and out-of-flesh Penelope and the Chorus of her twelve hanged maidens, shades that sing - sometimes in an idyll or ballad, but also as an anthropologic lecture and courtroom drama - against their brutal slaying at the hands of Odysseus. Displaying the cleverness attributed her, but also the emotional wreck that Odysseus left in his wake to pursue glory and keep a vow, Penelope provides a posthumous look at her story; wading through fields of Asphodel in Hades, commenting snarkily or with a note of lament, she weaves the happenings that were overlooked or misinterpreted in Homer's epic back into the story, all the while, her hanged maidens rant and rhyme comedically and rather viciously about all who had a hand in their demise, but especially their executioner.
Atwood's style is engaging, humorous, a tad bit acerbic, but she never lets Penelope drift into a serious bout of woe-is-me or shrewishness, even when being compared and overshadowed (even in death, as much as shades can generate a shadow that is) by her cousin Helen of Troy. The chorus of hanged maidens is downright funny, as is Penelope's limited perspective on the changing times, not to mention the acidic commentary she occasionally directs at the gods. Atwood's syntax and tale construction astounded me with their complexity and clarity and ingenuity. Any reading of 'The Odyssey' would benefit from this supplemental interpretation, if not for the previous reasons, then for the burlesque commentary it offers after engaging with one of our foundational literary works.
While I found Homer’s tale to be nerve-wrenchingly boring (apologies though that is just not what I intend to ever go back to), Atwood’s tale is definitely from Penelope’s perspective. More so from the 12 maids’ minds and eyes who Odysseus and his son hang mercilessly when he returns. Penelope and her maids are dead and they are telling the tale from the underworld.
What I loved about this short piece of reconstructed Myth is the way it is written. It reads almost like a poem in bits and pieces (of the 12 maids’ lives and what they had to endure) and it does not bore you for a minute. It took me barely a day to finish it and I went back to it purely because in my mind I also compared it to a portion of “The Ramayana” where Ram doubts Sita’s purity while she was kidnapped by Ravan and was a prisoner at his palace.
My favourite part hands down in the book has to be the one where both Odysseus and Penelope meet after years and are aware that both have not been faithful to the other and yet pretend as though nothing changed. As though love survived it all. There are a lot of portions which I have loved while reading this book. However, one of them has also been the way Margaret Atwood set it out to be a farce and that’s exactly what it has become. A brilliant farce on one of the greatest myths ever! Please read it! Do yourself a favour.
Maybe if it was actually a coherent narrative I'd have liked it more, but I suppose I am not a big fan of the whole "verse, verse, prose, drama, prose, verse, prose" approach to splitting up a book (especially not the verse, though I do commend the inclusion based on the book's predecessor - no one will ever come close to what Homer has done and I'd be happy enough with one little poem rather than several chapters). I'd like something more along the lines of, "While I was in my room weeping for the possible death of my husband, my maids were being raped. Told in confidence to me later, my youngest and most beautiful maid shared her plight. The Suitor tricked her into a blablabla" etc, and going on like that - perhaps a memoir of how Penelope reacted to these rapes, rather than how the maids reacted in their afterlife.
Speaking of that, I thought the afterlife thing was cute at first, and very useful, until it kept coming up and she kept making comments about all the things Penelope was missing. It's as though they were only speaking from the Underworld so that Atwood could make commentary on the state of things today, so she could get Helen to say some useless crap about herself being beautiful and dudes following her into the afterlife. I'd have liked it more if, say, Penelope was writing this as a last (lost) memoir. At least then you could honestly say it was a "myth of Penelope and Odysseus" because the maids might only be included to put guilt on herself, rather than to take the "story" and run with it.
I am glad I read this book because now that mystery of "Margaret Atwood - amazing, or not?" is gone. I'd be open to reading another one, of course, because all books are different, but the writing style annoyed me just as much as the plot itself. Reminds me of how I wrote stories in 7th grade. I've come a long way since 7th grade.
This is the story of Penelope, Princes of Sparta, Queen of Ithaca and young woman, forced to take on the responsibilities of a man, without the respect and title.
Penelope was a virtuous wife, and also a cunning woman, but everyone makes mistakes. Although she was able to save herself from the greedy and selfish suitors come to take her husbands place, she was unable to save those she loved and the innocent blood spilt still stains her conscience.
Twelve young maids were hung, strung up by their necks, there little feet dancing in the air. They were Penelope's most beloved maid, she raised them herself and they shared her strictest confidence. They trusted Penelope; she was their mistress, their friend. But Penelope failed them; they were raped by her suitors and killed by her husband. How could Penelope have let this happen?
Any lover of myths or anyone who has ever taken in interest in mythology, or history, or tales of heroes and war should read this book; as should any woman. This is a hunting and absorbing story that shines new light on an old tale. The Penelopiad is a book that cannot be left unread.
Margaret Atwood's Penelope is irreverent, knowing, and confidently tongue-in-cheek. The TurboBookSnob hasn't read Homer's Odyssey in full, but is led to believe that his Penelope is mostly patient and long-suffering. This re-telling, however, gives Penelope her voice, and is told from her point of view, in retrospect, interspersed with the vengeful memories of her twelve maids, who were hanged on Odysseus's return to Ithaca.
