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The Penelopiad: First Impressions

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1lorannen
May 1, 2014, 11:51am Top

Thoughts on The Penelopiad as you're starting to read? Read it before? Post them here!

Please hide spoiler-y posts using a "spoiler" HTML tag!

2Mr.Durick
Edited: May 1, 2014, 6:47pm Top

I am trying to recall my reading experience of a few years back. I found where Margaret Atwood started, and picked up The Odyssey and read it from that point on. I remember that her book seemed to map well to the epic, but I actually remember more of the epic than of the modern take on it.

Robert

3nohrt4me2
May 1, 2014, 9:02pm Top

Overall I enjoyed it, but it seemed to me that Atwood was just kind of playing around--at least I don't think the book showcases her full powers.

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.

4pbirch01
May 11, 2014, 11:43pm Top

First impression is that this book is tiny! Really glad about that since I am also reading the runner up candidate for this month Salvage the Bones and that book has been quite a bit of work for me to get through. Glad that this book is shorter, hopefully that will get more people involved.

5Helenoel
May 19, 2014, 10:08am Top

Agree with the first impressions of short, a quick read, and maybe Atwood is having fun more than writing a serious study.

6matthewmason
Edited: May 22, 2014, 9:26am Top

I'm thinking that I'll likely read coinciding books of the Odyssey as they occur in TP, as others have mentioned, though I think there is more going on than discourse concerning just the oral bard. I notice that Atwood included a chorus refrain in first few pages--contextualized for us moderns quite appropriately as a jump-rope song. It's assuredly a nod to later (non-Homeric) Greek drama.

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.

7nohrt4me2
May 21, 2014, 9:17pm Top

Interesting connection between Atwood's maiden chorus and The Trojan Women. I don't want to add spoilers at this point, but maybe the function of the chorus and its echoes in other works of literature could be one of the topics for discussion?

8jjwilson61
May 21, 2014, 10:19pm Top

In the introduction Atwood suggests that there is something funny about the hanging of the twelve maids. What does classical scholarship have to say? Is there something unsaid going on or is that just the way society was in those days?

9matthewmason
May 22, 2014, 9:28am Top

>7 nohrt4me2: I'll jot this one down.
>8 jjwilson61: This seems like a good topic for discussion too.

10krazy4katz
Edited: May 25, 2014, 10:07pm Top

I found the time and place (no spoilers) when/where Penelope decides to tell this tale kind of interesting. That is a Margaret Atwood slant. I agree that it doesn't showcase her incredible talents but it is still a very clever, fun trip through the Odyssey. Until the end of course where things get a bit more serious.

11matthewmason
May 25, 2014, 10:07pm Top

>10 krazy4katz: Just finished this afternoon, and found her framing mechanism ingenious--a good discussion topic, maybe?

12nohrt4me2
May 25, 2014, 10:11pm Top

I'm trying to tread carefully w/o spoilers, (though the Odyssey is so well known that I'm not sure I'm letting the cows out).

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.

13matthewmason
Edited: May 25, 2014, 10:22pm Top

I thought I had sensed darker shades of irony in those ribald jokes... An interesting way of going about drama/catharsis?

14nohrt4me2
May 26, 2014, 11:07am Top

I think the tone is quite bitter.

15krazy4katz
May 26, 2014, 11:49am Top

>14 nohrt4me2:

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.

16ladynora55
May 30, 2014, 8:49pm Top

Just used the book as an example for my Novel Elements lesson tonight. I must say that using it has bolstered my resolve to finish the book this weekend, when I have more time spend to myself. I am looking forward to a vibrant discussion. It has been so long since I read The Odyssey, that my only real frame of reference is a series I watched on SyFy, sad but true.

17DanaJean
Jun 2, 2014, 12:15pm Top

Some very good and thoughtful questions posted. I'm going to have to think about them and hopefully someone will get the ball rolling.

