Friday, April 1, 2011

Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths, The)I am almost reluctant to write this review of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus--for two main reasons.  First, I love many of Atwood's novels--especially Cat's Eye which I read as a young woman.  Second, many bloggers I admire very much, from Trisha and Mel to Nymeth and Caribousmom, were much more impressed with the book than I am.

Rather than being amused by Atwood's attempts at humor, I found many of her lines annoying and artificial.  When the dead Penelope is narrating her story to modern audiences, for example, she says what is supposed to be hip: "In your world, you don't get visitations from the gods the way people used to unless you're on drugs."  This kind of talk made Penelope seem like a trivial character to me rather than a voice from the past I wanted to spend my time listening to.  I expected Atwood to use her deep insights to turn Penelope into a fuller character, not draw her into a comic strip.  Similarly, the rapping maids come out with ridiculous lines like "Word has it that Penelope the Prissy was--when it came to sex--no shrinking sissy!"  This kind of portrayal I find to be so surface level as to be demeaning.

Although I disliked this book fairly intensely, there were many insights and lines I was drawn to.  My favorite: Odysseus "had a reputation as a man who could undo any complicated knot, though sometimes by tying a more complicated one."

*  *  *

I've been thinking about my displeasure at what I see as Atwood's derision of Homer's epic. Do I dislike her novel so much because of my desire to take classic literature "seriously"?  When I read the Literary Blog Hop's question of the week (about whether a book's status as a classic affects our enjoyment or perception of a book), it made think about why I had so many problems with this book.  I feel called to work hard to try to understand what people have found valuable in great literature over the centuries.  Can I just not take a joke when an author pokes fun of those works?

I think the answer is that I do like literary joking around.  For example, I love works that turn Shakespeare on his head to make us laugh--as I have said before and will say again.  I can't quite figure out what the difference is here.  It feels like Atwood is dismissing The Odyssey rather than playing with it or building on it.  Does that make any sense?

I would love to hear your thoughts.  Anyone who loved the book want to make a spirited defense of it?


  1. I think Atwood may have made Penelope intentionally silly and shallow as a way of attacking the King ship male dominated structure of government that takes ordinary, sometimes less than ordinary, women and elevates them to great status. Maybe Penelope is meant to be silly, she is very uneducated-she mocks her cousin Helen for trading on her looks-I liked the novel not because I admire Penelope but because how it shows women were property no matter who they were-it deals with the slave structure of Greek society-

  2. A great travesty of a great book is based on what is valuable in the book. Euripides, in his travesties like Helen and Orestes, takes Homer and Aeschylus entirely seriously. They are worthy targets, dangerous targets, worth undermining.

    I don't know that this is any help with Atwood. I'm just saying that there are plenty of classics that mock / attack / parody / dynamite other classics. It's an ancient tradition.

    That line from the maids was supposed to be rap? Atwood maybe should have spent more time listening to rap. I can point her to some good Canadian rappers.

  3. Mel: Yes--I see your point. And it shows how much that women-as-property idea could potentially damage the development of their minds and their ethical systems. Interesting point.

    AR: OK, this is really useful to me. I think I would have had a very different reaction to a work that attacked or dynamited another book. Someone bothering to fight with my ideas always seems to be paying me the compliment of thinking my ideas are worth fighting. But mocking? When someone does it to me, I feel my ideas are just being trivialized rather than blown wide open.

    And about the "rap": some of the rest of the poetry had that feel, but perhaps I'm being unfair to think Atwood herself was thinking of rap. (Certainly she won't get a job writing for anyone but Vanilla Ice.)

  4. I've said in my post, that classic status is to be merely used as a signpost, its merit comes in being used as a way into literature, not as a be all. A book you may find interesting concerning Homer & the Odyssey & the Illiad, is Alberto Manguel's Homer's the Illiad & the Odyssey, which demonstrates how these books are embedded in western culture.

  5. My ideas are already trivial enough that I don't mind mockery.

    I'm really thinking, though, of great writers mocking other great writers. They may well be trivializing their enemy's ideas. Great writers are not all Appreciationists, not at all.

    Is it possible that the problem with the Atwood novel is that its ideas are not actually audacious at all, but mostly conventional? And thus thin when lined up against Homer, even if one agrees with Atwood.

  6. I read The Penelopiad for my eponymous heroines book salon. It was my first Atwood and I was very disappointed, especially since I really enjoyed Mary Reilly, which I also read for that salon and has a similar conceit regarding Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide.

  7. My thoughts are pretty simple but... I think reading is an entirely personal endeavor, at least for true readers, and as such, opinions on works differ greatly. I don't think there is a right answer. What one reader finds artificial, another may find authentic; what one finds frustrating, another may find compelling.

  8. This is a book I want to read classic myths and legends is something I know very little about ,all the best stu

  9. Good grief, that "unless you're on drugs" line would turn me off all on its own. It sounds like a misguided junior-high-school teacher's attempt to "make literature hip" to a bunch of students, which instead ends up coming off as condescending and silly. "Just imagine: they didn't even have TV back then!" Ugh.

    When reading a book that re-works a classic plot/style/theme etc., I prefer the author to assume some knowledge and intelligence on the part of the reader, rather than assuming s/he must explain the source material to a reader who has never encountered it before. It may mean I have to work a little harder, but I'd rather do a little background research if necessary than be bored/patronized.

  10. I have been wary of this book but was thinking I'd read it. Now I'm thinking I probably won't be....


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