Once Upon a Time: The Penelopiad

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad


Today’s Armchair BEA topic is Character Chatter. Here are my thoughts on a book that reimagines some of the most famous characters in literature.

The Penelopiad is a decidedly odd little book. It’s a riff on the story of faithful Penelope from the Odyssey, who waited twenty years for her husband to return from his travels (and his amours) while fending off a pack of rapacious suitors. It takes an aspect of the story usually considered a minor detail — the hanging of twelve of Penelope’s maids for sleeping with said suitors — and makes it the subject of a sort of literary theme and variations, incorporating poetry, music-hall style comic songs, feminist criticism, and even a court transcript, which interrupt Penelope’s own first-person narrative (delivered from Hades).

The maids never get individual voices, speaking rather as a chorus that echoes the use of such satirical relief as a counterpoise to Greek tragedy. As they contrast with and comment on Penelope’s version of the tale, they cast doubt on her motives and leave us with unresolved questions about what really happened. As Penelope says herself, along with her husband she is one of the great liars of all time, after all.

This is a book by Margaret Atwood, so it’s sly and witty and gracefully written. It didn’t quite satisfy me as a reading experience, though, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps because the interposed chorus sections sometimes felt too contrived, their stylistic changes showing off Atwood’s virtuosity for its own sake. The highlighting of issues of gender and class was somewhat heavy-handed, and the mixture of ancient and modern idioms sometimes jarring rather than amusing.

Still, Atwood is nothing if not a compelling storyteller, and the questions she raises are worth asking. Her attempt to give voice to the voiceless women of one of our foundational Western myths is admirable, and worth any reader’s time. I’d love to go back to the sources (particularly The Odyssey and Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths), and then read it again and see what I think.

I’m counting The Penelopiad for the “Myth” category in the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.


13 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time: The Penelopiad

  1. I am a fan of Atwood and look forward to giving this a try. I am using it for one of the categories in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge! I'm glad you enjoyed it even if it wasn't one of her best. 😀


  2. I love Atwood, so I'll probably try this one even though you weren't satisfied. I have thought it would be interesting to read a story about Penelope, but this doesn't seem to be quite what I was thinking. I didn't know that 12 of her maids were hanged for sleeping with the suitors. I guess I don't remember my Odyssey well enough.


    1. I don't remember the hanged maids either! Another reason to reread the Odyssey.I actually liked the parts that were about Penelope best. A full-length novel in that vein would have been preferable for me. But the maids kept interrupting.


  3. Your comment on my blog piece about this book made me realise I hadn't seen a post from you for ages. Upon investigating I found that your blog posts were no longer showing up in my reader – no idea why. Hopefully I have rectified it now. We do seem to have had similar reactions to this book.


  4. Great review.By coincidence I have been considering reading this very soon.It seems to be so different and innovative. I generally love Margaret Atwood and have of late been very interested in literature that has been influenced by the Odyssey. I have also been really interested in gender related issues lately. Thus, this seems like a logical read for me.Based on your commentary it does sound like it has it flaws. Sometimes I find it difficult get past heavy handedness and lack of subtly.


    1. Maybe I'm just over-sensitive. I would certainly recommend it if you are interested in literature that has been influenced by the Odyssey. I think it would be fascinating to gather a number of those and compare them.


  5. I have been totally unsatisfied with all the Canongate myth series so far, those novellas. Maybe I have a problem with novellas mainly? I read the Winterson one, about Atlas, and I read a couple more that I forget, and they were all just okay.


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