The Penelopiad

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Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Analysis

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Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Theme Icon

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad reinvents the myth of Homer’s Odyssey, retelling it through the eyes of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. In her retelling, Atwood actively engages with questions of mythology and invention, self-reflexively investigating the relationship between storytelling and truth. The concept of storytelling is highly important from the very beginning of the novel, when in Penelope’s first chapter she talks about why she is finally telling her own story and discusses how she had previously remained silent because she “wanted happy endings.” Penelope clearly implies that the normal narrative arc towards a happy ending, or narrative structure in general, has silenced her side of the story. In this chapter, Penelope also describes many of the stories invented about her infidelity following the circulation of the Odyssey as “scandalous gossip,” again linking storytelling with untruth. Penelope then furthers this idea by frequently connecting storytelling to fiber work and her own weaving, which she uses for deceptive purposes.

Furthermore, Atwood’s decision to write the novel itself could also be taken as a criticism of the idea of textual authority (the concept that the text is sacred, final, truthful, and cannot be questioned). The Penelopiad’s very existence implies that Homer’s version of the story is somehow misleading or incomplete. Atwood’s revision also undermines several major plot points of the Odyssey, including the idea that Penelope did not recognize Odysseus when he arrived back at Ithaca in beggar’s clothing. Moreover, to write her revision, Atwood relied on other contemporary Greek texts besides the Odyssey, suggesting that the Odyssey is not the only authoritative account of the myth. In fact, in her introduction, Atwood specifically states that the Odyssey is “not the only version of the story” and discusses how, because of its nature, oral myth is inherently made up of many different voices.

While the reader may assume that Atwood’s revision of the myth through Penelope’s eyes is a kind of “correction” of the Odyssey, the fact that Atwood troubles the idea of a complete and truthful narrative undermines the trustworthiness of her own novel as well. Atwood actively engages with this tension, especially through the chorus of Maids whose voices are present throughout the novel. The Twelve Maids question Penelope’s decisions, suggesting that Penelope is complicit in their murders since she does not reveal to Odysseus that they were helping her all along. Although Penelope attempts to exonerate herself in her narrative, suggesting that there was little she could have done to help at the time, the Maids’ chorus condemns Penelope for her lack of action. In opening Penelope’s own narrative up for criticism, then, Atwood suggests that even Penelope’s voice cannot be taken as authoritative or definitive.

This overthrow of textual authority in turn troubles the idea of an authoritative or correct reading of the Odyssey, opening the text up for more radical interpretation. The Maids explicitly discuss this in the section “An Anthropology Lecture,” where they argue that the Odyssey represents the overthrow of women-led society and the switch to a male-dominated society—a social upheaval that likely actually took place in early history. The Maids believe that their listeners may disregard their alternative reading as “feminist claptrap,” suggesting how, up to the present, readers of the Odyssey who questioned predominate power structures were soundly rejected by the mainstream readers. However, Atwood’s implication that there is no objective truth in storytelling allows for the possibility of a breadth of readings, not only a “correct one.” In short, while Atwood dismantles the idea of objective, truthful storytelling and the authoritative text, she also opens the Odyssey up for more creative, alternative readings.

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Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods appears in each Chapter of The Penelopiad. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods Quotes in The Penelopiad

Below you will find the important quotes in The Penelopiad related to the theme of Storytelling, Textual Authority, and Falsehoods.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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!

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker)
Related Symbols: Weaving and Fiber Work
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In her opening chapter, Penelope describes how the story of the Odyssey has been read throughout history thus far and why exactly she has decided to tell her side of the story. In this quote, Penelope describes how the “official version” of the story, in which Penelope is depicted as incredibly modest and a model wife, became “a stick used to beat other women with.”

Penelope’s frustration about being “a stick used to beat other women with” suggests that she has been venerated as an ideal woman while being used to insult and devalue women who did not behave the same way as she did, or did not so perfectly fulfill standards of normative womanly behavior. Meanwhile, Penelope clearly feels that the cost of fulfilling this role was not worth the pay-off when she tells the reader, “don’t follow my example!” Her cautionary advice suggests that the normative womanly role, while it may be praised in the songs and stories, damages women overall.

