The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

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"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
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The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

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Overview

"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." - From Margaret Atwood's foreword to The Penelopiad
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Margaret Atwood decided that it was time that Penelope spoke for herself. In The Odyssey, the daughter of King Icarus is, of course, the quintessential faithful wife. To Booker Prize winner Atwood, Homer's version doesn't hold water: "There are too many inconsistencies." She was especially disturbed and haunted by the tale about Penelope's 12 hanged maids. In Penelopiad, Atwood recovers the hidden history of literature's most famous lady-in-waiting.
Caroline Alexander
Here, amid the moon cults and palace of women and the returned king, "spattered over with gore and battle filth," as Homer tells us, is fabulous Atwood territory. Unfortunately, she does not grasp this thorny nettle, but chooses instead to blow feather-light dandelions…Each Odyssean landmark is inverted with a broad wink.
—The New York Times
KLIATT - Francine Levitov
From the review of the audiobook in KLIATT, March 2006: Ever since first reading The Odyssey, Atwood has been haunted by the fate of Penelope's 12 handmaidens, brutally hanged without explanation as part of the carnage that accompanied Odysseus's return to Ithaca after his 20-year absence. Having immersed herself in research, Atwood creates another version of Homer's story, this time told as a 21st-century retrospective by the ghost of Penelope, and she offers her readers a solution to the mystery behind their deaths. By imposing a modern-day spin on an ancient story and the classical Greek chorus, here made up of the dead maids, Atwood can indulge her feminist viewpoint and her wry sense of humor, along with the lyricism that has earned her so many avid readers, while remaining true to the oral tradition that gave birth to the epic.
Library Journal
Conceived by Canongate publisher Jamie Byng and launched this year by 30 publishers worldwide, this series will offer the retelling of favorite myths by leading authors from A.S. Byatt to Donna Tartt. Armstrong weighs in with a concise (and, one suspects, insightful) history. Byng expects the final volume to appear in 2038. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
National Bestseller

The Penelopiad is a brilliant tour de force that takes an aspect of The Odyssey and opens up new vistas. . . . Atwood takes Penelope’s braininess and puts her at the centre. . . . Odysseus’s 20-year absence leaves lots of room for development; this is just the kind of thing that a retelling of a myth should do. . . . [Atwood] turns a gruesome, barbaric episode into an ironic tragedy of double agents.”
National Post

“Two things are apparent when you begin reading The Penelopiad. First, this is a writer who is confidently at the height of her powers. And, second, she’s having fun.”
The Vancouver Sun

“Atwood’s putting Penelope in the starring role is a fine and fresh revisioning. . . . Somehow (it is a measure of her genius that one cannot quite say how), she makes us hear the voice of Penelope, reflecting in Hades on her life, as if it were the voice of the most interesting gossip you have ever had coffee with. . . . This is a wonderful book.”
The Globe and Mail

“Feels like a breath of fresh air blown in from the Mediterranean Sea. . . . The Penelopiad is Atwood in top form. The woman who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t lost her acerbic touch.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“What . . . emerge[s] is a startling commentary on the responsibility of power, and of how privilege can shade into complicity. The Penelopiad is anything but a woe-is-woman discourse. . . . adds Atwood’s sly, compassionate voice to the myth of Odysseus and Penelope and, in doing so, increases its already great depth.”
Calgary Herald

“In this exquisitely poised book, Atwood blends intimate humour with a finely tempered outrage at the terrible injustice of the maids, phrasing both in language as potent as a curse.”
Sunday Times (UK)

“Penelope flies with the help of the sardonic, dead-pan voice Atwood lends her, a tone — half Dorothy Parker, half Desperate housewives.”
The Independent (UK)

“‘Spry’ is a word that could almost have been invented to describe Margaret Atwood, who beadily and wittily retells the events surrounding The Odyssey through the voice of Penelope. Pragmatic, clever, domestic, mournful, Penelope is a perfect Atwood heroine.”
The Spectator (UK)

