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The Penelopiad

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Now that all the others have run out of air, it's my turn to do a little story-making.

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 rumors, 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 story-telling 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.

198 pages, Hardcover

First published October 5, 2005

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About the author

Margaret Atwood

573 books79.1k followers
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood's dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth ­ in the Massey series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009. Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.

Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.

Associations: Margaret Atwood was President of the Writers' Union of Canada from May 1981 to May 1982, and was President of International P.E.N., Canadian Centre (English Speaking) from 1984-1986. She and Graeme Gibson are the Joint Honourary Presidents of the Rare Bird Society within BirdLife International. Ms. Atwood is also a current Vice-President of PEN International.


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,699 reviews
Profile Image for Madeline.
781 reviews47.2k followers
December 29, 2008
Often I amuse myself by trying to imagine the ideas, conversations, or circumstances that led to the writing of certain books. For example, I think Philippa Gregory wrote The Other Boleyn Girl because she wanted to write a smutty romance novel disguised as history, Shakespeare probably wrote The Taming of the Shrew because someone bet him he couldn't write a play where domestic abuse is interpreted as matrimonial devotion, and Bette Green wrote Summer of My German Soldier specifically to torture 10th-grade Madeline.
In the case of The Penelopiad, I like to think that the idea for its creation came about in the mind of Margaret Atwood right after she read The Odyssey for what was probably the 10th time. Probably in the original Greek, too. Anyway, I think something like this went on in Atwood's head (just with a lot better vocabulary, of course):
"God, I hate Odysseus. Okay, Homer, you know what I'm gonna do? I'm going to take your story and write in from Penelope's perspective, and instead of portraying Odysseus as a hero, I'm going to turn him into the jerkiest jerk who ever jerked. And there will be tap-dancing maids. HA!"

And she did. This book is the result, and I can practically hear Atwood cackling madly at her computer as she types the story.
Profile Image for Lisa.
991 reviews3,321 followers
May 3, 2020
"we had no voice
we had no name
we had no choice
we had one face
one face the same

we took the blame
it was no fair
but now w're here
we're all here too
the same as you"

The truly successful myths are those that can be retold over and over from different angles and still speak to a contemporary audience with the same intensity as to past centuries. When Margaret Atwood picked up the story of Penelope and Odysseus, she kept all the familiar ideas, and yet - it is an entirely modern vision, and a modern voice speaking.

She looks beyond the famous stars of the narrative: Helen, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Penelope, and lets a chorus line of maids have their say. She retells the story of their harsh lives, of their vulnerability. Many of them experience rape and abuse from the suitors that gather to court Penelope during the absence of her husband, and on returning home, Odysseus decides to kill them because they "slept with the enemy without his permission".

It is a rare treat of tragicomedy when Penelope describes their fury in the Hades, after all characters involved in the drama have left the stage of the living. The maids, demanding justice in an objective court, are left disappointed because the judge doesn't want to be "guilty of an anachronism". Don't we hear that quite often still? All those cases of (sexual) violence against women, justified with "different times, different customs". Is that a reason not to raise the issue at all? How can the times and customs ever change then? Those maids, singing in a choir of rage against the double standards of a patriarchal society, seem both ancient and prophetic at the same time.

While they denounce the millennia of injustice and hypocrisy, they also become early members of the #metoo movement, begging the audience of famous mythological stories to listen to the neglected minor characters as well. Famous actresses of the caliber of Helen or Penelope may speak for themselves, but what about the powerless, poor girls in the background? The chambermaids, barmaids, nurses? Who speaks for those young women?

Atwood does, in the slightly arrogant, bitter voice of privileged Penelope - a woman in power, but with her own share of frustrations, too clever for her own good, and in the eternal shadow of her barbie doll cousin Helen.

And what about Odysseus? Well, this is not the Odyssey, it is the Penelopiad, so he is acting backstage, evasive and hard to catch, a mere prerequisite for the lives of the women of Ithaca.

Do I recommend this short novel? Yes, to those of you who love myths, and are well acquainted with Homer's take on the household drama in the palace of Ithaca as well as with the geopolitics of the time, involving the disastrous Trojan war and plenty of other local conflicts. To see and value the slight changes Atwood made to the "common myth", one has to know where she is coming from. I would also suggest trying some of her major novels before choosing this thin volume, as it is quite different (even though it is clearly a typical Atwood as well, to contradict myself in the last paragraph). Oh whatever, just read it and judge for yourselves whether she is guilty of anachronism or not. I'd say no, as her topic has never ceased to be contemporary. I hope my children will grow up and look back to say that the kind of injustice she describes is a thing of the past. Period. But chances are that The Handmaid's Tale will still be acted out in some places, and that the minor characters in the big plays will be treated with contempt by those who are famous enough to get away with anything.

Until that stops, Atwood's chorus should keep singing for JUSTICE! And we should chime in.
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
961 reviews6,802 followers
September 20, 2023
we are the maids / the ones you killed / the ones you failed.

In the end of The Odyssey, Odysseus has twelve maids hung on accusation of disloyalty during his absence. These are maids who must clean the blood of Odysseus’ great battle against the suitors and then must die having been given no name or no other life in the book. This has never sat well with Margaret Atwood and so through the The Penelopiad, which reframes the story of Homer’s The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, she is able to center the voices of the women to explain these deaths. Atwood excels at subverting narratives and her knowledge and respect for the original tales is evident as she playfully and humorously reworks them into a story that explores gender and class relations. The latter is addressed most profoundly, giving the maids their own stories to show how the servant class of women are dehumanized. Utilizing the maids as the tale’s Greek chorus, Atwood breathes fresh life into a familiar tale, expanding and enhancing it in exciting ways that are as witty and they are darkly comedic.

Where shall I begin? There are only two choices: at the beginning or not at the beginning.

While just under 200pgs, The Penelopiad is crammed with story and insight. Atwood mentions the tales come from research into The Odyssey but also from versions found in Robert GravesThe Greek Myths. One would benefit from knowing the gist of the original tale, and there are a lot of names and references that are helpful to have some background on, though it is not necessary. Atwood’s retelling really makes it her own, and most interesting of the book is her use of the greek chorus. The twelve maids appear between chapters to sing ballads or sea shanties, deliver an ‘anthropological essay,’ perform a play and even participate in an abstract court trial. It is genius and easily my favorite parts of the book, and Atwood also writes them as very funny. The rather cabaret elements make it no surprise this book was adapted for the theater.

The Penelopiad is narrated by Penelope after her death—in a present-day Hades where christian mythology has added pitchforked demons to the landscape, mind you—she retells her life story in an attempt to demystify the rumors and legends about her as well as explain the abrupt execution of her youngest, prettiest and most faithful maids. Atwood treats us to accounts of Penelope first meeting Odysseus, their marriage and years together before he went off to fight in the Trojan War. ‘And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat,’ Penelope tells us, ‘a package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you,’ This is indicative of how she sees the treatment of women in society, as more symbols of testament to the ruling men and objects of pleasure than having full agency. She sees the myths as intentionally disregarding this, and the stories of women having bad behavior are less women being wicked and more women frantically trying to survive a violent patriarchal world. As Atwood famously wrote

And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with,’ she says. Penelope would like to set the record straight that the legends are not only flawed, but are reshaping the reality of Penelope’s position to further subjugate women. For example, the framing of the weaving and un-stitching for which she is best known for during her long wait is rebuked as such:
The shroud itself became a story almost instantly. 'Penelope's web', it was called; people used to say that of any task that remained mysteriously unfinished. I did not appreciate the term web. If the shroud was a web, then I was a spider. But I had not been attempting to catch men like flies: on the contrary, I'd merely been trying to avoid entanglement myself.

