Riku Sayuj's Reviews > The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
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Mar 21, 12

bookshelves: r-r-rs, myth-religion
Read from March 20 to 21, 2012

The Penelopiad or The Ballad of the Dead Maids

This has been my introduction to Atwood and I have to admit that I feel slightly underwhelmed. I went in with high expectations, wondering how Atwood will take the 'waiting widow' of The Odyssey and transform it into a full length novel. Turns out that she mostly indulges in recapitulating the bulk of the original with a few wild theories and speculations thrown in as supposed rumors that Penelope has gleaned in the after-life.

Which brings me to how the story is constructed and this happens to be the high water mark for this novel. Atwood starts with Penelope addressing us from the other side of River Styx, reaching us through the mysterious sounds of the night and the barks and hoots of unseen animals. Penelope has grown bold since her death and is no longer the meek woman we saw in the original but a bold one who doesn't mind speaking her mind and spilling a few uncomfortable beans.

Penelope subjects all the popular characters of the odyssey to scrutiny but reserves a special attention for Odysseus, Telemachus and Helen. She convinces us with case-by-case analysis that Odysseus was no hero - he was a lying and conniving manipulator of men who never uttered one truthful word in his life. She talks of rumors that told her of what his real adventures were, stripped of the trappings of myth. Telemachus becomes a petulant teenager full of rebellion against his mother and Helen becomes the ultimate shrew, seductress and a femme fatale of sorts.

But the story that Atwood really wants to tell is not of Penelope, that story is hardly changed except to assert speculations on the original text whether Penelope really saw through Odysseus disguise or not. What if she did? It hardly changed the story.

The real twist, and the only reason to take up this book is to see Atwood's exploration and reinvention of the twelve maids who were killed by Odysseus in punishment for betraying him by sleeping with the suitors. These twelve girls are the Chorus in this book and appear every now and then playing a baroque accompaniment to the text and giving us new perspectives on their story. This carries on until Penelope herself reveals to us that they were never betraying Odysseus, she had asked them herself to get acquainted with the suitors to get obtain information for her. They had never betrayed Odysseus or his kingdom. So their murder was just that - murder. This was Atwood's plot twist and her intended question was about the morality of this 'honor killing' as she calls the hanging of the slaves, which, she confesses in the foreword, used to haunt her when she was young - 'Why were they killed?', she used to ask herself and tries to present their case in this modernized version (which even includes a 23rd century trial of Odysseus).

In the end though, the reader hardly gets anything beyond these idle speculations and supplemental myths and small factoids like how Helen was really Penelope's cousin and that they have to eat flowers in Hades. Even the main point of the book, about the dead maids, too ignores the fact that Odysseus genuinely seems to believe that they betrayed him by helping the suitors in various ways and hence it becomes as question of misinformation than morality and the blame will fall back on the shoulders of Penelope herself, rendering this whole exercise moot. Just go read the original again; the short hops of imagination that Atwood has taken in this retelling can easily be overtaken by the leaps you might make yourself in a re-reading that you might treat yourself to on a leisurely sunday afternoon - and those will surely be more impressive as well as intellectually more rewarding.
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Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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message 1: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· Please don't give up on Atwood. My brother loved Alias Grace, and has liked her since.


Riku Sayuj Karen wrote: "Please don't give up on Atwood. My brother loved Alias Grace, and has liked her since."

Oh, i will not give up without trying Poisonwood


Teresa I agree with Karen, Riku. There's much more to Atwood than this slim novel. In fact, many of the novels in this Canongate Myth series are slightly underwhelming.

With "Poisonwood," are you perhaps thinking of Barbara Kingsolver? I can't think of any Atwood with a similar title.

And thanks for the 'like' on my review of this book!


message 4: by Riku (last edited Mar 21, 2012 01:15PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Teresa wrote: "I agree with Karen, Riku. There's much more to Atwood than this slim novel. In fact, many of the novels in this Canongate Myth series are slightly underwhelming.

With "Poisonwood," are you perhaps..."


My bad! :) I had blind assassin in mind but somehow... oh well


message 5: by Teresa (last edited Mar 21, 2012 01:47PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Teresa Riku wrote: "My bad! :) I had blind assassin in mind but somehow... oh well "

"Poisonwood" ... Atwood .. I can see how that happened. :)

I read The Blind Assassin when it came out and I still remember some of it, which isn't always the case for me years later.


message 6: by Petra X (new)

Petra X The only Atwood I thought was really quite good was The Handmaid's Tale. Hardly original but better written than similar dystopian tales. Other than that I think Atwood is way over-rated.