“Alter[s] one’s point of view toward [the story], imbuing it with a modern sensibility yet revealing some eternal truths about men, women, and the issue of power, including the power to shape a narrative. . . . Atwood shows with intelligence and wit just how complicated and unpretty love can be.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

“Along with her presentation of the hallucinatory maids and Penelope’s straight talk about her husband, her girly laments about the ferocious competition of Helen and her queenly worries about fending off the suitors, Atwood’s brilliance emerges in the skillful way she has woven her own research on the anthropological underpinnings of Homer’s epic into the patterns of her own stylized version of the poem. . . . A fascinating and rather attractive version of this old, old story, a creation tale about the founding of our civilization meant to be heard over and over and over.”
Chicago Tribune

“Atwood paints a shrewdly insightful picture of what life in those days might actually have been like. . . . By turns slyly funny and fiercely indignant, Ms. Atwood’s imaginative, ingeniously-constructed ‘deconstruction’ of the old tale reveals it in a new–and refreshingly different–light.”
The Washington Times

“Atwood’s 17th work of fiction is a gem…flaunts an acid wit and a generous dose of lyricism…In Atwood’s imagination, Penelope and her handmaids are remarkably complex: They are simultaneously ancient and modern, lighthearted and grief-stricken, disenfranchised and powerful.”
Baltimore Sun

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781841957173
  • Publisher: Canongate Books
  • Publication date: 11/9/2005
  • Series: Myths Series
  • Pages: 199
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.86 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret  Atwood

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939, and grew up in northern Quebec and Ontario, and later in Toronto. She has lived in numerous cities in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

She is the author of more than forty books — novels, short stories, poetry, literary criticism, social history, and books for children. Atwood’s work is acclaimed internationally and has been published around the world. Her novels include The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye — both shortlisted for the Booker Prize; The Robber Bride, winner of the Trillium Book Award and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award; Alias Grace, winner of the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Blind Assassin, winner of the Booker Prize and a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and Oryx and Crake, a finalist for The Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, the Orange Prize, and the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent books of fiction are The Penelopiad, The Tent, and Moral Disorder. She is the recipient of numerous honours, such as The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in the U.K., the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature in the U.S., Le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and she was the first winner of the London Literary Prize. She has received honorary degrees from universities across Canada, and one from Oxford University in England.

Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson.

Biography

When Margaret Atwood announced to her friends that she wanted to be a writer, she was only 16 years old. It was Canada. It was the 1950s. No one knew what to think. Nonetheless, Atwood began her writing career as a poet. Published In 1964 while she was still a student at Harvard, her second poetry anthology, The Circle Game, was awarded the Governor General's Award, one of Canada's most esteemed literary prizes. Since then, Atwood has gone on to publish many more volumes of poetry (as well as literary criticism, essays, and short stories), but it is her novels for which she is best known.

Atwood's first foray into fiction was 1966's The Edible Woman, an arresting story about a woman who stops eating because she feels her life is consuming her. Grabbing the attention of critics, who applauded its startlingly original premise, the novel explored feminist themes Atwood has revisited time and time again during her long, prolific literary career. She is famous for strong, compelling female protagonists -- from the breast cancer survivor in Bodily Harm to the rueful artist in Cat's Eye to the fatefully intertwined sisters in her Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Asassin.

Perhaps Atwood's most legendary character is Offred, the tragic "breeder" in what is arguably her most famous book, 1985's The Handmaid's Tale. Part fable, part science fiction, and part dystopian nightmare, this novel presented a harrowing vision of women's lives in an oppressive futuristic society. The Washington Post compared it (favorably) to George Orwell's iconic 1984.

As if her status as a multi-award-winning, triple-threat writer (fiction, poetry, and essays) were not enough, Atwood has also produced several children's books, including Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995) and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003) -- delicious alliterative delights that introduce a wealth of new vocabulary to young readers.

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    1. Hometown:
      Toronto, Ontario
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 18, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Ottawa, Ontario
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Penelopiad


By Margaret Atwood

Random House

Margaret Atwood
All right reserved.