Penelope is always at risk of death for the whims of men. Odysseus says if she ever sleeps with another man he will hack her to pieces, then laughs it off as a joke. Though she laughs along, she is terrified knowing this would likely happen. While Odysseus can still be the hero and feel no guilt for sleeping with other women—his sexual exploits even become epic songs of praise men sing to Penelope, which she is not into—Penelope becomes the butt of jokes and sneered at for rumors of possibly sleeping with a suitor or two. While she insists she never did, the maids sure like to tell us differently in their asides, one of Atwood’s clever ways at keeping myths a variation of truths based on the teller. ‘What can a woman do when scandalous gossip travels the world,’ Penelope asks us, adding ‘If she defends herself, she sounds guilty.’ The supposed agency Penelope has in the situation is shown as more victim blaming than anything else.

The two of us were—by our own admission—proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said.

I do enjoy the depictions of Penelope and Odysseus here. Odysseus is written as still clever and strong, though a bit more buffoonish and Penelope constantly mentions that he has amusingly short, stubby legs. But he is also fairly tender at times and the two make an exciting cooperative pair to read about, bonding over their shared familial traumas. Much of Odysseus’ return, his cunning, secrecy and the ‘divine’ coincidences turn out, in Penelope’s version, to be mostly her amused and letting Odysseus have his moment instead of catching her by surprise. It is fun and charming, much more so than her adversarial relationship with Helen.

The gods were never averse to making a mess. In fact they enjoyed it.

Another aspect I quite enjoyed was Penelope’s dismissal of the gods at times, often questioning if they even exist. She questions the divine births that everyone with any power seems to claim, noting how convenient it is for their status and reputation to have a god on at least one side of the family tree. SHe also notes how convenient it is to credit the gods for an idea instead of having to take any responsibility for it: ‘creating some god for one's inspirations was always a good way to avoid accusations of pride should the scheme succeed, as well as the blame if did not.’ Penelope isn’t above crediting them though, claiming her weaving idea was divinely inspired by Pallas Athene, though it, in truth came from remembering her mother talking about how water finds away around obstacles. The only thing for sure about the gods in this story is, if they are in fact real, then ‘our suffering might be ‘what they love to savour,’ as they certainly destroy a lot of lives and leave women in terrible positions.

We were told we were dirty. We were dirty. Dirt was our concern, dirt was our business, dirt was our specialty, dirt was our fault. We were the dirty girls.

If the gods are cruel, it is to the lowest classes they are the cruelest. The maids live entirely in servitude and are frequently attacked and sexually assaulted by the suitors. Even their own rape is held against them for it happening without a master’s permission, a wildly disturbing notion. Atwood uses them as a critical look at class and how the spoils for the wealthy are deadly and traumatic for the working or slave classes.
You don't have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We're no more real than money.

The final two sentences here, a quote Atwood uses from Claude Lévi-Strauss, are a great commentary on how their treatment and death is largely symbolic of the treatment of maids. But also how as a symbol they can be strong together. In one of the greek chorus sections, they teach how they are, in fact, symbolic of Robert Graves’s theory of a matriarchial moon cult and worship of a triple-aspect lunar goddess which he explores in The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. Twelve is symbolic as well (‘there are twelve apostles, there are twelve days of Christmas, yes, but there are twelve months’) and Atwood figures them as a moon goddess symbol with Penelope as their Queen to be the thirteenth since ‘ the number of lunar month is indeed thirteen.
[O]ur rape and subseqent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians.

Atwood fingers Odysseus as the head of the usurping patriarchy, placing power structures that benefit men at the expense of women and at the overthrow of the Lunar goddess. It was a high point of the book, as well the court trial scene.

Through all the assertions, the maids say ‘No, Sir, we deny that this theory is merely unfounded feminist claptrap.’ Which is a great line, and also led me to wonder what what Atwood considers about her own retelling when the idea of feminist retellings of traditional stories is currently a popular subject. ‘I wouldn't even call it feminist,’ Atwood has said of this book, ‘every time you write something from the point of view of a woman, people say that it's feminist.’ She has made similar statements regarding The Handmaid's Tale.

Which is interesting as some critics have argued that Atwood’s portrayal of animosity between Helen and Penelope here is one of several examples from her books dismissing the idea of an amicable universal sisterhood, one of several reasons (another more recent being her retweets of trans-exclusionary articles) many feminist critics consider her insufficiently feminist. Perhaps patriarchal power structures are the disruption of sisterhood for Atwood? For Atwood, storytelling that focuses on ‘giving a woman a voice and an inner life will always be considered 'feminist' by those who think women ought not to have these things,’ which, I think, is her saying that the idea of labeling something as feminist is a way for patriarchial forces to disregard it. Though in an industry (and society) where women’s voices have often been gatekept, suppressed or disregarded, centering those voices can still be a subversive act and there is still pushback and violence towards women all across the world when women move to achieve equality either socially or legislatively and many double standards are still unfortunately normalized.

It's always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.

Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a delightful little read that certainly has fun with the Greek myths and fills in the cracks for further enjoyment. Atwood had adapted myths previously in The Robber Bride and many poems, such as her look at the story of Helen in the poem Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing (read it here), and her knowledge and storytelling skills allow her to adapt this story in a very compelling way. Sharp, humorous, and constantly witty, Penelope is an exciting narrator and I enjoyed this fresh perspective on an absolute classic tale.

3.75/5

We can see through all your disguises: the paths of day, the paths of darkness, whichever paths you take - we're right behind you, following you like a trail of smoke, like a long tail, a tail made of girls, heavy as memory, light as air: twelve accusations, toes skimming the ground, hands tied behind our backs, tongues sticking out, eyes bulging, songs choked in our throats.
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,705 reviews25k followers
March 25, 2018
Margaret Atwood gives us a reworked reinterpretation of Homer's The Odyssey that lends itself rather well to our present day in its contemporary echoes of our MeToo movement today. We have the abandoned for 20 years, but faithful Penelope learning to manage the court in the absence of her philandering husband. Numerous suitors come to court, Penelope commands the twelve maids, slaves in reality, to be used and abused, to deal with them. The inherently flawed Odysseus spent the first 10 years fighting the Trojan War, and the following 10 years having adventures, having a riotous time before finally returning to Ithaca. He is painted as a over-hyped, testerone fuelled, hypocrite, barely deserving of the saintly Penelope. Odysseus orders the twelve maids to be murdered, feeling they have betrayed him and left a stain on his sense of honour. However, Penelope herself, overwhelmed by guilt at this heinous act, does not come out of this tale well.

Atwood has each character give a defence of their behaviour from their own perspective, spinning the most positive picture possible in their efforts to redeem themselves. They have no wish to be held accountable or feel any sense of responsibility. This feminist focus on the little known twelve maids from Homer skirts around the periphery of the idea that these powerless women were asking for what they got and deserving of their harrowing fate. Atwood gives them a voice, in which they bitterly lay out their side of the story. When we see much of what happens to women and the treatment of them in society and social media, it begs the question whether much has changed from the ancient times retold by Atwood. This is a short, but darkly humorous, witty, poetic read that is thought provoking and entertaining. Many thanks to Canongate for an ARC.
Profile Image for هدى يحيى.
Author 9 books16.2k followers
August 10, 2020

~~لا صوت لنا
لا اسم لنا
لا اختيار لنا
لا وجه لنا
وجه واحد للجميع
لامونا نحن
ولم يك هذا عدلا~~
...


