The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Amazing to me, how Margaret Atwood can take the wife of Odysseus straight out of the Greek myths, and by giving her a personality, as well as a voice, remind me of the women in my very favorite book of hers, The Robber Bride. For to me, as much as anything, The Penelopiad is about the wiles of Helen of Troy against the faithfulness of her cousin, Penelope.

Because Helen ran off with Paris and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, come back, Odysseus fulfills his oath and goes after her. Twenty long years he is gone; ten years in pursuit of Helen and ten years in pursuit of his own pleasures. Meanwhile, Penelope fends off her Suitors, promising that she will choose one when the shroud she is weaving is completed. Every night, she unravels a bit more to stave off the fulfillment of her promise.

Odysseus returns, disguised as a beggar. Penelope recognizes him, but fails to give up his identity. The twelve maids are hung, though they were raped by the Suitors to whom they were given because Penelope refused to defile her marriage bed.

Surely in all these ways the story Atwood tells follows what the myth has told. But her interpretation, the tension she creates between Penelope and Helen, is what fascinates me. Anyone can tell a myth; it takes Margaret to explore the complexities of women who betray other women.

‘Oh, Penelope, you can’t still be jealous,” she says. “Surely we can be friends now! Why don’t you come along with me to the upper world, next time I go? We could do a trip to Las Vegas. Girls’ night out! But I forgot-that’s not your style. You’d rather play the faithful little wifey, what with the weaving and so on. Bad me, I could never do it, I’d die of boredom. But you were always such a homebody.”

Helen mocks, and teases, and belittles, never admitting the fact that she was the impetus for Odysseus leaving in the first place. She believes in her beauty, her ability to attract men, her flippant style, and she gives little care to how it affects those around her. How it has cost the twelve maidens their lives, and Penelope her marriage, but for her faithful allegiance.

No man will ever kill himself for love of me. And no man ever did. Not that I would have wanted to inspire those kinds of suicides. I was not a man-eater, I was not a Siren, I was not like cousin Helen who loved to make conquests just to show she could. As soon as the man was grovelling, and it never took long, she’d stroll away without a backwards glance, giving that careless laugh of hers, as if she’d just been watching the palace midget standing ridiculously on his head.

I was a kind girl-kinder than Helen, or so I thought. I knew I would have to have something to offer instead of beauty. I was clever, everyone said so-in fact they said it so much that I found it discouraging-but cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.

For those of you who’ve only read Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novels, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, or Oryx and Crake, I beg you to read The Robber Bride. It is similar in so many ways to The Penelopiad, in that one woman is able to wreak havoc on all those around her and apparently come out unscathed. Who, then, is left to suffer?

The faithful one. Like Penelope.

26 thoughts on “The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood”

  1. I feel a little guilty, Bellezza, that, though my expectations and intentions were good, I failed to enjoy this story as much as I wished. I have posted a few less charitable words.


  2. I had never read anything by Atwood and though I am not usually one to read Mythology, I did enjoy this! Not only did she create a tension between Helen and Penelope, but also with the servant (can't think of her name at the moment) and the son.I have to say that Helen reminded me of one of the characters in Angela Hunt's book Unchartered and when her beauty is taken away, she doesn't know what to do. A fantastic book, by the way, that will make you think for days.


  3. You've found much more to admire in this book than I did. I thought it was okay. All writers should be granted a chance to play with ideas once in a while even if the product they produce is not up to their usual standards. For me, Atwood has always been hit and miss. I loved Blind Assassin, Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace, but could not see the point of Oryx and Crake and couldn't get more than a few chapters into Year of the Flood or Cat's Eye.I enjoyed The Penelopiad, though I didn't love it. Sounds like I should give Robber Bride a try sometime.


  4. Anthony, I failed to enjoy this story as much as I'd wished, too. It was good, but not great. The only 'redemption' for me was the connection I could make between this and The Robber Bride which I truly love. Margaret Atwood has a way of addressing the unkind ways women can treat each other which always intrigues me. Lisa, don't you love when the library lets us down? Ours is notorious for this, and yet they keep getting these enormously high ratings from the nation. Not quite sure who's judging…hopefully, if you ever do get a chance to read it, we can discuss it at some point in the future. At least it's short!Sara, I don't usually read mythology either (having never even read the Odyssey, how embarrassing is that!). It's true, she did create tension between the servant, Eu-something?, and I loved the way her son was a 'total teeneager'. Great point! I could especially relate to them, not because mine is that rude or willful, but that he was an only son and tried to show his manliness at every turn. Maybe we do have a bit of that in our house…:) I don't know Angela Hunt's book, but I'll look into it at your mention. Thanks so much for reading along with us.


