The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad

eBook - 2005
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Random House, Inc.
The internationally acclaimed Myths series brings together some of the finest writers of our time to provide a contemporary take on some of our most enduring stories. Here, the timeless and universal tales that reflect and shape our lives–mirroring our fears and desires, helping us make sense of the world–are revisited, updated, and made new.

Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad is a sharp, brilliant and tender revision of a story at the heart of our culture: the myths about Penelope and Odysseus. In Homer’s familiar version, The Odyssey, Penelope is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes to fight in the Trojan Wars, she manages to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son and, in the face of scandalous rumours, keep over a hundred suitors at bay. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills Penelope’s suitors and–curiously–twelve of her maids.

In Homer the hanging of the maids merits only a fleeting though poignant mention, but Atwood comments in her introduction that she has always been haunted by those deaths. The Penelopiad, she adds, begins with two questions: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? In the book, these subjects are explored by Penelope herself–telling the story from Hades — the Greek afterworld - in wry, sometimes acid tones. But Penelope’s maids also figure as a singing and dancing chorus (and chorus line), commenting on the action in poems, songs, an anthropology lecture and even a videotaped trial.

The Penelopiad does several dazzling things at once. First, it delves into a moment of casual brutality and reveals all that the act contains: a practice of sexual violence and gender prejudice our society has not outgrown. But it is also a daring interrogation of Homer’s poem, and its counter-narratives — which draw on mythic material not used by Homer - cleverly unbalance the original. This is the case throughout, from the unsettling questions that drive Penelope’s tale forward, to more comic doubts about some of The Odyssey’s most famous episodes. (“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.”)

In fact, The Penelopiad weaves and unweaves the texture of The Odyssey in several searching ways. The Odyssey was originally a set of songs, for example; the new version’s ballads and idylls complement and clash with the original. Thinking more about theme, the maids’ voices add a new and unsettling complex of emotions that is missing from Homer. The Penelopiad takes what was marginal and brings it to the centre, where one can see its full complexity.

The same goes for its heroine. Penelope is an important figure in our literary culture, but we have seldom heard her speak for herself. Her sometimes scathing comments in The Penelopiad (about her cousin, Helen of Troy, for example) make us think of Penelope differently – and the way she talks about the twenty-first century, which she observes from Hades, makes us see ourselves anew too.

Margaret Atwood is an astonishing storyteller, and The Penelopiad is, most of all, a haunting and deeply entertaining story. This book plumbs murder and memory, guilt and deceit, in a wise and passionate manner. At time hilarious and at times deeply thought-provoking, it is very much a Myth for our times.


From the Hardcover edition.

Publisher: Toronto : Knopf, 2005
ISBN: 9780307367303
Characteristics: 1 online resource.
Additional Contributors: 3M Cloud Library

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CMLibrary_sfetzer May 17, 2016

The Penelopiad is fascinating, strange, beautiful, and just the tiniest bit heartbreaking in all the right ways. It is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus’ stoic and long-suffering wife Penelope. As Homer’s Penelope is essentially summed by the phrase “good wife,” Atwood has room to truly explore and create. Atwood crafts the story in a mixture of passages that have Penelope narrating from the grave, alternating between poetry and prose. Penelope focuses not only on her absent husband, but also on all the duties of a wife who must keep her husband’s estate from falling apart. The result is a brilliant, if fictionalized, look into the mind of one of history’s forgotten women.

forbesrachel Apr 01, 2013

A unique look at an ancient classic; Penelope is now made a central figure, and is given new depth of character. Clearly the Odyssey, and ancient Greece were well researched before this book was made.

bwortman Mar 28, 2013

A quick but brilliant read. Atwood creates a rich voice for Penelope as she recounts her life in a way that reframes her existence outside of that of her husband. Interspersed with Penelope's narrative are interjections from a chorus made up of the twelve maids who Odysseus had killed for colluding with the suitors. These often more poetic turns provide a different perspective again on the tale Penelope weaves. An intriguing exploration of a woman who in the original source text only matters in relation to her husband, Atwood creates a complex woman who remains an enigma even in her own tale.

crankylibrarian May 21, 2012

In the Underworld, Penelope reflects on her life with and without Odysseus, on the suitors (whose ghosts still annoy her) and on the serving maids she loved who met a terrible and unjust fate.

l
lisahiggs
Nov 22, 2011

Now this is how you retell a classic story. This is the Margaret Atwood I love: spiriting through fields of asphodel in Hades instead of stumbling through the mosquito-infested backwoods of Canada. Atwood has a hell of an imagination, and in The Penelopiad a divine story has birthed itself out of her forehead.

In true Atwood fashion, The Penelopiad is not without fairly annoying interludes of poems, songs, ballads and other jarring forays from the prose … but what sublime, hilarious prose it is, and it makes the voyage worth it.

w
wallyb
Nov 21, 2011

If reading the Odyssey is your kind of thing, you will probably enjoy a book like this, which riffs on the original story by telling Penelope's part in her voice - she now resides in Hades, and looks back at the main story and what she knew of Odysseus' travels while she held the royal estates as best as she could. Atwood started this when she wondered why Odysseus hanged the 12 maids of Penelope on his return; it's not explained at all in the original, and Atwood decided that exploring that question would open up the story of Penelope in its own way.
So: interesting story, nice variations and explanations of the original material, and something more for people who enjoyed Zachary Mason's book The Lost Books of the Odyssey

v
vanravenstein
Jun 23, 2010

Read Homer's Odyssey first to get the full appreciation of it.
Some humorous parts. Better than I expected.

k
kalio
Dec 18, 2009

Greek mythology. We?ve all been there and done that, from memorizing the Greek Pantheon to studying The Iliad and The Odyssey. And so surely we can?t help but have noticed the raw deal that those ancient Greek women get?daughters sacrificed so their fathers can get a favorable wind to sail off to war, mothers? warnings dismissed when their young sons head out to die as heroes, wives left home alone while their husbands go adventuring for fame and the fortune of the gods. Odysseus (hero of the infamous Odyssey) has one of the most famous wives in Greek history: Penelope, who is abandoned for twenty years while Odysseus fights (and wins) the Trojan War and then gets lost at sea to tangle with the one-eyed giant Cyclops and sexy sea-nymphs like Circe and the Sirens. Penelope is left with a small son and a household to manage; as the years passed and Odysseus failed to return, the son becomes increasingly rebellious and the household is overrun by men looking to marry her and inherit Odysseus? substantial fortune. She manages to hold the suitors off and wait for her long-lost husband, but even he tests her thoroughly to determine her faithfulness once he finally returns. Today Penelope is renowned for her extreme patience--which, to be frank, is pretty boring. All that changes with author Margaret Atwood?s The Penelopiad, which sticks to the same old story but gives us Penelope?s unique perspective. We?re not too surprised to find that Penelope is intelligent and compassionate, but she also turns out to be equally the match of her notoriously wily husband. In the spirit of ancient Greek theatre, Atwood lets Penelope?s twelve maids, who Odysseus ruthlessly kills when he returns, act as the chorus to Penelope?s story; the result is a poignant, insightful twist on one of the oldest classics of all time, and it serves to answer an important question: Just what was Penelope up to all that time?

book_devourer Sep 25, 2009

A funny and touching story. Atwood spins a new cloth out of old fabric. Even mythology gurus will enjoy Penelope as she bares all!

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