**********
كيف ظللت طيلة هذا الوقت دون القراءة لمارجريت أتوود؟
إنه ليس العمل الأشهر وغالبا ليس الأكثر حرفية أو اتقانا لها
ولكنه عمل شديد التميز
وإني لأتساءل كيف ستكون أعمالها الأشهر حاصدة الجوائز؟

تستعير أتوود هنا بينولوبي من ملحمة الأوديسة لصاحبها لهوميروس
بينولوبي رمز الإخلاص والوفاء
الزوجة التي انتظرت زوجها الغائب لمدة عشرين عام
بين ويلات الحروب وتحت ضغوط لا تنتهي

ولكننا هنا نقرأ الحكاية على لسان بينولوبي نفسها
وهي تحكيها في هذا العصر الحديث
إنما من عالم الموتى
تعرض آتوود حياة خادمات القصور
وتكشف عن خبايا النفس الأنثوية بطريقة مذهلة
كوميدية ودرامية ونافذة في نفس الوقت
-قد لا تكون الحكاية حول بينولوبي
بقدر ما هي عن الخادمات الإثنى عشر
اللاتي قتلن على يد أوديسيوس بعد عودته
من حين لآخر يظهرن لرواية حكايتهن الدموية
يحكين عن الحكم الجائر الذي أصدر أوديسيوس عليهن بالموت
عن تعليقهن في المشانق وأرجلهن المتأرجحة
عن تنفيذ الحكم دون سماع ما لديهن
عن بينيلوبي التي كانت تعلم كل شيء ووقفت تتفرج
هنا تتحدث الخادمات
تعطيهن أتوود فرصة بعد مئات السنين للحديث أخيرا
وبشكل مميز للغاية

نحن هنا نرى الحقيقة بعين أصحابها
بينيلوبي تروي حكايتها من منظورها
كامرأة ميتة تتحدث من العالم الآخر
وكزوجة عانت الأمرين في غياب زوجها
بينما يرتع الخطاب في قصرها بلا خجل
وكزوجة جديدة تحاول التأقلم على عالمها الجديد
وكفتاة صغيرة لم تشعر بالانتماء أبدا في بيت أهلها
حيث أمر والدها وهي صغيرة برميها في البحر
بسبب عرافة قالت له أنها هي من ستغزل له كفنه

والخادمات في مشاهد مسرحية يروين حكايتهن من ��نظورهن
حيث يقفن جوقة على مسرح متخيل ويعرضن المأساة كاملة في أغنيات متتابعة

وطوال ذلك الوقت أنت تقرأ عن معاناة المرأة
التي تعامل منذ البداية باعتبارها مخلوقا من الدرجة الثانية
فتاة تتزوج وعليها التكيف مع حياتها الجديدة وارضاء زوجها
ثم زوجة تُهجر وبينما تصل أخبار زوجها مع الجميلات من الإلاهات والبشريات مطالبة بأن تحافظ على شرفها وأن تنتظر وتتحمل سخافات وألام ومؤامرات لا تنتهي
خادمات شابات يجبرن على تقبل الاغتصاب والعمل كجاسوسات لصالح سيدتهن
وهذا لا ينسينا أنهن كخادمات مطالبات بإرضاء أسيادهن الرجال بكل الوسائل الممكنة
وفي النهاية يعاقبن على جرائم لم تكن لهن حيلة فيها

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الرواية لطيفة وخفيفة وممتعة
وهي متوفرة بطبعة جيدة وترجمة مقبولة وسعر زهيد
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
656 reviews7,099 followers
March 21, 2012
The Penelopiad or The Ballad of the Dead Maids

This has been my introduction to Atwood and I have to admit that I feel slightly underwhelmed. I went in with high expectations, wondering how Atwood will take the 'waiting widow' of The Odyssey and transform it into a full length novel. Turns out that she mostly indulges in recapitulating the bulk of the original with a few wild theories and speculations thrown in as supposed rumors that Penelope has gleaned in the after-life.

Which brings me to how the story is constructed and this happens to be the high water mark for this novel. Atwood starts with Penelope addressing us from the other side of River Styx, reaching us through the mysterious sounds of the night and the barks and hoots of unseen animals. Penelope has grown bold since her death and is no longer the meek woman we saw in the original but a bold one who doesn't mind speaking her mind and spilling a few uncomfortable beans.

Penelope subjects all the popular characters of the odyssey to scrutiny but reserves a special attention for Odysseus, Telemachus and Helen. She convinces us with case-by-case analysis that Odysseus was no hero - he was a lying and conniving manipulator of men who never uttered one truthful word in his life. She talks of rumors that told her of what his real adventures were, stripped of the trappings of myth. Telemachus becomes a petulant teenager full of rebellion against his mother and Helen becomes the ultimate shrew, seductress and a femme fatale of sorts.

But the story that Atwood really wants to tell is not of Penelope, that story is hardly changed except to assert speculations on the original text whether Penelope really saw through Odysseus disguise or not. What if she did? It hardly changed the story.

The real twist, and the only reason to take up this book is to see Atwood's exploration and reinvention of the twelve maids who were killed by Odysseus in punishment for betraying him by sleeping with the suitors. These twelve girls are the Chorus in this book and appear every now and then playing a baroque accompaniment to the text and giving us new perspectives on their story. This carries on until Penelope herself reveals to us that they were never betraying Odysseus, she had asked them herself to get acquainted with the suitors to get obtain information for her. They had never betrayed Odysseus or his kingdom. So their murder was just that - murder. This was Atwood's plot twist and her intended question was about the morality of this 'honor killing' as she calls the hanging of the slaves, which, she confesses in the foreword, used to haunt her when she was young - 'Why were they killed?', she used to ask herself and tries to present their case in this modernized version (which even includes a 23rd century trial of Odysseus).

In the end though, the reader hardly gets anything beyond these idle speculations and supplemental myths and small factoids like how Helen was really Penelope's cousin and that they have to eat flowers in Hades. Even the main point of the book, about the dead maids, too ignores the fact that Odysseus genuinely seems to believe that they betrayed him by helping the suitors in various ways and hence it becomes as question of misinformation than morality and the blame will fall back on the shoulders of Penelope herself, rendering this whole exercise moot. Just go read the original again; the short hops of imagination that Atwood has taken in this retelling can easily be overtaken by the leaps you might make yourself in a re-reading that you might treat yourself to on a leisurely sunday afternoon - and those will surely be more impressive as well as intellectually more rewarding.
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
719 reviews1,112 followers
February 6, 2019
This was technically a reread, but I couldn't remember the specific dates I read it the first time, so I recorded this as a first time read.

Such an enjoyable, quick and surprising retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope's perspective. Nearly everyone knows Odysseus, smart, witty, promiscuous; tackles 1 too many mythical beasts over the decade he is missing on his return from The Trojan War.
Penelope is sassy, intelligent, and more than a little bit pissed off at her cousin Helen for causing this war and therefore preventing her husbands safe return.
We also get a new persepctive of Helen. Usually she is seen as sweet, beautiful (obviously) kind etc. Here we seen her as vain, nasty and particularly cruel.

The Penelopiad is told from Penelope's POV, from Hades, long after she and the others from antiquity are dead. She talks to the reader in the 21st century, to tell her side of the story. There is also an important focus on the 12 maids who were murdered on Odysseus' return for sleeping with the suitors who were hounding Penelope and her home during Odysseus' absence.

A fantastic perspective to read, it makes you question a lot of Odysseus' behaviours and in particular, his massive double standards (sleeping with countless goddesses, but fuming if Penelope so much as looked at another man)

Overall a great book to read alongside or after The Odyssey
July 28, 2022
“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?”

