The Penelopiad


In 2005, the famous Margaret Atwood published The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus. Whether or not you have actually read the Odyssey (or generally know the story), it is interesting. It is the story from Penelope‘s point of view. But don’t expect to find the mysterious, heroic, wily Penelope of the Odyssey. Nope, here she is presented in her own words and she spends much less energy on her responsibilities as the Queen of Ithaca and the mother of the future king and her husband than she does on her day-to-day life while the Suitors were there and her rivalry with Helen. There’s also a lot more attention given to the maids.

Now the maids, you may recall from the Odyssey, are hanged at the end of the story because they were disloyal to the ruling family by 1) sleeping with the Suitors and 2) telling them stuff. The sex part is – I suspect – woefully misunderstood by the majority of people who read it. The Penelopiad definitely fills in one angle of that story that you won’t get elsewhere. It illustrates world of women, the world of powerless people. Check out Slave-Girl’s Goddesses for some background from my perspective.

The thing is, it’s not the best book. Despite Atwood’s insinuations that what we are hearing from Penelope’s own mouth should not be trusted, to me, the book is pedantic and reads more like a really good writing exercise than anything else (she includes random interludes by a Chorus of maids). It is not Atwood’s best. And frankly, if you are really interested in Penelope, you can get a much deeper, much more interesting, and much more emotionally relevant portrayal by going back and re-reading chunks of the Odyssey (plus some of the scholarship about her if you’re really committed). If, however, the Odyssey seems like too big a task and you want to color in the parts of your mental image of ancient Greece involving women and slaves, it’s worth a look. It’s a quick read, anyway.


4 responses to “The Penelopiad”

  1. Dear Ailia,

    I did not know this book: if you think it isn’t the best one, I will believe you. However, writing an Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view is not an easy task. The Homeric poems display a typically Indo-European society, i.e. a herder, warrior, and patriarchal society which main occupation was fighting either for cattle or for young and beautiful women: for Mycenaean and Early Greeks, stealing cattle or abducting women was almost the same thing.

    As you remember in your post, the main female characters of Homeric poetry are Penelope and Helen: both of them are a product of a male, patriarchal, and misogynous mind, used to divide women into two classes, the “holy wife”, good only as a child-bearer, and the “bitch”, good for having a bit of fun. Penelope and Helen represent the prototype of both classes. That’s why I think that trying to underline Penelope or Helen’s point of view is a waste of time: perhaps, it might be better focusing on a feminist free woman as Clytemnestra, as it was done with Medea.

    Sorry for the length of my comment, but interesting blogs as yours inspire several words…

  2. 101DoFollowBlogs Avatar

    I’ve heard some good things about this blog. Remember to balance the pics with the text tho. cheers!

  3. Hey there Murcielago –
    Long comments are the best! Please don’t let my review stop you from picking up the book. Given your comment, I think you very well might like it! (Just because it deals with the question of “prototypes” in a neato subversive way.)
    That said, I disagree that Penelope is a cardboard character, a “holy wife.” I can’t quite respond succinctly, though, so I may write a post about why. And Helen, the bitch, while not a complexly represented in the Odyssey, is a FASCINATING and complex figure in other myths. There has been a lot of scholarship exploring the feminist potential in her.

    Plus: you posted a link to your blog! Excellent! Now I can go peek at it.

  4. Dear Ailia,

    I have just replaced my previous nickname “Murcielago”, difficult to learn and to understand for English speakers, with “Moon Bat”, its English translation.

    If you like my blog “The Waxing Goddess” we can share the links: it would be a honour for me, since I regard your blog, together with your site, as the best I have seen about Goddesses and the female role in Greek mythology.

    P.S. My MA was about the origins of Helen as a pre-Hellenic “paleothea” of vegetation…

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