The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

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The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

by Margaret Atwood

Knopf Canada | August 15, 2006 | Trade Paperback

3.4 out of 5 rating. 5 Reviews
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.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 216 Pages, 5.12 × 7.09 × 0.39 in

Published: August 15, 2006

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0676974252

ISBN - 13: 9780676974256

Found in: Fiction and Literature

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– More About This Product –

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

by Margaret Atwood

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 216 Pages, 5.12 × 7.09 × 0.39 in

Published: August 15, 2006

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0676974252

ISBN - 13: 9780676974256

Read from the Book

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
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From the Publisher

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.

About the Author

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 Priz
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Editorial Reviews

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-wo
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Bookclub 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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