Note also that Penelope here introduces the idea of story-telling or even lying as “yarn-spinning,” an extended symbol that will be built upon throughout the book.

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Chapter 10 Quotes

Nine months he sailed the wine-red seas of his mother’s blood…
In his frail dark boat, the boat of himself,
Through the dangerous ocean of his vast mother he sailed
From the distant cave where the threads of men’s lives are spun,
Then measured, and then cut short
By the Three Fatal Sisters, intent on their gruesome handicrafts,
And the lives of women also are twisted into the strand…

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker), Telemachus , The Fates
Related Symbols: Weaving and Fiber Work , Water
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is part of a poem in which the Twelve Maids describe Telemachus’s birth before comparing it with their own births.

The Twelve Maids describe Penelope’s womb as a “wine-red sea,” linking the ocean with the female body. This metaphor elevates the female body to a level of high importance, considering how central the sea is to Ancient Greek life and the story of Odysseus (and the “wine-dark sea” is a common phrase in Homer’s work). The Maids also place women in a central, powerful role in this section of the poem as they mention the “Three Fatal Sisters,” the Fates who decide men’s fates through the traditionally feminine craft of spinning. By noting the central role that women play in determining men’s destinies and by linking the female body to the sea, Atwood places women in positions of extreme importance in this poem, despite how poorly they are treated in the rest of the novel.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Rumors came, carried by other ships… 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… Some of the men had been eaten by cannibals, said some; no, it was just a brawl of the usual kind, said others… Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some… and the two of them made love deliriously every night; no, said others, it was just an expensive whorehouse, and he was sponging off the Madam. Needless to say, the minstrels took up these themes and embroidered them considerably.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Odysseus
Related Symbols: Weaving and Fiber Work
Page Number: 83-84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Penelope describes the rumors that have been arriving with storytellers to Ithaca about Odysseus’s exploits on his way home from the Trojan War.

These rumors juxtapose the extraordinary with the ordinary, the mythological with the normal, showing how myths may be created. In some of the stories, Odysseus’s activities have been less-than-savory since his departure, filled with little other than bar fights and prostitutes. But the other stories tell of Odysseus’s heroic deeds fighting monsters and romancing goddesses. As Penelope describes these different rumors, Atwood suggests how myths may be created as everyday and even unsavory decisions become embellished, expanded, and elaborated into glamorous myths. Atwood compares this, again, to fiber crafts, saying the minstrels “embroidered” the stories’ themes to make them more appealing. In doing so, Atwood emphasizes that stories, rather than simply reflecting the truth, are constructed and crafted.

I had such a clear picture in my mind—Odysseus returning, and me—with womanly modesty—revealing to him how well I had done at what was usually considered a man’s business. On his behalf, of course. Always for him. How his face would shine with pleasure! How pleased he would be with me! ‘You’re worth a thousand Helens,’ he would say.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Penelope, who has been managing Odysseus’s estates in his absence, imagines Odysseus’s praise when he will finally arrive home and see how hard she has worked to maintain and expand his fortune.

Though Penelope expresses pride and happiness in what she is doing in her descriptions of learning to manage the estate, here Penelope frames that gratification in terms of Odysseus’s praise, “on his behalf” and “always for him.” The way that Penelope emphasizes that her work was for Odysseus’s benefit seems somewhat unreliable, considering how proud Penelope seems of herself, and how adamantly Penelope protests against her own sense of accomplishment. Moreover, when Penelope fantasizes about Odysseus telling her “You’re worth a thousand Helens,” Atwood shows how Penelope feels constantly measured in comparison to other woman, not only on her own merit. This quote shows the reader how difficult it is for Penelope to find personal fulfillment in the gendered system of Ancient Greece, and how, when she does find fulfillment, she must reframe it only in terms of her husband’s praise.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Though we had to do it carefully, and talk in whispers, these nights had a touch of festivity about them, a touch—even—of hilarity… We told stories as we worked away at our task of destruction; we shared riddles, we made jokes… We were almost like sisters. In the mornings… we’d exchange smiles of complicity… Their ‘Yes ma’ams’ and ‘No ma’ams’ hovered on the edge of laughter, as if neither they nor I could take their servile behavior seriously.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: Weaving and Fiber Work
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Penelope describes the nights she spent with her Twelve Maids, unraveling the shroud she made during the day in order to trick the Suitors. Penelope remembers these nights fondly, noting their “festivity” and even their “hilarity.”

