The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I write this from my couch with the laptop perched on my lap (that's weird) because I don't have a desk yet, and all the stuff from my former desks (that's right - two of 'em) is still in boxes, and what will be my office/desk needs to be painted before I can start unloading stuff into it.  Are you tired of hearing me complain yet?  I certainly am.  But progress keeps occurring, and the desk will come soon.

Despite all the chaos, I am still reading (about 4.2 minutes each night before falling into deep sleep), and I actually finished The Penelopiad before we moved.  No picture of my copy because I don't know where it is yet (somewhere in the to-be-bathroom/library, I suppose), but I do have some thoughts.

The Penelopiad is Odysseus' loyal wife's perspective on the time and events surrounding The Odyssey.   It is a great concept and one I look forward to teaching this fall.  Penelope's intelligence, her strategy, her domestic politics all come through nicely, and I like the idea of turning Odysseus' journey on its head, especially from a somewhat feminist leaning.

The book is divided into sections, mostly in Penelope's voice, with occasional sections granted to the 12 maids murdered by Odysseus and Telemachus for their complicity in the suitors' crimes.  The maids serve as a traditional Greek chorus and offer an additional perspective on both Odysseus and Penelope. Penelope speaks from Hades as a shade telling her stories to present-day listeners.  This chronological choice distracted me as Penelope would periodically say rather obtuse things like "I can say this now because I'm dead" which weakens her strength in life a bit.

The weakness of the book is that it feels hurried.  It feels like Atwood got the request for her participation in this cool idea but didn't devote as much time to it as she would a novel of her own design.  It feels like a side project.  So, there are really interesting introductions to themes and ideas, but Atwood doesn't really tease them out or complicate them as much I would like in a full-blown novel.  It does, however, seem to be a good conversation piece for class as it will raise questions that it demands students to answer for themselves.

Perhaps more important than the feminist/gender equity themes it addresses is the excellent idea of the importance of storytelling and how different versions of a story don't necessarily make them less true.  That twisting of tale is really what I'm going to be pursuing in the class by chasing down various versions of The Odyssey throughout the semester, so Penelope's acknowledgement of the wiliness of truth or the Maids' comments that "the truth, dear auditors, is seldom certain - / But let us take a peek behind the curtain" (148) will likely be quite useful.


  1. I have this on my shelves. Thought it looked interesting. I'm not sure if this post makes it more or less likely to reach the top of the TBR pile but the idea of reading it in parallel with another version of The Odyssey is quite attractive.

    1. Your response is totally appropriate, I think. Don't rush it to the top, but do keep it in mind for you next Odyssey encounter.

  2. I agree with you about the book's unfinished feeling. From what I remember, there were things in it that I found interesting, but they didn't go anywhere.

    1. I'm hoping class discussion will take it some of the places it wanted to go. We'll see!


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