Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: The Penelopiad

Ever since I heard about the Read-A-Myth Challenge, so kindly hosted by JoV and Bina, I have been looking forward to reading Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Written in 2005 as part of the Canongate Myth series, The Penelopiad is often described as a “feminist reinterpretation of Homer’s Odyssey.” And it definitely is that.

But now that I have read the book, I would argue it is actually far more than a simple reinterpretation of a myth. I believe what Atwood is actually doing with The Penelopiad is reintroducing feminism itself.

The reinterpretation of the myth is in some ways the easy part of the novella. As I mentioned in my previous post, Penelope is a surprisingly complex character, at turns very funny, snarky, desperate and hopeful: kind of like every woman you know. Her narrative explains her behavior throughout her long ordeal. She loves her husband, but is disappointed by him. She loves her son, but doesn’t trust his judgment. She loves her parents, but their relationship is not close. Once Penelope moves from archetype of patience to actual human being, she becomes more interesting and significant. And that underscores the importance of feminist literature. It reminds us that women have stories, women are funny, women watch movies: they are not bystanders to culture, they are participants in its creation. At one point, Penelope deals with patriarchal misconceptions about her directly:

The charges concern my sexual conduct. It is alleged, for instance, that I slept with Amphinomus, the politest of the Suitors. The songs say I found his conversation agreeable, or more agreeable than that of the others, and that is true; but it’s a long jump from there into bed. p. 143

She similarly dispenses with the idea that Odysseus himself did not trust her, explaining that he simply believed she would cry if he revealed himself, and they might lose the opportunity to surprise and overtake the Suitors.

The trickier part, as I see it, is the view of feminism Atwood leaves us with in The Penelopiad. One of the stranger parts of Odyssey is Odysseus and Telemachus’ slaughtering of Penelope’s maids once they regain control of his kingdom. Atwood anchors the book in this violent act against women by including the usually silent maids as a Greek chorus. They editorialize on events throughout the book, sometimes comically, sometimes angrily. The maids have been wronged by Odysseus, by Telemachus, by the Suitors, and even by Penelope herself, they believe. And to some extent, they function as the feminist consciousness of the book. But if that is what they are, it's important to note that they aren’t totally sympathetic. Thousands of years after the events of the Odyssey and Penelopiad, they seek vengeance on Odysseus. Even the dead Penelope finally asks, “Why can’t you leave him alone?” Penelope senses that continually addressing wrongs done cannot improve the present.

I believe Atwood is addressing some of the complaints about feminist scholarship in this novella. Is it anachronistic to hold men of the past to current standards of behavior? How can feminists give women a voice if they cannot work together – and trust each other? She doesn’t necessarily answer the questions, but she acknowledges that a new generation of women may not see the issues exactly the same as the previous one, and I think that’s very interesting!

I was unexpectedly without Internet access for the past couple of days, so I’m anxious to catch up and see what others thought of this book. Was it enjoyable? Difficult? Here’s what Bellezza, WeBeReading and Nonsuch Book had to say. If you've reviewed this book, please add your links in the comments, and I’ll include them in this post.

In addition to the Read-A-Myth Challenge, I also realized this book counts for the Once Upon A Time Challenge as well. So while I didn’t do so well on that one, I did get one book in at the finish! I’ll plan better for that one next year! Thanks to Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting!


  1. Great review! I have to check this book out. Thank you for posting! :D

  2. I have a feeling I'm not smart enough for this book.

  3. @ Giada -- Thanks. I would definitely recommend it, although I couldn't argue it was the best Atwood title ever.

    @ Kathy -- That is not possible! Maybe I just overthought it?

  4. "Is it anachronistic to hold men of the past to current standards of behavior?"

    No, and that is perhaps the greatest strength of this book to me. I just wish she had taken it several steps further, and unleashed even more Penelope than she did. While this one did not work for me in the way I wished, it was a quick and entertaining read. Just one with missed opportunities I thought.

    Many thanks for hosting!

  5. What a great review! I really enjoyed The Penelopiad. Like you, I was fascinated by the maids, especially as I also found them not entirely sympathetic. Those girls sure can carry a grudge! :)

  6. Thanks for the review! I've been wanting to read The Penelopiad because it's a retelling, but having a feminist message to it makes it even better!

  7. After reading your review, I feel like I really need to read it!

  8. Here is a comment from my read-along partner, Bellezza -- apparently Blogger is misbehaving again!

    Col, you have written such an insightful and indepth review. I feel rather silly in my synopsis by comparison.
    These sentences of yours resonated with me especially well: "Once Penelope moves from archetype of patience to actual human being, she becomes more interesting and significant. And that underscores the importance of feminist literature. It reminds us that women have stories, women are funny, women watch movies: they are not bystanders to culture, they are participants in its creation."

    Briefly, I loved how Atwood gave Penelope a 20th century voice, because fundamentally? Women all understand what it is to be either someone's girlfriend, wife, or mother. Not an easy role, apparently, from ancient Greek times to now.

    Thanks so much for reading with me, hosting this very fun read-along, and being a great friend. I always prefer the kind without hidden agendas such as Helen had! :)

  9. @ Frances -- I have to agree that there were missed opportunities in this book. I don't think of Atwood as the kind of woman to be intimidated by taking on Homer, but maybe it was difficult to get too far from the original? Thanks for your review, and for reading along!

    @Trisha -- the Maids were strange, weren't they. I think watching Hercules with my daughters so many times may have ruined them for me -- I kept seeing those adorable muses. My fault, not Atwood's, I realize.

    @SusieBookworm -- I think all fans of feminist literature would find something to enjoy in this novella.

  10. @Chris -- I really did enjoy it. And at under 200 pages (some of them dialog or poetry), it's not the kind of literary investment you're going to regret, even if it's not a fave :)

  11. @Bellezza -- First, I loved your review, as always. You focused on a part of the text I didn't, which is always great to read. Second, it's funny that you picked the lines you did -- in particular, the "movie" comment now strikes me as random, but I recently read an article about how "unimportant" female directors are, because they only make movies that women want to watch. That made me NUTS! As if women can't participate in culture. GRRR!

    Anyway, thank you so much for reading along with me. It is always such a pleasure to hear your thoughts on books -- and life!

  12. The questions your raise in your penultimate paragraph are what I expected from an Atwood interpretation of the maids and suitors section of The Odyssey. I found they were barely addressed. Atwood, at some point, chose to write a slight comedy rather than a more significant feminist interpretation of these events.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts, possibly more than the book. Thanks.

  13. I love that this one small novella inspired such varied thoughts between the different readers! I definitely thought this would just be a re-telling of the myth and it was anything but that. In fact, I felt the story was secondary. This definitely provided food for thought and has made me want to go back and do yet another re-read of The Odyssey!

  14. Your review is very enlightening as I have very little background in feminist literature or mythology. I enjoyed this selection, but like others was expecting more.

  15. I read this book LONG ago and now you make me want to read it again! I think I missed most of the points you mentioned above, and just enjoyed the "voice" of the story. But I'd prefer to get deeper in, I think.

  16. This is one Atwood book that I haven't read. She is a bit unusual, but I like her a lot. Great review.

  17. I believe that this book was about more than just feminism. I think it was about justice too. Having said that, the justice bit links closely with the feminism. Women were not treated well, and thus they did not have justice. The maids went as far as to call upon the gods for the justice that they believe they deserved. The conflicting perspctives comes under this too. Atwood constantly attacks Homer's account of the story, and uses Penelope to deconstruct the Odyssey. Having said that, the maids in turn deconstruct Penelope's view. The whole book is about giving Penelope a voice, and also the maids.


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col