Through their nights spent working together working to deceive the Suitors, Penelope and the Twelve Maids develop a female community that is missing throughout the rest of the novel. Rather than competing for male attention, the women share stories and tell jokes as they work. Penelope, highlighting how the unweaving brings them together, says they are “almost like sisters.” Not only does working together create bonds between the women, but it also almost dismantles the strict class structure that oppresses the Maids. While class divides are normally sharp, Penelope notes how the Maids’ servile “yes ma’ams” and “no ma’ams” “hovered on the edge of laughter,” since their secret work has bridged the class divide.

At the same time, we only see this relationship from Penelope’s perspective here, and as the Maids never really comment on having a close bond with their mistress, it seems likely that they didn’t find their enforced servility to ever be as sisterly or “unserious” as Penelope did.

Chapter 19 Quotes

I didn’t let on I knew. It would have been dangerous for him. Also, if a man takes pride in his disguising skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognize him: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Penelope describes her reaction to Odysseus when, after years of absence, he shows up at their palace in Ithaca wearing beggar’s clothing as a disguise. Penelope pretended not to recognize him.

When Penelope admits that she did, in fact, know who Odysseus was when he first arrived back in Ithaca, she effectively revises the story as told by the Odyssey, which portrays Penelope as totally ignorant of Odysseus’s identity. Penelope’s correction of this fact shows how, although the Odyssey is regarded as the authoritative account of Odysseus’s journey, its male perspective might render it incomplete or incorrect. Moreover, Penelope suggests that the male ego is part of the reason that she lied, since she would be a “foolish wife” to “step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.” Considering how Penelope’s silence later results in the Maids tragic deaths, Atwood seems to be suggesting that male arrogance and ego may lead to deception and danger.

I then related a dream of mine. It concerned my flock of lovely white geese, geese of which I was very fond. I dreamt that they were happily pecking around the yard when a huge eagle with a crooked beak swooped down and killed them all, whereupon I wept and wept.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Odysseus, The Suitors, The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Penelope tells Odysseus, who is disguised as a beggar, about a dream she had in which an eagle kills her flock of white geese. Penelope notes that the eagle’s beak is “crooked,” and that the deaths caused her remarkable grief.

Penelope’s dream clearly represents Odysseus’s later murder of the Twelve Maids, with the crooked-beaked eagle symbolizing Odysseus and the twelve white geese symbolizing the Maids. The fact that the geese are white suggests the Maids’ innocence, while the eagle’s crooked beak implies Odysseus’s corruptness in committing their murders. When Penelope tells Odysseus the dream, however, Odysseus incorrectly assumes that the eagle is good, and that it represents himself killing the Suitors. This difference in interpretation shows how male-focused readings can ignore women’s roles in stories, just as Odysseus ignores Penelope’s grief in his interpretation. But moreover, it suggests that an overly male-focused perspective may obscure the truth and lead to real-world consequences.

Chapter 20 Quotes

The more outrageous versions have it that I slept with all of the Suitors, one after another—over a hundred of them—and then gave birth to the Great God Pan. Who could believe such a monstrous tale? Some songs aren’t worth the breath expended on them.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), The Suitors, Pan
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Penelope describes the rumors that have been circulating about her sexual infidelity during Odysseus’s absence. Penelope notes one story she finds especially ridiculous, which states that, after sleeping with all the Suitors, Penelope gave birth to the god Pan.