Atwood has created a bravely modern rendition of the ancient story, one that at once honours tradition, and at the same time, enfolds it in the modern cloak of feminism.
Atwood does an amazing job of re-imagining the classic myth from a feminine perspective, while making interesting observations on marriage, forgiveness (or lack thereof), and the nature of posterity.
The story begins at the end, with a dearly departed Penelope spending all eternity in Hades. Here, she tells the reader the story of her life
Structured similarly to a classical Greek drama, the storytelling alternates between Penelope's narrative and the choral commentary of the twelve maids--who are given no names, or barely one voice. The chilling image on the back of my book--sees the twelve maids hanging from the rafters--for in the end that is all they were. The story deviates from Penelope, who sees herself as a woman who was denied a voice--to the actual characters that were denied everything--the maids.
Penelope is deliberately naive, and Atwood’s dry humour pours into every page. I have no doubts that this book is strongly feminist, despite Atwood stating otherwise. This is probably the books only downfall (and that is coming from a female reviewer!). However, the book should simply be taken for what it is, and asborbed for its disturbing logic and beauty.
Penelope is a metafictional narrator, because she describes herself and the story as a popular myth - while this is quite weird -it is very much welcome in a story in which the purpose is to twist and alter the myth (without making it beyond recogntion like THE HELMET OF HORROR does).
I recommend reading THE HISTORY OF MYTH by Karen Armstrong (also by Canongate) alongside this book, as they compliment each other nicely.
Atwood seems never to write a faulty sentence -- it is a elegant book.
Atwood's retelling pieces together scattered bits from various classical sources to build a more complete picture of the relationship between Penelope, Odysseus, the doomed maids and other characters in her domestic life.
The careful, delicate prose of the main narrative is punctuated by verse-chapters in chorus form, ostensibly performed by the maids, a la Greek drama of the era. It's a nice touch, though Atwood's style is sometimes so sparse as to make the stanzas feel a bit lightweight or oversimplified. But the overall effect is rhythmic and appropriate.
I do recommend reading--or at least having a passing familiarity with--The Odyssey and the Iliad before this book, as it will have deeper meaning. But it's not absolutely essential--Atwood gives you some background and fills in some gaps. You'll learn something, either way.
In all, the story is both heavy and light at the same time, singsong and dirge-like, sad and triumphant. Recommended.
She describes it like this in the introduction, "But Homer's Odyssey is not the only version of the story. Mythic material was originally oral, and also local -- a myth would be told one way in one place and quite differently in another. I have drawn on material other than The Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope's parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumours circulating about her. I've chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story told in the Odyssey doesn't hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I've always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself."
Atwood is such a great writer, that she even makes the introduction interesting and entertaining. Then the very first line of the book hooks you and you're suddenly ensconced in Penelope's world. "Now that I'm dead I know everything." Thus Penelope begins telling her story from Purgatory where she is still trying to piece together the puzzle that was her life. I love that Atwood gives us complete access to Penelope's thoughts, fears, and desires. She begins with her somewhat troubled childhood and tells us the story of her life both before and after her marriage. The chapters alternate between Penelope's story and the Chorus of the hanged maids. Atwood brings everything into sharp focus with vivid description and beautiful language.
"I can't make myself understood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongue and fingers; and most of the time I have no listeners, not on your side of the river. Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams (pg. 4)."
I don't know that I have the answers to the questions that Atwood poses in the introduction, but it doesn't really matter, either. This is a multi-faceted story with rich characters, especially Penelope, that can't be easily pinned down. It would take someone much better qualified than me to actually do this one justice in a review. But, just take my word for it -- this book is a treat -- plain and simple.
Somehow she delivers in The Penelopiad not only a fascinating insight into Penelope's version of the famous Homerian epic, but does so with cutting wit, almost vaudevillian asides, all the while disseminating little known archeological and historical background which is craftily woven into the fabric of the whole.
Absolutely recommend this book!
Update: I lent this book to my grandmother. She sat down at the table to read, and soon I heard a mordant chuckle. As she finished Chapter 1, she crowed across the room, "I like this book!" The rest of the afternoon, while I ran errands, my nephew spoke his first words and the family spread the news by telephone, Grandma sat there emitting long ripples of laughter, and turned the last page by suppertime. One sitting. That's a recommendation.
"Rumours came, carried by other ships. Odysseus and his men had got drunk at their first port of call and the men had mutinied, said some; no, said others, they'd eaten a magic plant that had caused them to lose their memories, and Odysseus had saved them by having them tied up and carried onto the ships. 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, and the fight was over non-payment of the bill. Some of the men had been eaten by cannibals, said some; no, it was just a brawl of the usual kind, said others, with ear-bitings and nosebleeds and stabbings and eviscerations. Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some; she'd turned his men into pigs - not a hard job in my view - but had turned them back into men because she'd fallen in love with him and was feeding him unheard-of delicacies prepared by her own immortal hands, and the two of them made love deliriously every night; no, said others, it was just an expensive whorehouse, and he was sponging off the Madam."