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The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and…

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (2005)

by Margaret Atwood

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Myths (2)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
4,4101951,565 (3.61)8 / 464
  1. 90
    Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin (rarm)
  2. 60
    The Lost Books of The Odyssey: A Novel by Zachary Mason (alalba, jeanned)
    alalba: Both books offer alternative versions of the Odyssey.
  3. 50
    Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeanette Winterson (nperrin)
  4. 40
    Medea by Christa Wolf (spiphany)
  5. 20
    The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth (smithal)
    smithal: Unsworth has a bitterly satiric, debunking approach to the Illiad story, which readers who enjoyed the Penelopiad should appreciate.
  6. 20
    The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis (SilentInAWay)
    SilentInAWay: Picks up where the Penelopiad leaves off...
  7. 10
    Sita's Ramayana by Samhita Arni (eclecticdodo)
    eclecticdodo: both books are retellings of traditional tales, from the woman's perspective, challenging traditional gender roles
  8. 10
    Black Ships by Jo Graham (ryvre)
  9. 21
    Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis (AnnaClaire)
    AnnaClaire: A different author retelling a different myth, but they still seem to fit together nicely.
  10. 10
    Achilles by Elizabeth Cook (Booksloth)
  11. 32
    Mythology by Edith Hamilton (sibyllacumaea)
  12. 10
    Eine ganz gewöhnliche Ehe. Odysseus und Penelope. Roman by Inge Merkel (spiphany)

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English (193)  French (1)  Danish (1)  All languages (195)
Showing 1-5 of 193 (next | show all)
I really enjoyed the sections of the novel that were written in Penelope’s first person voice. That she was reflecting some millennia after the facts of the story really worked for me. It gave the telling of the story a fresh yet reflective tone – emotional depth was there but Penelope had had more than enough time to come to terms with all of her experiences. However more than moving the plot quickly along I think this also gave the opportunity for Atwood to say something about the nature of truth and the power, and associated credibility risks, of being able to tell your own story.

Lest this all sound really very deep the narration and characterisation were also surprisingly light and often times really witty which I had not expected and really did enjoy. Penelope’s insights into Odysseus’ character were pointed but loving however the real star of the show for me was the scathing observations and interactions with Helen of Troy.

What I enjoyed less was the poetry of the Chorus Line – I understand Atwood was looking to represent and whilst I recognise it was well done I struggled a little with the flips between the prose and the poetry and much preferred the chapter of more traditional narration from the maids. ( )
  itchyfeetreader | May 3, 2018 |
As part of the Canongate Myth Series, Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus draws upon the Rieu translation of The Odyssey and Robert Graves' The Greek Myths to retell the narrative of the Iliad and Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus's wife, Penelope. Atwood begins with Penelope's childhood in Sparta and her father Icarius' attempt to kill her along with her conflict with cousin Helen, who later started the Trojan War. From there, Atwood follows Penelope to Ithaca and tells how she recruited maids as her informants during the period of Odysseus' odyssey. These maids helped spur Atwood's version of events, as Odysseus executed them upon his return and Atwood sought to give them a story and, by extension, some measure of justice.
Atwood sets the story in Hades, where Penelope tells it to the reader and explains some of the mechanics of the Greek underworld. The maids act as a traditional Greek chorus, interjecting between chapters to give their input into events using modern forms of media, such as a college lecture, a show tune, and a transcript from a courtroom video. By granting Penelope the ability to witness our modern world, Atwood frees herself from the limitation of trying to fully recreate Greek settings, but also gives herself the freedom to interject humor and a cosmological worldview in which the Greek gods' power has waned and a new afterlife was set up near Hades, but it's full of suffering and torment. Fans of Atwood's work will find plenty to enjoy and her use of Greek mythology will entertain those interested in the classics. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Apr 15, 2018 |
i'm so glad i reread the odyssey before reading this. so many details i wouldn't have known were from the original.

i loved the way this began. her language is great throughout, and the ideas of telling it from the woman's perspective - and that penelope wouldn't have just waited for odysseus and been faithful to him for 20 years; and that the slave girls who were killed were likely more innocent than homer made them - are necessary and welcome. and fun to set it in present time, in hades, with the spirits narrating. i felt like there were some inconsistencies and it fell off a bit in the last third, but picked up again for a good ending.

i love the way atwood uses language and i love her mind. a good "retelling" that fills in some pieces in a plausible, but more feminist, way.

"It was a specialty of his: making fools. He got away with everything, which was another of his specialties: getting away."

"Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does." ( )
  elisa.saphier | Apr 14, 2018 |
Margaret Atwood has written a very credible story about what happened in Ithaca while Odysseus was away. She has not only given a voice to the voiceless slave girls, but also smoothly explained behaviours from the Odyssey that are simply left to the reader to decipher. I quite enjoyed it, although I did get slightly annoyed by the inclusion of the old ‘matriarchal goddess worship being replaced by patriarchy’ chestnut. ( )
  NKarman | Apr 2, 2018 |
This was a well-written retelling of events in the the Iliad/Odyssey, as one would expect from Atwood. Then, in Chapter 24--BOOM!--there 'ya go. Everything you thought you knew about Homer so cleverly deconstructs right there before your eyes! It was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. The way she blows the lid off this ancient tale, with multiple layers, multiple tellings, readings and interpretations in such a tight, compact little book is masterful indeed. I know I've used that word to describe her before, but she really is a master of story. If you like Percy Jackson, you'll love... Just kidding. Not really, actually, you probably would really love this book. ( )
  MsKathleen | Jan 29, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 193 (next | show all)
She channels Penelope by way of Absolutely Fabulous; one can imagine her chain-smoking and swilling wine between cracks about the weakness of men and the misery they visit upon women.
Atwood has done her research: she knows that penelopeia means "duck" in Greek; that ribald stories about a Penelope - whether "our Penelope" or someone else - were circulated; and that virginity could be renewed by the blood of male sacrifice.