While Penelope scoffs at what she sees as the ridiculousness of this rumor, the mythological story is not especially different from the legendary stories of Odysseus’s exploits on his journey home, which similarly feature gods, goddesses, and monsters. While Penelope is willing to believe Odysseus’s stories, she finds it ridiculous that such stories would be told about herself, suggesting she may be misguided (whether willfully or not) in believing Odysseus’s account of his travels. Moreover, as Penelope recounts the rumors of her infidelity she casts into doubt her own narrative, in which she asserts that she was totally chaste in Odysseus’s absence.

Chapter 21 Quotes

Let us just say: There is another story.
Or several, as befits the goddess Rumour…
Word has it that Penelope the Prissy
Was—when it came to sex— no shrinking sissy!
Some said…that each and every brisk contender
By turns did have the fortune to upend her,
By which promiscuous acts the goat-god Pan
Was then conceived, or so the fable ran.
The truth, dear auditors, is seldom certain—
But let us take a peek behind the curtain!

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker), Penelope , The Suitors, Pan
Page Number: 147-148
Explanation and Analysis:

The Twelve Maids speak this quote in one of their chapters that takes the form of a script for a play. This play depicts a vision of Penelope’s role in the Maids’ deaths which is different from both the Odyssey and Penelope’s account. In the Maids’ sometimes-raunchy rhyme, Penelope, who was unfaithful to Odysseus, throws the Maids under the bus to keep Odysseus from finding out her secret. According to this version of events, based on a rumor in circulation, Penelope had sex with each and every Suitor, and then gave birth to the god Pan.

This quote is significant because it casts Penelope’s entire narrative into doubt, causing the reader to wonder which version of events is correct. Prior to this section of the book, Penelope’s narrative seemed more reliable than the Odyssey. Now, though, the Maids suggest it is possible that neither narrative is accurate. While the myth of Penelope giving birth to Pan seems unrealistic, so does the myth of her legendary fidelity. In fact, just as Odysseus’s bar fighting and frequenting of brothels seems more realistic than fighting monsters and sleeping with goddesses, Penelope’s infidelity seems much more realistic than her perfect chasteness for decades. Again, this quote casts doubt on Penelope’s version of events, emphasizing that Penelope is an unreliable narrator.

Chapter 23 Quotes

‘Only twelve,’ she faltered. ‘The impertinent ones. The ones who’d been rude… They were notorious whores.’
‘The ones who’d been raped,’ I said. ‘The youngest. The most beautiful.’ My eyes and ears among the Suitors, I did not add. My helpers during the long nights of the shroud. My snow-white geese. My thrushes, my doves.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Eurycleia (speaker), The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths , Water
Page Number: 159-160
Explanation and Analysis:

Eurycleia and Penelope exchange this dialogue after Odysseus and Telemachus murder the Suitors and hang the Maids. When Eurycleia tells Penelope that some Maids were hanged, Penelope asks which ones, prompting this conversation.

Eurycleia’s statement that it was “only” twelve shows how extremely little value the Maids’ lives held in Greek society due to their status as slave women. Her subsequent comments that they were “impertinent,” “rude,” and “notorious whores” shows how violence against women is often blamed on the behavior of the women themselves, and reinforced by social norms that require women to be excessively nice, polite, modest, and chaste. Penelope’s reply, then, shows an alternative way of looking at the Maids’ murders, one that focuses on the fact that they were victims of violence (not only murder, but also rape). She calls them the “youngest” and “most beautiful,” demonstrating how this violence punishes even the women who possess traits that men consider desirable. She then thinks of her emotional connection to the girls, emphasizing their value as people and friends (and calling back to her dream of the eagle killing her beloved white geese). While Eurycleia demonstrates how societies might view violence against women callously, Penelope gives a more humanized, albeit painful, perspective.

Chapter 24 Quotes

No, Sir, we deny that this theory is merely unfounded feminist claptrap. We can understand your reluctance to have such things brought out into the open—rapes and murders are not pleasant subjects—but such overthrows most certainly took place all around the Mediterranean Sea, as excavations at prehistoric sites have demonstrated over and over.

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

The Twelve Maids speak this quote during their chapter called the Anthropology Lecture, in which they attempt to prove that their own deaths symbolize the overthrow of woman-centric religion by a male-dominated one. Here, the Twelve Maids respond to an audience interjection. Presumably, from their response, the audience member accuses them of promoting “feminist claptrap.”

The fact that the Maids field this question devaluing their work as “unfounded feminist claptrap” speaks to how feminist lenses for understanding academic fields are often dismissed or degraded. Moreover, the Maids’ response attributes this backlash to the fact that the audience member has a “reluctance to have such things brought out into the open” (i.e., rape and murder). This shows the culture of silence and discomfort surrounding violence against women. Moreover, the Maids’ understatement that rapes and murders are “not pleasant subjects” shows just how ridiculous this “polite” silence is when it comes to such brutal topics.

Point being that you don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.

Related Characters: The Twelve Maids (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

The Twelve Maids say this at the end of the Anthropology Lecture, during which they attempt to prove that their own deaths symbolize the overthrow of woman-centric religion by a male-dominated one. In this quote, the Twelve Maids state that their reading allows the reader to avoid confronting their real human pain by thinking about them only as symbols.

When the Maids state that their metaphorical reading allows the readers to escape the fact that they are “real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice,” their tone is bitingly ironic, suggesting that the male audience of “dear educated minds” cannot stand to face the reality of their pain. In doing so, the Maids also undermine their own reading of events, suggesting how reading events as symbolic might obscure the reality and profundity of human pain. The last two lines are a reference to social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s work, highlighting also how a critical academic lens may dehumanize and transact women’s pain (it’s an academic currency “no more real than money”) for the sake of knowledge and argument.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Then he told me how much he’d missed me, and how he’d been filled with longing for me… and I told him how very many tears I’d shed while waiting twenty years for his return, and how tediously faithful I’d been, and how I would never have even so much as thought of betraying his gigantic bed with its wondrous bedpost by sleeping in it with any other man.
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.

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Odysseus has returned home from his adventures after the Trojan War and has just killed the Maids and the Suitors. Odysseus and Penelope are in bed, catching up on the many years since they have seen each other last. Odysseus tells Penelope he missed her even when he was sleeping with goddesses, while Penelope states that she cried when he was gone and never thought of being unfaithful.

Penelope reveals the unreliableness of her own narrative thus far when she states that they were both good liars. While Penelope has previously stated that Odysseus was a good liar, she has never admitted the same about herself. Moreover, Penelope does lie to Odysseus in this moment: though Penelope professes not to have ever even imagined sleeping with another man, she already confessed to thinking about what it would be like to sleep with the Suitors earlier in her narrative. This makes the reader question the reliability of the other things Penelope promises Odysseus in this moment, including details that she describes in her narrative to the reader, like her excessive crying. This moment casts doubts not only on Penelope’s honesty with Odysseus, but also on her honesty with the reader.

Chapter 26 Quotes

Your client’s times were not our times. Standards of behaviour were different then. It would be unfortunate if this regrettable but minor incident were allowed to stand as a blot on an otherwise exceedingly distinguished career. Also I do not wish to be guilty of an anachronism. Therefore I must dismiss the case.

Related Characters: Odysseus, The Twelve Maids
Related Symbols: The Maids’ Deaths
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, which appears during Odysseus’s supposed trial, the judge, who seems to be working in a modern courtroom, delivers his verdict exonerating Odysseus of the guilt of killing the Twelve Maids. In his decision, the judge states that he does not find Odysseus guilty because he does not want to be “anachronistic” and condemn Odysseus’s actions in an older, different culture, and also because he does not want to tarnish Odysseus’s career legacy.

The judge’s concern about not wanting to seem anachronistic since Odysseus’s time “were not our times” is a frequently cited reason among people looking back on literature and history for not judging or condemning horrific actions in the past. Ironically, though, the judge’s other comment, that he does not want the murders to tarnish Odysseus’s career, is a commonly used modern excuse for condoning or not punishing violence against women, especially rape. His use of this reason for not condemning Odysseus then makes his fear of anachronism ring hollow: Atwood implies that Odysseus’s times are our times, in which women’s lives continue to be valued less in the law and in society than men’s professional achievements.