In the 21st century, Penelope now in Hades, narrates the story of her life from her birth and early years in Sparta to her marriage to Odysseus at the age of fifteen and the years she spent waiting for her husband to return to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. She talks about the events revolving around the fall of Troy and Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca, while also drawing comparisons to some aspects of life in modern times. She is visited by both Odysseus and Helen in the afterlife, both of whom go back to the living world time and time again but Penelope is quite content to not venture back into the living world again.

“My past life was fraught with many difficulties, but who’s to say the next one wouldn’t be worse?”

In Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Penelope is portrayed as smart and sarcastic and does not mince her words. She has no illusions about herself and sees her husband exactly for who he is (“ “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.” ), understands her marriage for exactly how and what it is (“The two of us were–by our own admission–proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said. ), and doesn’t have much good to say about her cousin Helen ( jealousy, resentment and anger - all the emotions are expressed!).
"I've often wondered whether, if Helen hadn't been so puffed up with vanity, we might all have been spared the sufferings and sorrows she brought down on our heads by her selfishness and her deranged lust. Why couldn't she have led a normal life? But no - normal lives were boring, and Helen was ambitious. She wanted to make a name for herself. She longed to stand out from the herd."

While her husband is away (10 years fighting in Troy and 10 years of (mis)adventures that followed that she is aware of through minstrels who regale all and sundry with tales of her husband’s heroic exploits.) Penelope was busy managing stately affairs, raising their son, Telemachus and keeping the hordes of obnoxious suitors at bay. Aided by her maids who mingle with the suitors, often on her instruction and are subject to mistreatment by them, she manages to hold them off till her husband returns buying time by weaving and unweaving a shroud for her father-in-law, promising to choose amongst them once her work is done while they eat, drink and revel their way through her fortunes. Upon return, Odysseus and his son, Telemachus not only kill all the suitors and the the traitorous shepherd who was aiding them but also hang the twelve maids for their “improper” relations with the suitors. This story gives a voice to Penelope and her twelve maids and does attempt to shed a light on women in the classics whose voices were unheard. The fate of the twelve maids and the injustice of how they were treated will make you question not only Odysseus and Telemachus’s attitude towards women but also Penelope’s role and reaction to the whole episode- a fact that Penelope reflects upon even from the Underworld. Each chapter is interspersed with the Greek chorus of the twelve maids who were hanged and who have taken it upon themselves to follow Odysseus through the ages.

“ “We can see through all your disguises: the paths of day, the paths of darkness, whichever paths you take–we’re right behind you, following you like a trail of smoke, like a long tail, a tail made of girls, heavy as memory, light as air: twelve accusations, toes skimming the ground, hands tied behind our backs, tongues sticking out, eyes bulging, songs choked in our throats.”

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is entertaining, witty and cleverly written. I particularly enjoyed the 21st-century courtroom scene, in one of the chapters where Odysseus is being tried for the murder of the twelve maids, with the judge referencing the book that is the main authority on the subject( The Odyssey). At less than 200 pages this is a short, light yet thought-provoking read that has moments that will inspire serious thought as well as moments that will have you laughing out loud and tipping your hat to Ms.Atwood for the imaginative, darkly humorous characterizations of these flawed characters. I paired the read with the wonderful audio narration (3 hours 19 minutes) by Laural Merlington which made for an exceptional immersion reading experience.
March 19, 2020
And the moral of this rereread is: still have nothing to report about this one. Except that it's sheer brilliance, obviously.



I have it on (very good) authority that Margaret Atwood absolutely lurves this gif, just so you know. And I'm not even kidding. I think.



[March 2015]

The Greatness Syndrome: when a book is so original, thought-provoking and fantastically written that there is nothing to say about it.


Profile Image for Magrat Ajostiernos.
580 reviews4,062 followers
February 12, 2019
Al final me ha acabado gustando mucho más de lo que esperaba.
El principio me descolocó bastante por esa "voz" tan actual que tiene Penélope, y me costó acostumbrarme a ella, pero finalmente me conquistó, a pesar de todo mi parte preferida sin duda es la protagonizada por las criadas, me pareció brillante... Especialmente el uso de los coros. Los capítulos finales me parecieron una genialidad.
Este relato se puede leer prácticamente del tirón (100 páginas tiene) y narra una historia por todos conocida, pero consigue contarla de una manera totalmente original .
En fin, me ha parecido muy recomendable. Tercer libro que leo de Atwood, tercer libro que me gusta mucho... Está claro que esta autora es para mi.
Profile Image for Rowena.
501 reviews2,517 followers
July 17, 2013
This was so beautifully written. As someone who's fairly familiar with the myth of Penelope and Odysseus, it was quite fascinating to see how a modern-day writer would spin the story. Atwood did this brilliantly. I love stories that write from the perspective of the main character, especially when the said character is looking back in hindsight.Very creative.
Profile Image for Sawsan.
1,000 reviews
August 11, 2022
تُعيد مرجريت آتوود سرد حكاية من حكايات الأساطير اليونانية القديمة
حكاية بينيلوبي زوجة أوديسيوس بطل ملحمة الأوديسة لهوميروس التي انتظرت زوجها الغائب عشرين عام
تحكي بينيلوبي من عالم الموتى عن حياتها قبل وبعد الزواج
وبين فصول الرواية تعرض آتوود حياة خادمات القصور البائسة ومعاناتهم من معاملة السادة
في محاولة لتحقيق العدالة للخادمات اللاتي قتلهن أوديسيوس بعد عودته
وجهة نظر جديدة لقصة قديمة ومشهورة لأجل معرفة الحقيقة
فالجهل بالتفاصيل أو إخفاءها غالبا ما يجعل للحقيقة أكثر من وجه
فكرة جميلة وأسلوب السرد سلس وفكاهي
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
1,016 reviews1,177 followers
May 31, 2021
Stories about the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" have always been some of my favorites. I remember spending hours pouring over Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths" when I was a kid, and loving every strange and surreal stories in those pages. Those stories have gotten trendy again, if one is to judge by the amount of retellings gracing the shelves ("Circe", "The Silence of the Girls", "A Thousand Ships", etc.), but Margaret Atwood was, as usual, a little ahead of the curve.

Odysseus is one of my favorite characters of the Trojan saga, but I felt it was unfair that his equally clever wife Penelope was not given as much space on the page as he had: it takes quite a bit of brain to keep a kingdom under relative control over a twenty year period, after all - not to mention figuring out a way to keep all those suitors away.

With her trademark wit and sharp tongue, Atwood conjured Penelope from the Underworld and has her tell a slightly different version of the story than the one Homer put on the page. She draws a complex character: lonely, frustrated, afflicted with jealousy towards her cousin Helen while simultaneously despising the woman and what she has come to symbolize. But she is also raked with guilt: she may not have anyone's blood on her hands, but people she cared about died because of her, and eons spend in the dark gardens of Hades have not lessened her regrets.

Because this is a Margaret Atwood novella, it's beautifully written, acidic and tender, funny and affecting. It is also cleverely structured, with the twelve maiden acting like a Greek chorus, entertaining the crowd between sections of the story. But this is a book I wish she had stretched out a little bit further. The material she based herself on to write this is very rich, and I guess I am greedy, but I wanted more of it.

If you enjoy Greek mythology and Atwood's work, this is obviously a no-brainer, but it would be a good, not too intimidating place to start if you are just starting to explore her catalogue. 4 solid stars.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews924 followers
August 5, 2022
“I am tempted to think that to be despised by her sex is a very great compliment to a woman.”

