The Penelopiad

More by the Author:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Book and TV Series)

This title was an obvious inclusion. The Hulu tv series adaptation that premiered in 2017 has been very successful, but Atwood actually wrote the novel back in the 1980’s.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Book and TV Series)

Another novel to TV adaptation, this time developed by Netflix. It’s definitely a dark story, but I found it less visually graphic than the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ancient Greek Poetry:

Sappho’s Poetry

A female poet of ancient Greece, she has been an enigma for thousands of years. Often hailed by modern audiences as a feminist gay icon, her poetry is as sexually charged as her personal life is ambiguous. Here are three articles (of very different lengths) if you would like information on Sappho before jumping into her poetry. If you want to jump write into her poems, both the Poetry Foundation link and the Poets.org link have multiple poems.

Girl, Interrupted: Who was Sappho? Written by Daniel Mendelsohn and published in The New Yorker

*this is by far the longest article

This is an introduction to Sappho, published on Poetry Foundation.

And here’s the shortest write up, published on Poets.org

Modern takes on Greek Mythology:

The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller

Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters by Nikita Gill

What are some of your favorite Greek mythologies retellings?

Discuss in the comments below!

Part 4

We’ve finished The Penelopiad! I’ve loved hosting this first month of the Gordon Book Club!

Penelope plays dumb, allowing Odysseus to revel in his grand reveal. They have a brief reunion, during which they both seem to be playing a part:

“The two of us were- by our own admission- proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said.
But we did.

Or so we told each other”

What do you think of Penelope and Odysseus’s relationship in this novel? Do you think it’s authentic?

And then Odysseus is off adventuring again! Supposedly to atone for killing the Suitors- but it seems no atonement is needed for killing the Maids.

Next, we experience what I think is one of the most interesting perspective shifts in this novel: the videotaped trial. It starts off with a self- defense justification of the behalf of Odysseus for murdering the Suitors- and then the 12 Maids demand to be heard. The trials shifts to discussing their murder, if they ‘deserved’ to be murdered, and then devolves into a disturbing conversation regarding their rapes. Nothing seems resolved as the trial ends suddenly with the summoning of mythological characters.

What did you think of the 12 Maids trial experience? Or of the trial in general?

We get our final glimpse into the afterlife, which has the option of a kind of temporary reincarnation.

Would you risk forgetting your old life for a chance at reincarnation?

We get one last final scene of the 12 Maids, who spend their afterlife haunting those who wronged them. It’s fitting that the 12 Maids get the final say, closing out the novel with a final chorus, and then they “fly away as owls”.

I briefly looked into the symbolism of the Owl in Greek Mythology, and there are strong connections to the goddess Athena.

What do you think of the Owl symbolism?

Overall, I really like this book- which is part of why I chose it for the first month of book club. It’s an easy read for referencing so much of Greek mythology, and I enjoyed the feminist perspective on The Odyssey. For some reason, I wasn’t as interested in these last chapters though. I think once the momentum of building up to the 12 Maids being murdered the plot kind of fell flat for me.

If you liked this book and/or just learning a bit about Greek mythology, check out my upcoming post of further reading recommendations!

Part 3

Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, is becoming a more prominent character-spoiled by the maids, frustrated with his mother, and growing impatient with the Suitor situation. He has begun to assert himself, and in doing so demonstrates that like many of the other men in this novel, Telemachus has little respect for women:

“He claimed his father would have been proud of him for showing some backbone and getting out from under the thumbs of the women, who as usual were being overemotional and showing no reasonableness and judgement”.

To be fair, I have also been frustrated sometimes by Penelope’s tendency towards frequent crying!

Thoughts?

And then all of a sudden, Odysseus has finally made it home! I found it interesting that Odysseus chose to reveal himself to Telemachus, the son he barley knows, rather than trusting in his wife Penelope. It is another example of the not so subtle ways in which men are valued over women in this world.

“Also, if a man takes pride in his disguising skills, it would be 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”

I briefly stated earlier that Penelope annoys me at times, but this passage reminded me that her passive attitude is actually a survival tactic- and that observation is often the only agency she has.

The murder of the 12 Maids is drawing closer, forshadowed by Penelope’s dream of eagles and geese. Penelope’s stance all along has been that she never intended for the 12 Maids to be killed, and that she carries regret with her even in the afterlife. However, we learn from the the 12 Maids themselves that there is another version of events:

“We’ll stop their mouths by sending them to

Hades-

He’ll string them up as grubby wicked

Ladies!”

Who do you believe? Did Penelope conspire to have the 12 Maids murdered to cover up her own transgressions? Or was Penelope truly blindsided by their demise? How much was Eurycleia involved?

After a bit of back and forth between Penelope and Helen in the afterlife, we get right to the night the 12 Maids are killed- the event this novel has constantly been building up to.

Penelope sleeps through the chaos, the Suitors are murdered, and then the 12 Maids are hung by Telemachus. The next chapter, “The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture”, seems to be the 12 Maids attempting to understand their own purpose and fate. They muse about the possibilities of being connected to Artemis, gender role, and of being sacrifices:

“Thus possibly our rape and subsequent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians. The chief of them, notably Odysseus, would then claim kingship by marrying the High Priestess of our cult, namely Penelope”.

While the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus would be the traditional climax of an Odyssey retelling, the true climax in this case is the fate of the 12 Maids.

How did you feel about the graphic scene of the killings of the Suitors and the 12 Maids, as described by Eurycleia?

