The Penelopiad: First Impressions
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She was invited to write this as part of a series, contemporary writers re-write mythology.
Seems to beg some kind of comparison with Anne Sexton's revised fairy tales with a feminist slant.
Maybe this carries with it more influence and meaning than simple structural appropriation: (I hope) Atwood's nodding to other Greek drama--maybe including direct references. Euripides' Trojan Women comes to mind immediately, a tragedy in which the chorus is comprised of, like the poor handmaidens of the Odyssey, the doomed women of Troy--their sons executed off the walls of the city, themselves destined to death, enslavement, rape, and murder.
But I think the basic premise is that there are different points of view from which to look at what happens in the Odyssey. The Cyclops would have told a much different story from Odysseus. So the POV is important in Atwood's treatment. I don't think the funny or light-hearted bits are meant to be taken at face value but to add to the pity and fear.
I agree with you about the funny parts really being not funny underneath. There is a "of course this is what you would expect given the circumstances" aspect to it - that people of certain circumstances are always poorly treated.
Does she have any other works with a similar style? I laughed a lot at the Maddaddam trilogy but I wouldn't call the style lighthearted.
How would you characterize the style of her other works?
And there's an aura of regret that's buried underneath Penelope's flippancy and cynicism, barely buried.
I thought Atwood created a unique voice for Penelope, but one that has, paradoxically, threads of universality, and she stayed true to it throughout the story.
I also feel that Atwood didn't do her homework. Robert Graves is a good source (out of many) for the myths themselves, but his interpretations are unsupported, to say the least.
I was always disturbed by Odysseus' hanging of the maids. It was unclear to me if they were slaves, like Eumaeus, or more like ladies in waiting. Either way, they were guilty only by association.
I suppose if you are going to murder a flock of unwelcome guests, then a dozen household women isn't going to make much of a difference. If they were slaves, they were Odysseus' to kill; if they were freeborn, then he would probably just have to pay off their families. And he was the king, after all.
Overall, I found The Penelopiad a disappointment. I read some other retellings of myths (Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles), and I admit this book was at least more insightful (in my opinion) than some of these, but overall I found the book a little strained. As mentioned, Margaret Atwood was asked to write this as part of a series of re-written myths by contemporary authors (I believe Weight was also part of this series), and it seemed to me that she put very little heart into it. As she says in the introduction, she was always haunted by the hanging of the maids. This was perhaps one piece of her heart that translated into the story, and it is actually an interesting study point, but aside from this and an interesting narrative perspective and setting, the book was not, in my opinion, very entertaining or ground breaking. That being said, my biases are as follows:
1) Although I had never read anything else from Margaret Atwood, I did expect something more from a writer of her notoriety. However, it is unfair to expect one of her greatest works to be something she was "asked" to write rather than something she was compelled to write herself.
2) As I said, I was comparing this work to Till We Have Faces, which C. S. Lewis apparently considered to be his greatest work (interesting because it is less known than most of his other distinguished works). The lack of what I called "heart" in The Penelopiad was stark compared to the genuinely personal tale of Lewis.
In the end though, the Penelopiad was a quick and easy read, and did offer some insight into the tale of the Odyssey from a new perspective. In studying the modern retellings of myths, I found some interesting patterns. Myths often offer us universal archetypes (both character and story archetypes), which is part of why they have lasted so long. They are somewhat the "bare bones" of a story, easily coloured and adapted to changes in culture (which is why we often have many versions of the same myth). These modernized myths, including The Penelopiad, have been coloured with contemporary themes like feminism, psychology, politics, and modern religions - themes which did not, or hardly, existed in their original interpretations. Interestingly, The Penelopiad is written in first person by a female narrator, offers a somewhat agnostic view of the gods, and at one point confronts justice in a modern courtroom. Atwood, while keeping the myth debatably intact, brings insight into both modern culture and history, joining timeless tale with modern perspective. This is the power of archetype: the bare bones of the story remain, but they adapt to new cultures through the people's changing fancies, being told and retold and reworked for new generations while still staying somehow the same. In this way, it seems, the gods really are immortal.
That being said, I still didn't really like The Penelopiad as a story. It simply wasn't my cup of tea. Although these archetypes can be fairly trusted to provide a good story, it seems there is still some room for error.
I agree wholeheartedly. I especially love your assessment of 'bored for ages'!
I hate to say it, but I have this thought that with The Penelopiad Atwood fell back on "message" rather than engage in any real exploration of the characters. It feels like the potential within the material was wasted.
I try to imagine how the stories would have been told in ancient Greece, who would have told them, and who listened.
I've not read The Odyssey , so the whole scenario is going to take some getting into my head. What is probably going to distract me is the alternate chorus pages.
A bugging thought ...the Penelopiad...that name and how her father renamed her duck...whenever I see it it reminds me of some Latin type name for another sea creature ...platypus or something? I'm already confused
as to where they all lived...are they underwater...as she seems to state ...in which case as a creature she could be like a platypus ...a Penelopiad.
When Odysseus washes up on the island of the Phaeacians, he is welcomed by the royal court, and entertained by the bard Demodocus. Then Odysseus breaks down in tears upon hearing the tale of Troy, and he is invited to tell his story. (Homers calls him "the great teller of tales".) The art of storytelling is valued as an accomplishment among the aristocracy, and there are indeed professional storytellers who attend the royal courts. So we can assume that the tale of the Odyssey, within its own universe, was told to and for the elite.
When Homer wrote down his poems the world was a different place. Troy and Mycenae were ruins. The Greek world was just emerging from hundreds of years of recession. The great epics were about the great deeds of yore. I think they could be compared to the romances of Chrétien de Troyes. In the 12th century he wrote stories of King Arthur and his knights, people who,if they ever lived, would have been dead for centuries. Chrètien also wrote about and for the elite; he served the Countess of Champagne, daughter of Louis VII.
As a classics major, I'm fairly familiar with Homer. So I was hoping for something really stellar, this being my first time reading Atwood. My previous experience with the Myths series has been good -- in 2012 I read Lion's Honey, a retelling of the Samson and Delilah story, and found it thoughtful and provocative.
I won't say this is my favorite book ever, but there were some interesting points. I like how Atwood took a very iconoclastic angle to the story, enabled by the fact that the narrator is in the underworld beyond the scope of the gods. It's very easy to read the Odyssey and be taken in my Odysseus' story, reading it uncritically and being amazed at his bravado. Atwood takes a different angle: perhaps Odysseus exaggerated his stories. Perhaps Penelope covered up her adultery. They are both masters of deception and trickery, well-matched in cleverness, and Atwood's novella reminds me to read BOTH Penelope and Odysseus' own stories with a grain of salt.