The Penelopiad | CBC Books

Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is a fun, modern-day response to the heroic stories surrounding Odysseus. What's left out is the story of Penelope and her maids, the maids that Odysseus inexplicably killed upon his return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Penelope recounting the story from the present (as a disembodied entity) brings those stories to life. As the court case at the end of the novel makes clear, such meaning is meant not as a rewriting of the tale but as an update for our modern ethics and sensibilities. I really liked the chorus/maids interspersed between some of Penelope's observations:

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


And again, the chorus asserts,

we had no voice
we had no name
we had no choice
we had one face
one face the same

we took the blame
it was no fair
but now w're here
we're all here too
the same as you


While it may not take itself too seriously, The Penelopiad is both fun and thought-provoking. 3.5 stars
Profile Image for Jennifer Welsh.
258 reviews219 followers
September 4, 2020
3.5. A smart, funny and feminist response to The Odyssey, Atwood paints a full picture of Penelope’s perspective and shares it like a secret. You can tell Atwood’s having fun here, and part of that fun includes sprinkling in some bitterness and outrage to give the piece depth and meaning. I use the word piece, however, because - unlike Atwood’s Hag Seed, based on The Tempest, or Miller’s Song of Achilles, based on The Iliad - I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this work without having first read The Odyssey. There are some great reveals towards the end that I found especially fun, but it doesn’t have much of a story on its own. It’s a quick read, could be read in one day.
Profile Image for Lucy.
417 reviews625 followers
December 24, 2018
3***
”We had no voice,
We had no name,
We had no choice,
We had one face,
One face the same"


This book focuses on the story of Penelope and the twelve maids immortalised in myth by the story of Odysseus. This is told from Penelope's point of view as she wonders through the underworld, looking back on events that had taken place in her life.

Penelope in this book is fiercely intelligent, cunning and much more than just the devoted wife as portrayed in Homer's- The Odyssey. It goes through her life as a young girl sent away to the Island of Ithaca, married to the stranger Odysseus.
It describes her struggles with trying to find her place in Ithaca and conflicts with the overbearing Eurycleia.

When news comes of the war in Troy, Odysseus sets out on his journey. What is largely ignored in literature is the story of Penelope as she awaits her husbands returns. Margaret Atwood fills in these gaps spectacularly.
She shows how Penelope becomes in charge of Ithaca as Odysseus is away, how she deals with the burden of Telemachus, her spoiled son, how the suitors try to gain her hand in marriage and refuse to go away and, of course, the story and relationship she has with her maids. The plot describes Penelope's struggles with being alone for 20 years with only the songs of travellers to inform her of Odysseus adventures. She forever remains faithful to her husband, despite learning of his sexual encounters with Goddesses.
It is fantastic to see the story of Penelope- a cunning and intelligent woman, brought to light.

As already known, the story of the maids ends tragically. Atwood does a brilliant job of describing their side of the story. She does this through poems, chorus' and a modern court scene at the end of the book. The maids are described as beautiful and dutiful to Penelope. They are Penelope's faithful allies in informing the Queen of what the suitors intend to do and what they say behind closed doors. It is most likely that these women were raped by the suitors rather than consenting my their own admission. It is refreshing that Margaret Atwood addresses this hidden voice and story of the maids, rather than sticking to the classic version of the women merely just throwing themselves at the suitors.

Overall this was a really easy and simple read- I was able to breeze through the book as it is only under 200 pages. Despite the shortness of this book, Margaret Atwood includes gods, goddesses and creatures from the beloved Greek myths, as well as addressing the importance of the story of Penelope as a character and her maids.

"Under the thumbs of women, who as usual were being overemotional and showing no reasonableness and judgement."
" I had not been attempting to catch men like flies: on the contrary, I'd merely been trying to avoid entanglement myself."
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 2 books177 followers
March 29, 2022
Happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked.”

Booker prize winner, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad provides a clever and often sardonic window into Odysseus’ famous homecoming. The retelling, written from Penelope’s point of view, examines issues of gender and class in Bronze Age Greece. In the novella, Atwood adds to Homer’s tale by including Penelope’s backstory from Robert Graves’s Greek Myths. The stories of her youth and marriage to Odysseus add to the book’s charm and underscore the powerlessness of women during this period.

The story begins in Hades as Penelope looks back on her life. She was the daughter of King Icarius of Sparta. Her mother was a Naiad or water nymph. King Icarius tried to drown Penelope when she was a child. She never knew why, but the incident created within her a wariness of men. When Penelope was 15, King Icarius arranged her marriage via competition among suitors in the form of a race. She recalled the day:

“I am 15, clever, but not overly beautiful. I know it isn’t me they are after. It is only what comes with me; the royal connection, the pile of glittering junk.”

Odysseus won the race by cheating. He mixed a drug into the wine of the other contestants which slowed them down. Penelope, his bride returned with him on a rocky voyage to Ithaca where she lived with him for a year and gave birth to Telemachus. Then Odysseus, left to fight the Trojan War and Penelope learned to manage his vast estates for the next twenty years.

What comes next is well known and the subject of Homeric epic. Penelope, alone and chaste is besieged by suitors, hoping to gain the kingdom. They take up residence at the court feasting, on their herds imbibing their wines, and raping the slave girls who serve as Penelope’s 12 maids. Atwood adds a feminist twist to the Penelopaid by borrowing a technique from Greek drama and adding the maids as a chorus who insert their lamentations intermittently throughout the text. By including the maids' point of view Atwood highlights the plight of poor women and the inability of women from the upper classes to assist them when they most want to do so.

The Penelopaid is a short, clever novella. Atwood's crisp, breezy writing portrays a strong, self-aware woman struggling to survive. I strongly recommend this book to individuals familiar with the Odyssey. Much of its irony and wry humor is based upon riffs on the original.


Profile Image for Gabriel.
501 reviews708 followers
December 29, 2022
Que divertido, actual, entretenido y punzante puede ser reinterpretar un clásico a través del foco femenino. En Penélope y las doce criadas Margaret Atwood lo ha hecho de una manera inteligente y satírica con su buena dosis de crítica social.

«Lo que a los inmortales les encanta saborear no son la grasa y los huesos de animales, sino nuestro sufrimiento.»

Para empezar, la narradora es Penélope, esposa de Odiseo (por si no quedaba claro con el título). Esta, en pleno siglo XXI nos cuenta desde el inframundo como fue que pasaron las cosas para ella y sus criadas mientras Odiseo se encontraba por fuera de casa. Como estos relatos han ido pasando más de manera oral que escrita a lo largo del tiempo es obvio que habrán muchas interpretaciones, con sus mentiras y verdades mezcladas por lo que la autora se sirve de ello para hacernos dudar de quién tiene la verdad en la línea argumental del tan conocido regreso a casa de Odiseo y los hechos acaecidos cuando los pretendientes acosaban a Penélope. ¿Acaso será Odiseo que ya lo conocemos por ser muy astuto? ¿O a lo mejor Penélope quien demuestra no tener ni un solo pelo de tonta? Que hermoso ver la contraposición o yuxtaposición de este relato con el de Homero.

Y es que precisamente me encantó porque hay muchas versiones que van cambiando o variando según el paso del tiempo o el lugar en torno a la Guerra de Troya y los personajes que participaron o no en el conflicto. En este caso, Margaret Atwood aprovecha y crea un personaje redondo, sagaz, inteligente y muy divertido como Penélope con una mirada más actual y de este siglo ya que le da un aporte feminista en sus intervenciones y sobre todo en el de las pobres criadas que fueron ahorcadas y víctimas silenciadas durante toda la obra al ni siquiera tener voz o un nombre que les diera identidad propia.

«A mí no me gustaba la palabra «telaraña». Si el sudario era una telaraña, entonces yo era la araña. Pero yo no pretendía atrapar hombres como si fueran moscas: todo lo contrario, sólo intentaba evitar verme ligada a ellos.»