18LoisB
Jun 2, 2014, 10:16pm Top

Surprisingly, I really enjoyed this book. I was not a fan of the Odyssey, so I had low expectations. But, I read the first paragraph and was hooked. I thought it was well-written and very clever.

19matthewmason
Jun 3, 2014, 2:04pm Top

Consider the ball rolled. Let us know what you all think! Seems the book appealed to a wide range of folk—and for different reasons. I was impressed, to be honest.

20snora
Jun 5, 2014, 4:15pm Top

I enjoy Atwood's novels. However, I felt that she just dashed this one off. Not up to her standards.

21LoisB
Jun 5, 2014, 4:37pm Top

>20 snora: Interesting- I think the fact that she did "dash this one off" is why I enjoyed it so much. I struggled through Alias Grace because I felt the story dragged on forever.

22kiparsky
Jun 5, 2014, 5:27pm Top

I don't get the sense that it was "dashed off" at all. On the contrary, I think it probably took a lot of work to get that casual tone to ring right all the way through.

23DanaJean
Jun 5, 2014, 8:13pm Top

22, kiparsky, I agree. It takes a lot of skill to make something seem so casual in writing.

24medmond77
Jun 6, 2014, 8:34am Top

I love the casual style. I think it shows more creativity than something forced. It's making for a quick read and I'm very glad to have joined in.

25streamsong
Jun 6, 2014, 9:02am Top

Yes, I'm finding the style quite different than the other Atwood books I've read, but I'm enjoying it very much.

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.

26Tuirgin
Jun 7, 2014, 8:23pm Top

This is the first Atwood novel I've read. She's very obviously a talented writer. I'm not sure what I think of the casual style. I think I'll reserve thoughts on that until I'm finished with the book.

How would you characterize the style of her other works?

27Felurian
Jun 8, 2014, 11:00am Top

The tone struck me as seeming right for a narrator who has been dead — and bored for ages. A little distracted, self-absorbed, definitely old grievances sharpened with with passage of time, then blunted by ennui.

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.

28LoisB
Jun 8, 2014, 12:58pm Top

>27 Felurian: Excellent analysis!

29IreneF
Jun 9, 2014, 10:57pm Top

Hmm. I'm about halfway thru, and I must say I'm underwhelmed. Penelope seems neither ancient nor modern, and I don't like the casual style.

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.

30Sambelini
Edited: Jun 10, 2014, 2:05pm Top

I read this book a few years ago for a comparative literary essay on modern retellings of myths (I compared it to an excellent book Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, which tells the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche's half-sister). I don't think I have any spoilers, though I almost feel like I've written a review!

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.

31medmond77
Edited: Jun 11, 2014, 10:45am Top

>> Felurian

I agree wholeheartedly. I especially love your assessment of 'bored for ages'!

32Tuirgin
Jun 11, 2014, 11:02am Top

>30 Sambelini: I totally agree re: Till We Have Faces, it's a beautiful book, and my favorite of Lewis's works.

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.

33IreneF
Jun 11, 2014, 11:47pm Top

In Homer's world, loyalty to one's mates (family, clan, king, etc.) is of utmost importance, but other people seem to be regarded much like animals. At one point Odysseus says that the proper activity for a man is piracy; the city is razed, the men slaughtered, the women enslaved.

I try to imagine how the stories would have been told in ancient Greece, who would have told them, and who listened.

34RuthieD
Jun 12, 2014, 3:29pm Top

I've read the intro and the first few pages and my initial feelings were similar on attempting The Handmaids Tale...this is The author for me...a feeling which didn't sadly last.
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.
Hey ho...onwards....

35IreneF
Jun 16, 2014, 4:24pm Top

I want to continue the thought I started above, about the environment of epic poetry. (I was rudely interrupted by someone who turned on Goldfinger, then I experienced a lapse of energy.)

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.

36JDHomrighausen
Jun 19, 2014, 12:07pm Top

So many good points here.

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.

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