Riku Sayuj Teresa wrote: ""Poisonwood" ... Atwood .. I can see how that happened. :)"

Oh! Ya maybe so :)


Riku Sayuj Petra X wrote: "The only Atwood I thought was really quite good was The Handmaid's Tale. Hardly original but better written than similar dystopian tales. Other than that I think Atwood is way over-rated."

how strong is the feministic bend?


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Petra X wrote: "The only Atwood I thought was really quite good was The Handmaid's Tale. Hardly original but better written than similar dystopian tales. Other than that I think Atwood is way over-rated."

HEAR! HEAR! The Lady speaketh sooth! This empress is nekkid as a picked bird in whistlin' time!


message 10: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Richard wrote: "Petra X wrote: "The only Atwood I thought was really quite good was The Handmaid's Tale. Hardly original but better written than similar dystopian tales. Other than that I think Atwood..."




Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways I expressed, in my native Texan vernacular, my agreement with and approval of Petra's assertion that Atwood is overrated.


Teresa To each his own, of course, but I have to respectfully disagree. :) While I haven't read all of her works, "The Handmaid's Tale" is one of my favorites, as is "The Edible Woman" (her first novel) -- it's hilarious. I also loved Moral Disorder: and Other Stories.


message 13: by Tanuj (new) - added it

Tanuj Solanki I picked up 'The Blind Assassin' and had to abandon it after 40 pages. And some say this was her best. Other way to look at it: there is always someone better than her whom you havn't yet read.


message 14: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj maybe the feminism is causing these polarized reactions? or is it just the style and content?


message 15: by Tanuj (new) - added it

Tanuj Solanki Personal view: Apart from Margaret, Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates (to some extent), there aren't really any female North American novelist that are world reknown (in the 'literary fiction' category, so to say). There are amazing short story writers, yes, but the female novelist seems to be a not very popular concept in the US and Canada. The next league seems to far more interesting: Nicole Krauss, Tea Obreht, Olga Grushin, et al.


message 16: by Riku (last edited Mar 22, 2012 03:53AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Naipaul agrees - VS Naipaul finds no woman writer his literary match


message 17: by Riku (last edited Mar 22, 2012 02:47AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Tanuj wrote: "Personal view: Apart from Margaret, Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates (to some extent), there aren't really any female North American novelist that are world reknown (in the 'literary fiction' ca..."

by the way, I would include Alice Walker and Maya Angelou to that list... maybe even Kingsolver and Proulx.

so the picture is not that bad.

i really have to read some Oates...


message 18: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Why did the Cyclops give up teaching? Because he only had one pupil.


message 19: by Richard (new)

Richard Riku wrote: "Why did the Cyclops give up teaching? Because he only had one pupil."

LOL! And when Odysseus destroyed the pupil, he had trouble keeping an eye on the class...


message 20: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Elizabeth wrote: "Riku wrote: "maybe the feminism is causing these polarized reactions? or is it just the style and content?"

I don't think it's the feminism in her writing but feminism in her readers. I've known p..."


I meant that. I felt as I read it that women might enjoy it more (relate with as well as imagine her points) and that might be true for most of her writing... so it is a failure of the male imagination maybe? I can't really make a comment on that until I read her more acclaimed works...


message 21: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Richard wrote: "Riku wrote: "Why did the Cyclops give up teaching? Because he only had one pupil."

LOL! And when Odysseus destroyed the pupil, he had trouble keeping an eye on the class..."


Lol^2 :) no wonder he went wailing to Poseidon.


message 22: by Jodi (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jodi You should check out Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, and The Blind Assassin. All amazing Atwood books.


message 23: by Ben (new) - added it

Ben I agree with the general consensus that you should give Atwood another chance. I've read a bunch of her books and The Penelopiad was far and away my least favorite. It's not up to her usual quality.


message 24: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Ben wrote: "I agree with the general consensus that you should give Atwood another chance. I've read a bunch of her books and The Penelopiad was far and away my least favorite. It's not up to her usual quality."

Done, sir.


message 25: by Jan (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jan Rice "Why did the Cyclops give up teaching? Because he only had one pupil."

Ha ha, never heard that one before!

Riku, I didn't like this one either and gave it just two stars. (It was before my online book days, so no review.) It is the aberration, maybe just an experiment she tried that didn't work. I agree with the very 1st comment, by Karen, and the consensus.


message 26: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Jan wrote: ""Why did the Cyclops give up teaching? Because he only had one pupil."

Ha ha, never heard that one before!

Riku, I didn't like this one either and gave it just two stars. (It was before my onlin..."


Thanks, Jan. Atwood does try experimenting quite a bit in her quest to blend her favorite genres with serious literature. I keep thinking of Chabon when I read Atwood. And, I don't intend to give up on her fiction.


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