ISBN: 067697418X


Chapter One

A Low Art

Now that I'm dead I know everything. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn't know before. It's much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.
Since being dead -- since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness -- I've learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people's letters. You think you'd like to read minds? Think again.

Down here everyone arrives with a sack, like the sacks used to keep the winds in, but each of these sacks is full of words -- words you've spoken, words you've heard, words that have been said about you. Some sacks are very small, others large; my own is of a reasonable size, though a lot of the words in it concern my eminent husband. What a fool he made of me, some say. It was a specialty of his: making fools. He got away with everything, which was another of his specialties: getting away.

He was always so plausible. Many people have believed that his version of events was the true one, give or take a few murders, a few beautiful seduct­resses, a few one-eyed monsters. Even I believed him, from time to time. I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn't think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me. Hadn't I been faithful? Hadn't I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation -- almost the compulsion -- to do otherwise? And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn't they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don't follow my example, I want to scream in your ears -- yes, yours! But when I try to scream, I sound like an owl.

Of course I had inklings, about his slipperiness, his wiliness, his foxiness, his -- how can I put this? -- his unscrupulousness, but I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut; or, if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn't contradict, I didn't ask awkward questions, I didn't dig deep. I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.

But after the main events were over and things had become less legendary, I realized how many people were laughing at me behind my back -- how they were jeering, making jokes about me, jokes both clean and dirty; how they were turning me into a story, or into several stories, though not the kind of stories I'd prefer to hear about myself. What can a woman do when scandalous gossip travels the world? If she defends herself she sounds guilty. So I waited some more.

Now that all the others have run out of air, it's my turn to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself. I've had to work myself up to it: it's a low art, tale-telling. Old women go in for it, strolling beggars, blind singers, maidservants, children -- folks with time on their hands. Once, people would have laughed if I'd tried to play the minstrel -- there's nothing more preposterous than an aristocrat fumbling around with the arts -- but who cares about public opinion now? The opinion of the people down here: the opinion of shadows, of echoes. So I'll spin a thread of my own.

The difficulty is that I have no mouth through which I can speak. I can't make myself understood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongues 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.

But I've always been of a determined nature. Patient, they used to call me. I like to see a thing through to the end.

ii
The Chorus Line:
A Rope-Jumping Rhyme
we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed

we danced in air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair

with every goddess, queen, and bitch
from there to here
you scratched your itch

we did much less
than what you did
you judged us bad

you had the spear
you had the word
at your command

we scrubbed the blood
of our dead
paramours from floors, from chairs

from stairs, from doors,
we knelt in water
while you stared

at our bare feet
it was not fair
you licked our fear

it gave you pleasure
you raised your hand
you watched us fall

we danced on air
the ones you failed
the ones you killed

iii
My Childhood

Where shall I begin? There are only two choices: at the beginning or not at the beginning. The real beginning would be the beginning of the world, after which one thing has led to another; but since there are differences of opinion about that, I'll begin with my own birth.

My father was King Icarius of Sparta. My mother was a Naiad. Daughters of Naiads were a dime a dozen in those days; the place was crawling with them. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be of semi-divine birth. Or it never hurts immediately.

When I was quite young my father ordered me to be thrown into the sea. I never knew exactly why, during my lifetime, but now I suspect he'd been told by an oracle that I would weave his shroud. Possibly he thought that if he killed me first, his shroud would never be woven and he would live forever. I can see how the reasoning might have gone. In that case, his wish to drown me came from an understandable desire to protect himself. But he must have misheard, or else the oracle herself misheard -- the gods often mumble -- because it was not his shroud that was at issue, but my father-in-law's shroud. If that was the prophecy it was a true one, and indeed the weaving of this particular shroud proved a great convenience to me later on in my life.

The teaching of crafts to girls has fallen out of fashion now, I understand, but luckily it had not in my day. It's always an advantage to have something to do with your hands. That way, if someone makes an inappropriate remark, you can pretend you haven't heard it. Then you don't have to answer.