Y ya no solo eso sino la irreverencia y el tono desenfadado para contar su historia desde los asfódelos haciendo un recorderis de su pasado llevándonos desde su infancia hasta su boda, luego por su posterior alumbramiento de Telémaco hasta finalmente llegar a los hechos ocurridos en La Odisea y todo eso con un tono irónico y sarcástico que inmediatamente te recordará al teatro clásico por la sátira y el componente crítico a los comportamientos de la sociedad. Además de los coros de las criadas que son de lo más sinceros y descarnados.

Y sin olvidarme de cómo se ve reflejada la evidente diferencia entre una mujer casada de clase alta con la presentación de las criadas y su recibimiento grotesco, violento y abusivo de la sociedad, mujeres a las cuales solo les queda sobrevivir, aunque para ello se tengan que reducir a un pedazo de carne, a ser avispadas, coquetas y ladronas pero al final las que más sufren y son pisoteadas por una sociedad patriarcal y falocéntrica. Y como plus, cada vez que aparecía Helena me moría de la risa por cómo se dirigían entre ambas y lo que pensaba Penélope de su prima que también se encuadra en tonos grises las evidentes divergencias de la mujer inteligente y la mujer bella que al final terminan enredadas en la telaraña masculina, como prácticamente todas.

Y eso, que leer esta novelita ha sido un verdadero gustazo de lectura. De principio a fin no tiene pérdida y más si lo sientes tan cercano y contemporáneo y con muchísima crítica para una época que no puede permitirse retroceder sino reinventarse y representarse de manera distinta y necesaria, cosa que hace a la perfección Margaret Atwood.
Profile Image for Elizabeth  .
387 reviews72 followers
January 7, 2008
I'm a sucker for Odysseus, as many of you know (once I finish gawain's daughter, I'm planning on writing the Telemakhiad, for example), so I appreciate that this doesn't make him a villian, a wife-beater or somesuch.

There are some excellent moments -- the opening line is brilliant ('Now that I'm dead I know everything'); and the wordplay throughout is superb; the 'gilded blood pudding' simile (trust me, it's good); the relationship between the maids and Telemakhos (although she doesn't expand upon it, which is fine, because I will); and my favorite, the post-sex story-telling, from Homer, when Penelope points out that they were both "proficent and shameless liars of long standing. It's a wonder either one of use believed a word the other said. But we did. Or so we told each other."

But these are only moments. The writing throughout is smooth, eminently readable -- Atwood is skilled at turning a phrase and leading the reader though -- and so it's difficult to respond to the novel during, only in the gaps and afterward. The interjections by the twelve murdered maids are amusing, but they're not woven into the narrative fluidly, and that's where I found myself realizing the flaws of the novel.

For one, Atwood relies almost completely on Graves's The White Goddess for her lunar/matriarchial imagery which...I'm not sure how much she's relying on her reader's ignorance, because lord knows Graves's absurd theses have become popular mythology, but it makes me instantly discount her ideas on the relationship of Penelope and the maids, which is not good, because much of her reimagining of Homer is based on that -- she never pushes Penelope's character much beyond the Penelope of The Odyssey, which, to be fair, is hard to do, given that it's one of the subtlest portraits of a woman ever. She changes Telemakhos, amusingly, very plausibly, but doesn't do much with the new character beyond use him as a way of modernizing the characters.

And that modernization -- the references to the centuries that Penelope's watched from Hades, the teenagerization, so to speak, of Telemakhos -- isn't handled very well. She doesn't do anything with it. It doesn't deepen her characters, it doesn't develop into a theme, it just sort of shows off.

It's fun, a decent hour's reading, but I don't think it's really worth much more than a cursory re-read. Once you notice the flaws, you can't stop noticing them, and it's not a good enough piece to make the flaws worth enduring.

Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
611 reviews4,984 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
August 31, 2020
This is incredibly short, and I still couldn't finish it. This is so overly simplistic in its language (was this written for high school audiences? I'm not even joking - that's a serious question) and the tone is super aggressive. I guess the excuse for that is because Penelope is writing this after her death (okay?), but it seems the whole purpose of the book is to spit venom at Odysseus as opposed to actually putting us in Penelope's shoes.

The maids who were murdered after his return to Ithaca act as the chorus (although they're telling their own story as opposed to commenting upon Penelope's story, so...that's not a chorus), and when I flipped to the end out of curiosity, I saw that the book concludes with a trial of Odysseus "as videotaped by the maids." As videotaped by the maids? What the hell are you talking about?
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,488 reviews2,706 followers
July 11, 2021
We're the serving girls, we're here to serve you. We're here to serve you right.

A short book, this is smart, funny and subversively clever as Atwood re-opens Homer's poems, especially The Odyssey, to give us a Penelope who speaks across time from a classical underworld but with a 21st century voice and hindsight to tell her own story.

At the disturbing heart of this tale is the hanging of the twelve maids after Odysseus kills the suitors: a minor incident in Homer, but one which expands in Atwood's hands to speak volumes about class, gender, violence. But what's most interesting is not just the commentary on possessive masculinity where women and slaves are owned, but the unwitting complicity of Penelope in this act. Through her silence, through her deliberate withholding of information in her own struggle for power and control in the household, she becomes complicit in this act of violent retribution, one which haunts her eternally.

Despite this sombre event, so much of the text is lit with a sceptical, sharp, self-deprecating humour, partly in Penelope's own voice ('the best that was claimed of Menelaus, once they started putting him into the poems, was that he had a very loud voice', p.32) but also in the dazzling array of modes taken by the chorus of hanged maids: they sing, they recite, they act out a trial scene, they play with old-school musicals, and they threaten. Most pressingly, at the end, they become a voice for voiceless women across history who have been raped, coerced, violated and murdered - but it's not a voice of victimhood but of revenge: We're the serving girls, we're here to serve you. We're here to serve you right - the maids perform a version of the Erinyes.

As with her more recent Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold, Atwood wears her scholarship lightly as she accommodates a multiplicity of versions of Penelope's story, taking account of interpretations from the anthropological (e.g. in Graves' The Greek Myths) to both traditional and modern feminist scholarly readings. For all that, this is a lively, energetic enterprise - if you know Homer and the other sources for this story well then it slightly slows down in the middle but overall this is a darkly humorous take on the sources, that seizes on the residual subversion that is already implicit in Homer and expands it into something transgressive and self-aware.
Profile Image for capture stories.
113 reviews65 followers
February 14, 2021
“The Penelopiad” is a miniature book that was retold by Margaret Atwood on the story of the “Odyssey”. It was a reimagine tale from Penelope's perspective and her twelve maids about sabotage and subsistence of livelihood in the palace centuries ago that continues to the afterlife.

I find it genuinely intriguing and amazed by this small and mighty miniature as studying Penelope's character, who is unvoiced but given a new animation and existence. The brilliancy of ancient mystery can still speak volumes to modern reality. Perhaps.

Indeed, this short reading trip is NOT sweet at all. As I have little knowledge about the Odyssey's classic, I was fumbling through the first few chapters, not knowing where it was going, but a lucky stumble on the right path latched me on the imaginative trail that sticks through the end. Phew! Atwood never fails to impress her readers in her wildest imagination, warm and funny with an onerous and literary touch that is haunting and humane in one small and mighty book.
Profile Image for Mike.
502 reviews378 followers
September 12, 2016
In the pantheon of great Greek works the Odyssey certainly ranks among the most well known. The adventures of Odysseus as he tries to win his way home from the successful Trojan War, a war that had already kept him from home for ten years. Well, after another ten years of various adventures and misadventures he finally makes it home to Ithaca only to find his loyal wife, Penelope, beset by opportunistic suitors drinking his wine and eating his livestock. Yada yada yada, he and his son kill all the suitors and the treacherous maids that gave them comfort and reunites with his steadfast and loyal wife Penelope, fade to black.

