The Penelopiad or The Ballad of the Dead Maids

21 Mar

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and OdysseusThe Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

This has been my introduction to Atwood and I have to admit that I feel slightly underwhelmed. I went in with high expectations, wondering how Atwood will take the ‘waiting widow’ of The Odyssey and transform it into a full length novel. Turns out that she mostly indulges in recapitulating the bulk of the original with a few wild theories and speculations thrown in as supposed rumors that Penelope has gleaned in the after-life.

Which brings me to how the story is constructed and this happens to be the high water mark for this novel. Atwood starts with Penelope addressing us from the other side of River Styx, reaching us through the mysterious sounds of the night and the barks and hoots of unseen animals. Penelope has grown bold since her death and is no longer the meek woman we saw in the original but a bold one who doesn’t mind speaking her mind and spilling a few uncomfortable beans.

Penelope subjects all the popular characters of the odyssey to scrutiny but reserves a special attention for Odysseus, Telemachus and Helen. She convinces us with case-by-case analysis that Odysseus was no hero – he was a lying and conniving manipulator of men who never uttered one truthful word in his life. She talks of rumors that told her of what his real adventures were, stripped of the trappings of myth. Telemachus becomes a petulant teenager full of rebellion against his mother and Helen becomes the ultimate shrew, seductress and a femme fatale of sorts.

But the story that Atwood really wants to tell is not of Penelope, that story is hardly changed except to assert speculations on the original text whether Penelope really saw through Odysseus disguise or not. What if she did? It hardly changed the story.

The real twist, and the only reason to take up this book is to see Atwood’s exploration and reinvention of the twelve maids who were killed by Odysseus in punishment for betraying him by sleeping with the suitors. These twelve girls are the Chorus in this book and appear every now and then playing a baroque accompaniment to the text and giving us new perspectives on their story. This carries on until Penelope herself reveals to us that they were never betraying Odysseus, she had asked them herself to get acquainted with the suitors to get obtain information for her. They had never betrayed Odysseus or his kingdom. So their murder was just that – murder. This was Atwood’s plot twist and her intended question was about the morality of this ‘honor killing‘ as she calls the hanging of the slaves, which, she confesses in the foreword, used to haunt her when she was young – ‘Why were they killed?‘, she used to ask herself and tries to present their case in this modernized version (which even includes a 23rd century trial of Odysseus).

In the end though, the reader hardly gets anything beyond these idle speculations and supplemental myths and small factoids like how Helen was really Penelope’s cousin and that they have to eat flowers in Hades. Even the main point of the book, about the dead maids, too ignores the fact that Odysseus genuinely seems to believe that they betrayed him by helping the suitors in various ways and hence it becomes as question of misinformation than morality and the blame will fall back on the shoulders of Penelope herself, rendering this whole exercise moot. Just go read the original again; the short hops of imagination that Atwood has taken in this retelling can easily be overtaken by the leaps you might make yourself in a re-reading that you might treat yourself to on a leisurely sunday afternoon – and those will surely be more impressive as well as intellectually more rewarding.

View all my reviews


Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts


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10 responses to “The Penelopiad or The Ballad of the Dead Maids

  1. Cassie

    March 21, 2012 at 20:08

    I loved the sing-song nature of this book, but I agree you can read the other and have a really dense experience.


    • SuperTramP

      March 21, 2012 at 20:11

      the other as in the original?


      • Cassie

        March 21, 2012 at 20:14

        Haha yes, sorry – thinking 9 things at once.


      • Cassie

        March 21, 2012 at 20:15

        I’m bias on this one because I love Atwood. Have you read anymore of this series – there’s about ten books retold. There’s a few really wonderful ones in translation.


        • SuperTramP

          March 21, 2012 at 20:18

          no, i started with the intro by armstrong and then came to this.. next i am on to pullman.

          for sing-song quality, i dont think this can match The odyssey either… but it is just a matter of taste 🙂


          • Cassie

            March 21, 2012 at 20:21

            Oh yes, you’re right. The Odyssey is an epic in both story, and history. I think the feminist in me liked this retelling, and the fact I wasn’t reading it to analyze for college. It’s hard to compete with a story that’s hundreds of years old though.

            You should definitely read a few of the others. They’re really hard to find in the US (not sure where you’re located) but there are a few available here. Most are written by famous authors in other countries though.

            I think I’ll come back and read more of your reviews though – mostly because you made me work for this comment haha. : )


            • SuperTramP

              March 21, 2012 at 20:39

              I have my eyes on a few of the books from the series – pullman and byatt first.

              Thanks for the work put in 🙂 i quite liked your blog’s name by the way!


  2. Personal Concerns

    March 22, 2012 at 11:52

    nice review here. the feminist take on the epic and its characters is interesting!


    • SuperTramP

      March 22, 2012 at 11:55

      thanks 🙂 There is more to it than feminism. there is a bit of sociology and numerology thrown in too…



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