Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Penelopiad

In Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (2005), Penelope,1 Odysseus’s oh-so-loyal and virtuous wife, is dead. Hell is her current domicile. That does not stop her from telling the readers, who live in the modern age of light bulbs and museums displaying ancient treasures, her story.

If you are a born misandrist or if you suffer from that kind of phobia which makes it impossible for you to comprehend and accept the fact that someone in this pea world is bound to be prettier than you are, then you will find the book fun to read.

In this new interpretation of Penelope’s story, all men fall into at least one of the following categories: cold-blooded father, disobedient son, deceiver, obsessive fucker, beggar, robber, sordid warrior and unwelcome suitor. And Helen, the supreme goddess of beauty, is mentioned more than thirty times. ‘I suspect she used to flirt with her dog, with her mirror, with her comb, with her bedpost. She needed to keep in practice’ (p. 33), the sour Penelope informs us from Hades, as if someone’s habit of winking is really her business. Living amongst unbearable men and having to put up with the constant presence of a gorgeous cousin (even in hell Helen boasts her beauty and the number of men who sacrificed their lives for her. She also advertises her bath, saying that ‘I do prefer to bathe without my robes’ (p. 154)), no wonder Penelope remains a dissatisfied soul.

But bear in mind this is also Margaret Atwood's story. You know her usual themes and accusations already. So, no one is surprised.

  • Where shall I begin? There are only two choices: at the beginning or not at the beginning. The real beginning would be the beginning of the world, after which one thing has led to another; but since there are differences of opinion about that, I’ll begin with my own birth. p. 7
  • It’s always an advantage to have something to do with your hands. That way, if someone makes an inappropriate remark, you can pretend you haven’t heard it. Then you don’t have to answer. p. 8
  • It’s dark here, as many have remarked. ‘Dark Death’, they used to say. ‘The gloomy halls of Hades’, and so forth. Well, yes, it is dark, but there are advantages – for instance, if you see someone you’d rather not speak to you can always pretend you haven’t recognised them. p. 15
  • Nothing helps gluttony along so well as eating food you don’t have to pay for yourself, as I learnt from later experience. p. 40
  • 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.2 Remember that, my child, Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does. p. 43
  • I think this is what he valued most in me: my ability to appreciate his stories. It’s an underrated talent in women. p. 45
  • Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some; she’s turned his men into pigs — not a hard job in my view. p. 83
  • There is indeed something delightful about being able to combine obedience and disobedience in the same act. p. 117
  • It’s hard to lose an argument to one’s teenaged son. Once they’re taller than you are, you have only your moral authority: a weak weapon at best. p. 131
  • Who is to say that prayers have any effect? On the other hand, who is to say they don’t? p. 135
  • Also, if a man takes pride in his disguise skills,3 it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognise him: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness. p. 137
  • While he was pleasuring every nymph and beauty,4 Did he think I’d do nothing but my duty? While every girl and goddess he was praising, Did he assume I’d dry up like a raisin?5 p. 149
  • Boys with their first beards can be a thorough pain in the neck. p. 170
  • Such is the theory; but, like all theories, it’s only a theory. p. 186

1My favourite Penelope-related passage in the literary canon begins and ends with a Yes.
2“Dripping water can eat through a stone.” is a famous Chinese proverb.
3Note: In Jane Eyre, Rochester disguises as a gypsy woman who insists on reading the young ladies’ fortune at Thornfield. But we know that Jane recognises him because of his signet ring.
4You may also be interested in the article “The Return of Odysseus: The Problem of Marital Infidelity for the Repartriate” [pdf]. Just a thought.
5‘What happens to a dream deferred? // Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?’ are the first three lines from Langston Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred”.

"Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some; she’s turned his men into pigs — not a hard job in my view." -- in response to this, Jeremy draw my attention this song:

And Ching sent me this:



  1. Kevin said: "[all men fall into at least one of the following categories: cold-blooded father, disobedient son, deceiver, obsessive fucker, beggar, robber, sordid warrior and unwelcome suitor]

    Isn’t that a bit like saying “all fishes fit at least one of the following descriptions: invertebrate, covered by scales, aquatic, cold-blooded, breathes with gill”?"

  2. Webmaster said: "If it wasn’t for the oddities of gender relations, a lot of writers, musicians, and stand-up comedians would be jobless. But it is true: men are simple creatures that only occasionally rise above their base natures. Women are overtly self-reflective bunch who have no grasp of real world. And children everywhere are unruly and disregard their parents."


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