The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

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by Margaret Atwood
     
 

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In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan war after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of

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Overview

In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan war after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumours, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids.

In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged Maids, asking: "What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?" In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the storytelling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.

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Editorial Reviews

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 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

“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.” 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.” The Sunday Times

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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780676974256
Publisher:
Knopf Canada
Publication date:
08/01/2006
Series:
Myths Series
Edition description:
Canadian Edition
Pages:
216
Product dimensions:
5.14(w) x 7.20(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

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.

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What People are saying about this

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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Meet the Author

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than forty volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction, but is best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1969), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. A book of short stories called Stone Mattress: Nine Tales was published in 2014. Her novel, MaddAddam (2013), is the final volume in a three-book series that began with the Man-Booker prize-nominated Oryx and Crake (2003) and continued with The Year of the Flood (2009). The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short fiction) both appeared in 2006. A volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a collection of non-fiction essays appeared in 2011. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth was adapted for the screen in 2012. Ms. Atwood’s work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian.
Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.
www.margaretatwood.ca

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Brief Biography

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

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Penelopiad 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
caemin More than 1 year ago
Margaret Atwood reinvigorates Homer's classic by telling the other side of the story, albeit in a feminist perspective. Well done!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found the book to be a good read, Atwood did a good job in my opinion of describing what life could have been like in ancient Greece. The book was an easy read, and had some interesting points on what historical events might have looked like to someone from ancient Greece. Atwood also had some interesting ideas on what Odysseus and Penelope where like, and what really happened those thousands of years ago. Some things i did not like about the book was how Penelope cried about everything happening, and like a person i knew who also read the book said 'She must have drank water all day just to be able to cry like she does!' Over all though, i did enjoy the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my summer reading book I hope it's good!!!
RebeccaScaglione More than 1 year ago
The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s take on the story of Odysseus and his wife Penelope, but from the perspective of Penelope.  It was a fabulous recreation of the Odyssey, with a slightly modern twist.  I like how Penelope explains how Odysseus’s famous exploits could have been explained by myths, or could have been normal but exaggerated experiences.   It kind of reminded me of The Liars’ Gospel in that way, making you think about whether or not the Greek mythology (or Jesus’s legend, if we’re talking about The Liars’ Gospel) is truth or situations that were created.  I highly recommend if you enjoyed The Liars’ Gospel and/or The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller! Thanks for reading, Rebecca @ Love at First Book
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Rachel Weissler More than 1 year ago
A delightful tongue-in-cheek retelling of classic mythology.
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