But perhaps this shroud-weaving oracle idea of mine is baseless. Perhaps I have only invented it in order to make myself feel better. So much whispering goes on, in the dark caverns, in the meadows, that sometimes it's hard to know whether the whispering is coming from others or from the inside of your own head. I use head figuratively. We have dispensed with heads as such, down here.


Excerpted from The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What is your overall opinion of The Penelopiad? Would you recommend it to a friend? Why, or why not?

2. Consider the personalities of the women in The Penelopiad, especially Penelope, Helen, and Penelope’s mother. How are they different? What do they tell us about women’s roles, within the poem and without?

3. Is Penelope a reliable narrator? Do you believe her version of events?

4. What do the various poetic and musical forms Margaret Atwood uses to tell the maids’ story bring to the telling? Why do you think she chose to write The Penelopiad in this way?

5. “Down here everyone arrives with a sack, like that sacks used to keep the winds in, but each of these sacks is full of words — words you’ve spoken, words you’ve heard, words that have been said about you.”

Discuss gossip and rumour / truth and lies in The Penelopiad.

6. If you have read other retellings of The Odyssey, compare The Penelopiad. You could look at Ulysses (by James Joyce) or O Brother Where Art Thou (directed by the Coen brothers), and discuss how each adapts and alters the original. Or, if you have read any, compare The Penelopiad’s approach to that taken by other writers in the Myths series.

7. “The heart is both key and lock.” How would you describe the marriage of Odysseus and Penelope?

8. How does The Penelopiad fit with other works by Margaret Atwood? Does she pursue similar themes here as elsewhere? If so, does she do so in the same way or differently?

9. How is Odysseus presented in The Penelopiad, as opposed to in The Odyssey? Why?

10. The Penelopiad is being turned into a piece for the stage. How would you cast it?

11. What are your criticisms of The Penelopiad?

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2006

    penelope speaks from hades

    most of us know about odysseus from reading the homeric epics or from whatever literature or mythology classes may have skimmed over in highschool or college. most of us don't really know much, if anything, about his wife penelope and the twenty year-long waiting she did for him to return from his journeys. in attwood's book, that two decade gap is filled by penelope's own telling. also, filled is a personal history that attwood embroiders from a compilation of sources, she claims, not all of homeric origin. overall, the book is fine. it does what it seeks to do: tell penelope's tales of woe borne from the isolation that ran like a current throughout her entire life. rather, in it, penelope 'speaks' to us. it's a first person narration, which wouldn't be so bad if it were just that: a retelling of events with some sidebar analysis and interweaving of personal feelings and such. however, mostly, it feels as if the story is second to penelope's own self-analysis. it's written in terms of present-day restrospection of what's thousands of years-past life lived. it's doubtful that it would take this long for penelope to begin thinking about her entire life--though, to be fair, she is most often cited for her patience in waiting for odysseus' return. still, the constant back-and-forthing of the narrative--from recollection to newly-realized connections, to descriptions of her afterlife, to broad skimming of lore--is all a bit slow-moving and, at times, uninteresting. perhaps it's that i antipicated a more exciting telling of the tale or, at least, a more thorough investigation of the story, the legends, the myths, than attwood's feminist perspective on homer's epic. it turns what's good 'fun' about legends into fodder for a women's studies course--which would've been fine, had i thought that's what i was getting into. i recommend the book for those of you who are looking for some social commentary or 'real'-ism of the penelope and hanging maids story. it's not bad by any means. i just wouldn't get it without flipping through the first couple of pages and considering if that's the style of story you were looking for.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2005

    A Twist

    Penelopiad offers a twist to the classic Homer epic, the Odyssey. Penelope is the focus and the murder of her handmaides is the mystery that lingers through the pages and tortures our main character. Fans of Homer's Illiad and Odyssey will welcome this new twist on a very old story, as most fans have probably, like the author, wondered why those handmaids were hanged in the first place. The Penelopiad goes deeper into a character that before was only a part of Odysseus, and shows us what she is doing and what she is thinking all that time she is waiting for her husband. Very interesting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2008

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    Posted November 1, 2009

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