Part 2

With setting and many major character introductions established, this chunk of chapters made me start thinking of Margaret Atwood’s writing style. I personally really enjoy it, but I’ve heard that Atwood’s writing can be a bit of an acquired taste.

How have you all felt about this so far?

The mythological Three Sisters are mentioned multiple times throughout this reading section. Here’s a bit more information on them if you are interested. Fun Fact: I once played one of these sisters in a play in 6th grade, and I specifically chose this role since the sisters didn’t have a speaking part haha.

We also learn that Penelope brought along a maid with her to Ithaca, and that this maid died shortly after their arrival. While the previous chapters have already shown that the 12 Maids are destined for death, this maid’s death added to the air of inevitability I’ve been feeling while reading any passage Maid related.

Something I also noticed was the lack of camaraderie between the women characters. It might be idealist of me to hope for that between the women of The Odyssey world, but perhaps it is almost sadly to be expected as the women have to navigate their way through a world in which they are bought and sold. Penelope and Eurycleia seem to have a begrudging relationship with each other, but the basis of their relationship is because of the men in their lives (Odysseus and Telemachus) than a true friendship.

Thoughts?

The Maid’s chorus is, as always, chilling. The part the stood out the most to me personally was the Maids reflecting on their childhood upbringing with Telemachus, and if they would have murdered him as a child- if they had known he was to grow up and murder them:

“We did not know as we played with him

there in the sand

On the beach of our rocky goat-island, close

by the harbour,

That he was foredoomed to swell to our

cold-eyed teenage killer.

If we had known that, would we have

Drowned him back then?

Young children are ruthless and selfish:

everyone wants to live.”

The Maid’s leave it up to interpretation if they would have killed him or not when they had the chance.

What do you think the Maids would have done? Or, what would you have done in a similar situation?

Then Odysseus is called away to the war in Troy- and Penelope is left on her own for ten long years. She learns to manage a household, which includes more than one casual reference of slave ownership. The adventures of Odysseus on his way home from Troy reach Penelope as uncertain rumors. And then Penelope’s Suitors begin to appear:

“They were like vultures when they spot a dead cow: one drops, then another,until finally every vulture for miles around is tearing up the carcass”.

In a heartbreaking few pages, Penelope tells of how the 12 Maids came to be- and that she ordered them to get close to the Suitors to spy for her. We know that the Maids are to meet a grisly end, and getting to know their story better just makes it all the more emotional.

What do you think of Penelope’s decision to have the 12 Maids spy for her by flirting with the Suitors?

Part 1

First week of book club down! If you are following my reading schedule that also means Chapters 1-8 of The Penelopiad down!

What have your first impressions been?

Discuss in the comments below!

We are introduced to a lot in these opening chapters- main characters, Greek mythologies, and some haunting imagery. Check out the links throughout this post for a bit of background on the elements of Greek mythology we’ve encountered so far.

We meet a not-at-rest Penelope in the afterlife who is still questioning her own life’s story, in part because she believes that Odysseus is not the most reliable source of information. She also expresses discomfort with other women being judged against the dutiful wife standard she followed.

“And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears- yes, yours! But when I try to scream, I sound like an owl” – (pg 2)

What does this above passage suggest about the power of perception and story-telling?

We meet the 12 Maids, also no longer living. We are introduced to them through their chilling account of their own murder. As we get to know them throughout the novel, we will constantly be aware that they are already doomed to violence.

We learn how events of Penelope’s childhood have shaped her, and we learn of the Naiads of Greek mythology. Penelope herself is unsure as to the exact details surrounding her father throwing her into the ocean:

“It is to this episode- or rather, my knowledge of it- that I attribute my reserve, as well as my mistrust of other people’s intentions” – (pg 9).

Again, the idea of the power of story-telling and unreliable narrators is raised.

How does this affect (effect? You tell me!) the way we approach the text as a whole?

A powerful few pages is devoted to the childhood of the 12 Maids as well, and the hardships they faced as children and young women in the houses of nobles.

Following this, we are exposed to more of the afterlife of Greek mythology- and we get a sense of the tense dynamic between Penelope and Helen of Troy.

Both semi-divine noble women who made different choices- what do you think of the dynamic between these two? Or, Penelope’s perception of Helen and how her story has been remembered?

As the opening chapters draw to a close, Odysseus competes for Penelope’s hand- and she is duly married off to him. Again, Penelope seems to be trying to make sense of the pivotal moments of her life in the retrospect-but while knowing she is likely missing key information.

What are your first impressions of the relationship between Penelope and Odysseus?

We close this first section of reading with verses from the 12 Maids dreaming of a blissful future, which is a harsh juxtaposition knowing their ultimate fate.

Thanks for joining me on reading this first part of our July book! Discuss in the comments below!

2 Comments

  1. TabJuly 27, 2020

    Okay so I definitely agree that Penelope’s passiveness was *mostly* a survival tactic, but also a sprinkle of something else that I didn’t love. It was hard to have a narrator that I definitely didn’t fully trust, and these feelings reached a new height during this part of the book. I felt like the description of the maids’ murder, which is what I was waiting for, was rushed. This happened either because she didn’t know a more in-depth story or she just didn’t want to tell us. Thanks for picking this book Dez!

    Reply
    1. Gordon Book ClubJuly 27, 2020

      Yay Tab, you made the first blog comment! 🙂

      I totally agree with what you said about Penelope being an unreliable narrator. It seems like every character in this book has a different version of the truth. I felt the murder scene was rushed as well. It felt very emotionally disconnected, which I thought was odd since supposedly this is one of Penelope’s biggest regrets- even in the afterlife.

      Reply

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