...

Except... maybe not. After all, we just get Odysseus's perspective and let's just say that if you are ten years late coming home from a war you better have a damn good reason for the delay. So instead of Homer's interpretation Atwood presents us the story of Penelope and the twelve maids.

You see, Penelope existed before she got hitched to Odysseus and we get her story from beyond the grave. We see her internal motivations, hopes, dreams, fears. You know, the type of things all humans deal with, even women. It doesn't help that she is a woman and has next to no say in her life, getting shipped off to marry Odysseus in dreary Ithaca and then having to deal with a whole new set of social pitfalls in his father's court. We see how little power women have, even noble ones. When he ships off to war (thanks to the fickleness of her cousin, Helen) she slowly takes over the operation of the island and does a damn good job of it. Then the suitors show up and, well, it goes pretty much the same way as the Homer version goes.

Except for the maids, for they also tell their story in this book. Instead of being treacherous opportunistic women, they are instead Penelope's eyes and ears among the suitors and her co-conspirators in her efforts to stymie the suitors. But they don't have the protection of birth, they are just slaves taken from their homes as children, to be used and abused (mostly abused) by whatever male takes a fancy to them. They are under constant threat of rape and abuse but loyally stick with their mistress. Their deaths at the hand of Odysseus and company occur while Penelope sleeps and she feels super bad about it.

Or at least she claims she does. The maids, also residents of the afterlife, have a much less charitable take on the matter. And they sort of have a point. This book is all about unreliable narrators telling the story that best suits their circumstance. Odysseus probably does that and there is no reason to think Penelope doesn't tell a few lies to salve her conscience. After all, I would like to think most sensitive people, as Penelope is, would have difficulty existing for an eternity with the blood of twelve innocent servants on their hands.

This was a very fast read. The language is brisk, flowing, and intelligent. The plot is a lean, efficient construct that takes the time for some fun sections. There is singing, chorus lines, and a pseudo-academic chapter that actually do a really good job of telling the story. I was engaged the entire time and really appreciated the little twists and reinterpretations Atwood put into this tale. this is a great feminist take on a Western classic and fans of both genres should be able to appreciate and enjoy it!
Profile Image for Julie.
555 reviews275 followers
March 25, 2018
This review contains spoilers. If you are allergic to them, please note, this is positively riddled with them. You should either take some epinephrine, or skip it altogether.

As a modern re-telling of the Odyssey, this proves an interesting example of why some things are best left alone, especially if you don't address the topic in a particularly fresh or inventive way. I feel the sting in that, even as I write it, but in truth, I don't see how Atwood moved the needle one bit in re-opening, or even re-inventing, the case of the murdered maids. Their brutal slaughter hangs in the air, still, and rests where it always has, squarely on the shoulders of Telemachus; and on the shoulders of men like him, throughout the ages. Odysseus may have ordered the slayings but it seems Telemachus took far too much pleasure in executing the deed, with his own nasty twist on things; in modern view, it barely scratches the surface of the eons of injustice and cruelty directed towards women.

I admire that the attempt has been made to re-invent an old myth, given that mythology works best when it is fluid and mutable. But what has Atwood changed here that makes it work either as a reinvention of an old song, or a modern cautionary tale?

I like, very much, how Atwood deals with the wandering and philandering Odysseus: she hangs very close to the truth on that one I think, even more than our dear Homer.

Rumours came, carried by other ships. Odysseus and his men had got drunk at their first port of call and the men had mutinied, said some; no, said others, they'd eaten a magic plant that had caused them to lose their memories, and Odysseus had saved them by having them tied up and carried onto the ships. 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. Some of the men had beeen eaten by cannibals, said some; no it was just a brawl of the usual kind, and others, with ear-bitings and nosebleeds, and stabbings and eviscerations; she'd turned his men into pigs -- not a hard job in my view -- but had turned them back into men because she'd fallen in love with him and was feeding him undeard-of delicacies prepared by her own immortal hands, and the two of them made love deliriously every night; no, said others, it was just an expensive whorehouse, and he was sponging off the Madam.

So are myths created. A rowdy night on the town becomes an adventurous tale of derring-do in the hands of an expert wordsmith. It is the reason we count on poets: they enrich our lives immeasurably.

In the same breath as Atwood takes Odyssesus down a peg or two, however, so does Penelope suffer. No longer is Penelope the long-suffering, loyal wife; in Atwood's hands, she emerges as more than a bit of a harpie and as someone who is manipulative and a little too-clever by half, stemming from her inferiority complex. Compared to Helen, she was only "second prize" and this rancoured in her breast, Atwood suggests.

[Helen] gave her patronizing smirk of someone who's had first chance at a less than delicious piece of sausage but has fastidiously rejected it. Indeed, Odysseus had been among the suitors for her hand, and like every other man on earth he'd desperately wanted to win her. Now she [Penelope] was only a second prize. Helen strolled away, having delivered her sting. The maids began discussing her splendid necklace, her scintillating earrings, her perfect nose, her elegant hairstyle, her luminous eyes, the tastefully woven border of her shining robe. It was as if I wasn't there. And it was my wedding day. All of this was a strain on the nerves. I started to cry, as I would so often in the future, and was taken to lie down on my bed.

Whenever Penelope feels stress, she lies down on her bed and weeps, rendering her more ineffectual in this modern version than in the original. It is this motif of powerlessness, running like a serpent in her life, that proves the maids' downfall for, while the maids are being slaughtered Penelope is sleeping, having barricaded herself in her room. Afraid of standing up to Odysseus to defend her maids, whom she had nurtured and schooled into spying for her, she hides away, hoping to avoid Odysseus' s wrath, and the worst of consequences. In the end, the blame for the maids' deaths hangs more on Penelope's head than it does on Odysseus. She knew of their loyalty and trustworthiness, and as such owed them her allegiance. Odysseus was only acting true to his nature, based on the facts at hand. She abdicates her power to Odysseus, and ultimately to Telemachus, and lets the maids hang -- literally and figuratively, forever suspended in time.

I'm disappointed in Atwood's version of Penelope; I think she is far stronger and more resilient in Homer's version. (One would have hoped that in the retelling, Atwood would have made her stronger, not weaker than what she was.)

The most moving, the most powerful, the most evocative lines come in the form of Atwood's poetry:

we had no voice
we had no name
we had no choice
we had one face
one face the same

we took the blame
it was not fair
but now we're here
we're all there too
the same as you

and now we follow
you, we find you
now, we call
to you to you
too witt too woo

If Atwood had penned only this, it would have spoken more powerfully than the entire Penelopiad in returning even an iota of justice to their murdered bodies. (At the very least, it gave them their voices back.)

And once again, it comes down to this: Atwood's poetry is astoundingly good. She is a marvel as a poet. When Atwood parses her words, her thoughts, the distilled result becomes a masterpiece; yet, when she plays with too many words in the toybox, she becomes a bit of a dunderhead: it's like too many words trip her up, or she gets stuck in the web of her own thoughts and emerges less than who she is.
Profile Image for J.C..
Author 6 books89 followers
August 1, 2022
Margaret Atwood novels do not disappoint! I don’t know anything about her non-fiction, her poetry or her children’s stories, but I’ve read her most famous books and found each one absorbing. I was excited by the title of this one, as it seemed the perfect subject for this consummate author and assiduous celebrator of women.
It’s really short – I read it in an evening and part of an afternoon – and yet it’s varied, challenging and modern without anachronism. Penelope speaks from Hades; I found it interesting that the people who died in her era inhabit the underworld of their imaginings and teaching, while the dead of later centuries taste a hellish world appropriate to their later vision.
The best thing I can do to give you an idea of what this book does is to quote from the author’s introduction:

“I’ve chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in The Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many inconsistences. I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids, and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.”