  5. C. B. James, I also thought it was 'okay'. It's certainly not by any means one of my favorites of Atwood's. I have read all the ones you listed except for the Year of the Flood, and I must say I'm none too fond of the apocaplyptic stuff she's done. I much prefer Robber Bride, as I mentioned, and I loved Cat's Eye when I read it decades ago. That said, I think it helps to be a woman with those two, because she goes into female relationships and betrayals so articulately. To me, anyway. And, of course, no offense to any men in that statement. :)Becky, I liked the different persepctives, too. I'm glad it was a rather short read, as I didn't read it all in one go. Somehow, I couldn't sustain my reading with this particular book. Thanks for reading with us!Parrish, I've read neither the Homer or the Odyssey…I think it's a really huge whole in my literacy. There's always been other genres, though, which have called my name more insistently. Did I tell you I loathe Bookmooch? They never have the books I want, or they come in some pathetic condition, and it's cost me too much money/effort to send mine off. I'd far rather drop them off at Goodwill.


  6. Kay, so glad you ordered The Robber Bride! I hope it doesn't disappoint you now that you put your money down. Let's talk when you have it read, because Zenia is an endlessly fascinating character to me.Amy, I didn't love it, or hate it; like you I'm glad I read it. Thanks for joining in the read-along!Tiny Library, I loved reading your enthusiasm for this book! Apparently, you're in the minority amongst a bunch of haters, but that's okay. 🙂 Margaret Atwood is such a wonderful writer, and so critical to our era I think. Her perspective is broad, and insightful, in my opinion.


  7. Joan, I'd love it if you and anyone else read The Robber Bride. Not only am I crazy about that novel, but it has an ending I've always wanted to discuss with my book friends. Let me know if you read it! XO


  8. Well, maybe The Robber Bride then. Sorry dear woman, but this did not work out for me as I had hoped so now I am simply hoping that you do not take offense at what I had to say about it. Thank you so much for organizing! I certainly do not regret reading it.


  9. I was so excited to read your review, and see everyone's comments on this Bellezza! I understand your focus on Helen and Penelope — that relationship did surprise me as well. I was most fascinated by Atwood's critique of — or is it a defense of? — feminism in this book. Penelope is so sympathetic, while the injured women (the maids) were not always portrayed positively. I really did enjoy reading it though! Thanks for doing it with me!


  10. Great review, Bellezza. I thought this book was so intriguing and interesting, like a neat little exercise in the other side of the story. Thanks for writing about it!


  11. Frances, I could never take offense at what you've written in a review; I am only enlightened as to a new perspective when we disagree. And, we didn't disagree on this because I didn't like it more than I liked it. I read it, this 114 page novel in my Nook, for several days! It was all too easy to put down. I guess the only things I enjoyed were Penelope's voice, the amusing Muses, and thinking about Helen's character. I'm glad you read along with us!Col, thanks for reading along with me and the others, and even bringing it up to my attention in the first place. You spoke so eloquently about it in your review, mine is bare bones in comparison. Obviously, one of us is a college professor. I appreciate your insight, too, and wondered how so much of the feminism stuff 'escaped' me. I must have been skimming at that point near the end.Marie, it is a neat little excerise on the other side of the story. Teachers often ask their students to rewrite the ending of something, or to reimagine a fairy tale, and it's interesting when an author of Atwood's caliber does so. I hadn't read the original story, so this enlightened me to that as well.


  12. I had wanted to do this readalong with you all, but time kind of caught up with me so I didn't get to re-read The Penelopiad in time. I was just posting over at Nonsuch Book about how I wish I had, because reading these posts, I'm wondering how I would react to it years later, and finally with a reading of The Odyssey under my belt. I'm ashamed to say I had almost totally forgotten the centrality of the Penelope-Helen relationship to this retelling; I too remember it as one of my favorite parts. And you're right that it's a great strength of Atwood's. I haven't read The Robber Bride, but I think it totally comes through in The Handmaid's Tale as well.


  13. I also enjoyed reading this even though it wasn't quite what I thought it would be. I thought the parts about the dual stories of Odysseus (Circe/brothel madam, Cyclops/tavern keeper) were quite funny. And the Helen/Penelope relationship was fascinating. I wish there had been more of that.


  14. Helen is just horrible! She definitely brings that out in this book. I really got the sense that people don't really change, even after thousands of years in the underworld.I have read and loved Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace,and have to admit that this was not on par with those, but I still enjoyed it. I will have to get to Robber Bride sooner rather than later.


  15. finished and got my review up. i liked it, but didn't love it. was surprised at how easy it was to digest without having read The Odyssey in so long and without having read Atwood before. i laughed out loud at times, which i wasn't expecting, and generally like Penelope as a narrator. so, i'm glad i read it!


  16. I only now managed to write up my review, but thanks for motivating me to read this one already :)I really enjoyed this novella, her critical retelling and the humor. But I'm relieved I'm not the only one who has read this wothout first reading The Odyssey.


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