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Atwood, MargaretAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Chakrabarti, NinaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'... Shrewd Odysseus! ... You are a fortunate man to have won a wife of such pre-eminent virtue! How faithful was your flawless Penelope, Icarius' daughter! How loyally she kept the memory of the husband of her youth! The glory of her virtue will not fade with the years, but the deathless gods themselves will make a beautiful song for mortal ears in honour of the constant Penelope'

      - The Odyssey, Book 24 (191-194)
. . . he took a cable which had seen service on a blue-bowed ship, made one end fast to a high column in the portico, and threw the other over the round-house, high up, so that their feet would not touch the ground. As when long-winged thrushes or doves get entangled in a snare . . . so the women's heads were held fast in a row, with nooses round their necks, to bring them to the most pitiable end. For a little while their feet twitched, but not for very long.

     — The Odyssey, Book 22 (470-473)
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The story of Odysseus' return to his home kingdom of Ithaca following an absence of twenty years is best known from Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus is said to have spend half of these years fighting the Trojan War and the other half wandering around the Aegean Sea, trying to get home, enduring hardships, conquering or evading mosters, and sleeping with goddesses. The character of 'wily Odysseus' has been much commented on: he's noted as a persuasive liar and disguise artist—a man who lives by his wits, who devises stratagems and tricks, and who is sometimes too clever for his own good. His divine helper is Pallas Athene, a goddess who admires Odysseus for his ready inventiveness. [from the Introduction]
Now that I'm dead I know everything. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn't know before. Death is much tooo high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say. [from Chapter I]
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Disambiguation notice
The novella version of The Penelopiad issued under Canongate's Myths series should not be combined with the theatrical version of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad - The Play (Faber and Faber ISBN 978-0571239498 and possibly other editions) due to the different form and content. Thank you.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 067697418X, Hardcover)

The internationally acclaimed Myths series brings together some of the finest writers of our time to provide a contemporary take on some of our most enduring stories. Here, the timeless and universal tales that reflect and shape our lives–mirroring our fears and desires, helping us make sense of the world–are revisited, updated, and made new.

Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad is a sharp, brilliant and tender revision of a story at the heart of our culture: the myths about Penelope and Odysseus. In Homer’s familiar version, The Odyssey, Penelope is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes to fight in the Trojan Wars, she manages to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son and, in the face of scandalous rumours, keep over a hundred suitors at bay. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills Penelope’s suitors and–curiously–twelve of her maids.

In Homer the hanging of the maids merits only a fleeting though poignant mention, but Atwood comments in her introduction that she has always been haunted by those deaths. The Penelopiad, she adds, begins with two questions: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? In the book, these subjects are explored by Penelope herself–telling the story from Hades — the Greek afterworld - in wry, sometimes acid tones. But Penelope’s maids also figure as a singing and dancing chorus (and chorus line), commenting on the action in poems, songs, an anthropology lecture and even a videotaped trial.

The Penelopiad does several dazzling things at once. First, it delves into a moment of casual brutality and reveals all that the act contains: a practice of sexual violence and gender prejudice our society has not outgrown. But it is also a daring interrogation of Homer’s poem, and its counter-narratives — which draw on mythic material not used by Homer - cleverly unbalance the original. This is the case throughout, from the unsettling questions that drive Penelope’s tale forward, to more comic doubts about some of The Odyssey’s most famous episodes. (“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.”)

In fact, The Penelopiad weaves and unweaves the texture of The Odyssey in several searching ways. The Odyssey was originally a set of songs, for example; the new version’s ballads and idylls complement and clash with the original. Thinking more about theme, the maids’ voices add a new and unsettling complex of emotions that is missing from Homer. The Penelopiad takes what was marginal and brings it to the centre, where one can see its full complexity.

The same goes for its heroine. Penelope is an important figure in our literary culture, but we have seldom heard her speak for herself. Her sometimes scathing comments in The Penelopiad (about her cousin, Helen of Troy, for example) make us think of Penelope differently – and the way she talks about the twenty-first century, which she observes from Hades, makes us see ourselves anew too.

Margaret Atwood is an astonishing storyteller, and The Penelopiad is, most of all, a haunting and deeply entertaining story. This book plumbs murder and memory, guilt and deceit, in a wise and passionate manner. At time hilarious and at times deeply thought-provoking, it is very much a Myth for our times.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:31 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Homer's Odyssey is not the only version of the story. Mythic material was originally oral, and also local -- a myth would be told one way in one place and quite differently in another. I have drawn on material other than the Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope's parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumors circulating about her.… (more)

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