Margaret Atwood blends myth and reality in a technique that flows as water (like the advice given to Penelope by her Naiad mother) but is as intricate as the tapestry Penelope weaves, referred to by some as “a web”. In this way the style and grace of the writing underpin and reflect the power of the myth.
Now, I must tell you that about twenty years ago I met an American in a local hotel who was convinced that Penelope sat weaving in a little stone house round the west side of this Hebridean island! A starting-block for this theory would be Keats’ poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s ‘Homer’”:
round many a western island have I been
However there is more on the web if anyone’s interested in pursuing it. It seems it’s an accredited thesis:
http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~legneref/...
and it ties in with Margaret Atwood’s references through her characters to the matriarchal “Great Goddess” religion (Artemis).
(Just editing this here to say that the source above (or another like it) actually says that Odysseus had no wife, because of his involvement with the Great Goddess religion. The hypothesis is that he was a Pict, born in the village of Borve in this island).

It does seem that Helen (of Troy fame) was Penelope’s first cousin, and Margaret Atwood has great fun making her a prize bitch throughout, overdone really except that with this author any exaggeration has to be deliberate! The serious message, for me and for her, I think, was the tale of the twelve hanged maids, for whom justice is not available, at any time or any place. And where is Penelope in that story? Her knowledge of the part she played propels her through Hades emitting a sort of inner wail of unresolved guilt, which no one hears or cares about:

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.”

“I have no mouth through which I can speak”, utters Penelope. But can we not say, with Margaret Atwood, that she speaks for so many women, throughout all history? Can we not say, this still happens? Must it, always?
Profile Image for Repellent Boy.
502 reviews520 followers
May 5, 2022
4,5. Margaret Atwood se pone detrás de una de las historias más famosas y reinterpretadas de todos los tiempos, para darle por primera vez voz al personaje de Penélope. Los veinte años que Ulises (u Odiseo) pasó de viaje viviendo aventuras, mientras la casta y pura Penélope lo esperaba pacientemente ha calado en el imaginario de todos, y ha ayudado, de alguna manera, a fomentar esa idea de ejemplo de “buena mujer”. Esa mujer abnegada, que se mantiene fiel y pura durante veinte largos años, mientras su marido, vive de batalla en batalla y de mujer en mujer. Atwood le da un giro a todo esto, y lanza un grito feminista con esta revisión de la historia, a través de la voz de Penélope y de las criadas.

“Penélope y las doce criadas” empieza fuerte a través de un potente prólogo donde nos explica un poco la historia de "La odisea", y nos describe a ese personaje “heroico” que, sin embargo, era un experto embaucador y hacía del engaño su modo de vida, desmitificando al personaje y a la misma historia. Desde el inicio, la autora sienta las bases de lo que vamos a leer, y es que Atwood va a darle la vuelta a esta típica historia contada por hombres y para beneficio de ellos, ya que el origen de la Odisea nace de muchas leyendas y no todas aportaban la misma visión de Ulises como héroe y Penélope como esposa sumisa y embaucada por su marido.

Con una narración ágil, directa y poética, la autora nos hace un repaso de la vida de Penélope desde su nacimiento, acercándonos a su figura, pero actualizando la leyenda. El hecho de que la historia esté narrada en primera persona desde el punto de vista de Penélope, añade un punto más a esa denuncia al machismo, y como este, a lo largo de la historia ha intentado (y sigue intentado) transmitir ciertos atributos como los únicos positivos para la mujer: sumisión, paciencia, castidad, pureza o inocencia.

La ironía del personaje de Penélope ante la frágil masculinidad de los personajes masculinos me ha encantado, situaciones como que la mujer puede ser inteligente pero no mucho, no vaya a ser que supere en astucia a su marido o que debe ser una gran oyente, pero no una gran conversadora, ya que la atención nunca debe desviarse hacia ella, son expuestas por Penélope con ese punto irónico, de burla hacia lo absurdo. Puede parecer que esto queda muy antiguo, pero es algo que sigue aterradoramente vigente en la actualidad y por eso libros como este, que le dan una nueva visión a personajes tan interesantes como Penélope, tienen una gran importancia.

Por si la visión de Penélope fuera poco, nos encontramos también con el tratamiento que ha dado la historia al personaje de Helena de Troya, esa mujer pecaminosa e infiel, que provocaba guerras y muertes allá por donde iba. Su belleza era tan arrebatadora y ella tan engreída, que los “pobres hombres” no podía hacer nada más que caer en sus redes. Nos suena este argumento, ¿no? En efecto, también sigue estando muy a la orden del día. Me parece muy interesante como la autora a través de los dos personajes, y la contraposición de ambos, nos habla de estos dos únicos posibles roles que el hombre a lo largo de la historia ha otorgado a la mujer: la puta o la santa. No había término medio, y por supuesto, ambas dos solo existían o bien para agradar la vida del hombre, o bien para importunarla, pero, en cualquier caso, solo vivían en relación a la figura de este y para su futura evolución.

Para terminar de redondear, la voz de las doce criadas se vuelve la más crítica y directa. Mientras que la narración de Penélope se me antoja irónica y la usa de forma sutil para ridiculizar actitudes y situaciones que viven y sufren las mujeres a causa del machismo, las doce criadas denuncian y juzgan directamente el trato que han recibido ellas y que reciben siempre las mujeres por la sociedad, y como estas son usadas como objetos que intercambiar o poseer, e incluso son culpabilizadas y castigadas por los delitos que los hombres ejercen contra ellas. Es un libro muy pequeñito en cuanto extensión, pero enorme en significado. Margaret Atwood es una autora impecable. Pienso leer toda su obra.
Profile Image for Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ .
815 reviews614 followers
January 11, 2018
Tip; If you aren't familiar with (or have forgotten) this Greek myth don't read the introduction to this novel as it contains spoilers. I love the Greek myths (I must have mean streak!) but I had forgotten some of this. I would rather of been taken by surprise.

A clever idea to feminise one of the most famous of these legends, but the start had some lazy writing;

Where shall I begin? There are only two choices: at the beginning or not at the beginning.


There is also that unfortunate whiff you get from Atwood sometimes that she thinks she is cleverer than everyone else!

But this tale does improve, it did make me think & reread to make sure I had got all the important points.

In spite of my 4★ rating I would classify this as an important Atwood - very close to an essential one.
Profile Image for Helga.
959 reviews148 followers
January 26, 2023
Which of us can resist the temptation of being thought indispensable?

In this retelling of Penelope’s story, the faithful wife of Odysseus sets the records straight and tells us what really happened after Odysseus left to fight in the Trojan War.

Profile Image for Vicky Ziliaskopoulou.
580 reviews87 followers
February 28, 2018
Το να γράψει κάποιος την οδύσσεια από την πλευρά της Πηνελόπης είναι σίγουρα μια πολύ καλή και έξυπνη ιδέα. Το βρήκα καλό, ανάλαφρο και σίγουρα πολύ μικρό. Δεν ξέρω αν έκανε έρευνα η συγγραφέας για να το γράψει ή αν αρκέστηκε μόνο στην Οδύσσεια, μου φάνηκε περιληπτικό και θα το ήθελα πιο μεγάλο, είναι τόσο αραιογραμμένο και τόσο λίγο που μέχρι να μπω στο κλίμα το είχα κιόλας τελειώσει. Πάντως μου άρεσε.

BRACE 2018: Ένα βιβλίο συγγραφέα που ήταν 60+ όταν το έγραψε
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