The Art of Fibbing: A brief discussion of The Penelopiad

As soon as Jill mentioned that Penelope’s story (as well as that of Odysseus, the maids, etc.) could not be trusted, I immediately thought of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Not only is it one of my favorite books, it goes to show that not all narrators can be deemed honest. Furthermore, is this a thorough analysis of Penelope and Nick Caraway, or did I just want to bring up The Great Gatsby? We may never know. I digress. Anyway.

Though Penelope may not have been exactly lying, she may not have been telling the whole truth either, blowing some aspects out of proportion and understating others. It is easy to see, after reading Penelope and the maids’ voices juxtaposed alongside one another, that the story became far too complex for anybody to fully wrap their heads around. There are a plethora of sides to any and every story, and it proves to be just so in The Penelopiad. It seems that there are a myriad of possibilities to each event posed by Homer and Atwood and it is interesting to see the different approaches that each author lays out for his or her characters. It is quite plausible that both The Odyssey and The Penelopiad were crafted to get us to delve into the underlying messages posed by each text, and that we are supposed to read between the lines of exactly what is being said; the problem is, every character has an opinion – a certain sharpness in tongue that may be subtle and unconscious (or not) – that we must take into account.

How are we supposed to know whose story is the truth? What does Atwood’s Penelope gain by recounting her story after her death? Is she trying to explain herself, and if so, why? Why exactly does she feel the need to explain herself if she hasn’t done anything wrong? Furthermore, why do the maids hold such vengeance against her? Perhaps there is more of a reason that expected, but it is all a matter of questioning the narrator and asking ourselves, “Is this really what I believe, or should I take this with a grain of salt?”

Each narrator presents a bias which we must train our brains to detect; it could be an underlying cynical tone, sarcasm, bitterness, whimsicality, or even a modest hubbub that gives the one telling the story some flare, as well as a bit of vulnerability into his/her mind. We have to wonder why ancient Grecian Penelope is trying to relate to 21st century young adults (because everybody knows that a ((great)^100) grandmother that tries to act “hip and modern” is nothing but trouble for all).

Like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Penelope’s tale, as well as the tales of the others, are not to be trusted in fear that details they provide are merely added or removed to “spice up the story”.

Well played, Atwood. You’re a legend.


  1. I couldn’t agree more with your point about a great-great-great…etc. grandmother trying to sound hip and modern. That threw me off right at the very beginning, and to be frank, really bugged me about the text. I’m still trying to figure out whether this was a good move or not, or what it might accomplish. And why make her wait this long to tell her story? Why not set it at some other time in the past so that it’s closer to when the events happened? Why have her wait until now? So far I have more questions than answers to those.

    1. I agree with questioning the colloquial diction that Penelope uses in terms of effectiveness. As I was on the bus this morning, I saw a girl dressed like Cher Horowitz (?) from the movie Clueless and I thought about how it was a modern rendition of Jane Austen’s Emma. Perhaps Atwood was trying to make the story of The Odyssey (which in translation is lengthy as it is) easier to digest while putting a feminist twist on things. In terms of Clueless vs. Emma, it made the Victorian literature (which I am personally not a fan of) more relatable and simplified the concepts being posed; the reason why Clueless worked to more of an extent than The Penelopiad did was because the themes of Emma weren’t as… hard hitting (??) as the themes in The Odyssey. I feel that The Penelopiad’s use of modern diction draws away from the timelessness of the Bronze Age, and it takes away from themes that are significant (and sometimes exclusive) to Greek literature. I didn’t feel the The Penelopiad to be any more relatable than The Odyssey, even with the use of colloquial language of the 21st century, because I’ve never encountered swan-rape or a feud with my semi-divine cousin (but that’s totally just me).

  2. I like your discussion on whether or not we as readers should believe any of the stories at all. It goes to show that there are a plethora of aspects and interpretations to a story. Maybe that’s what Atwood is playing with, showing a feistier and more artful side of Penelope and making Penelope more human and contemporary.

    1. I love how it really gets you to think about how biased a story can be. The Odyssey is full of Odysseus’ grandeur and (pardon my colloquialism) swag, but doesn’t give the reader insight to the thoughts of other characters. As much as I was bothered by Penelope’s modernism, I still appreciated her side of the story, even if it wasn’t one that could be fully trusted (but then again, who COULD be trusted anyway?)

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