'The Penelopiad:' A New Look at Homer's Tale

Alan Cheuse reviews Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Penelopiad. It's a retelling of Homer's Odyssey from the point of view of the warrior hero's wife Penelope.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


Margaret Atwood is one of the most admired novelists in North America. Her new book is called "The Penelopiad." Reviewer Alan Cheuse says it's a refreshing retelling of Homer's "Odyssey" from the point of view of the warrior hero's wife.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

`Here is what I did,' Atwood's Penelope tell us. `I set up a large piece of weaving on my loom and said it was a shroud for my father-in-law Laertes since it would be impious of me not to provide a costly winding sheet for him in the event that he should die. Not until this sacred work was finished could I even think of choosing a new husband.' Faithful Penelope. The mortal woman for whom Odysseus spurned offers of immortality and eternal nights of lovemaking with goddesses and witches so that he might return to the one woman he truly desired.

Penelope. I've always been crazy about her. Atwood conducts herself quite cleverly in making her portrait. First of all, she frames the story with a chorus made up of those maids of Penelope who, as Homer portrays it, consorted with the suitors while Odysseus was still making his way back home. The maids sing in counterpoint to Penelope's matter-of-fact voice and lend a hallucinatory strain to a tale already as fantastic as any in the Western tradition.

Along with her presentation of the hallucinatory maids and Penelope's straight talk about her husband, her girlie laments about the ferocious competition of her cousin Helen and her queenly worries about fending off the suitors, Atwood's brilliance emerges in the skillful way she's woven her own research on the anthropological underpinnings of Home's epic into the patterns of her own stylized version of the poem.

If finally this version of Penelope's life doesn't fully shift our own understanding of Odysseus' return, it does make for a fascinating and really attractive version of this old, old story, a creation tale about the founding of our civilization meant to be heard over and over and over. Or as Atwood's Penelope would have it, woven and undone, woven and undone, and woven again.

NORRIS: The book is "The Penelopiad" by Margaret Atwood. Our reviewer is Alan Cheuse. He teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Related NPR Stories



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: