On Rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad

Recent reads:

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Homer: The Resonance of Epic by Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold

When I first read The Penelopiad (about two years ago), I enjoyed it for the dry humor and the wry way Atwood weaves (pun intended) together mythical stories about Penelope. Atwood places her in the underworld, 2,000 or so years after the end of The Odyssey, where she reckons with the events of that time. After reading Homer: The Resonance of Epic, though, I don’t read Homer’s Penelope quite the same way, and as a result, I can’t read The Penelopiad the same way.

The Resonance of Epic seeks to understand the poem in its own context. Rather than seeing it as the beginning of Western literature and analyzing it as such, it looks at the poem as a historical artifact. You might say that instead of reading the poem teleologically, it reads it ontologically. What might this poem have meant to the audiences of its time, and how can considering this help us understand the poem in our time?

To answer these questions, Graziosi and Haubold pair analysis of Hesiod (Theogony and Works and Days) with analysis of Homer. It’s debated, sometimes passionately, who came first, but according to Graziosi and Haubold, that isn’t really the point. The “resonance of epic” refers to the “web of associations and implications” that exist within the broader epic tradition. In other words, ancient audiences would have been familiar with the individual mythic stories recounted by Hesiod and Homer and seen them as part of a whole, an overarching narrative about gods and mortals that “explains” the human condition.

Within Graziosi and Haubold’s argument, Hesiod provides a macro understanding of the pantheon and the god-mortal relationship. In Theogony, he traces the gods’ genealogy, from the earliest iterations to Zeus and the Olympians. Works and Days elaborates on the relationship between gods and men, who angered Zeus by getting (with the help of Prometheus) uppity. Zeus devised two punishments for men: work and women (beginning with Pandora), who would be a source of pleasure but also pain, in the form of (for example) longing and jealousy. Key points include that Zeus decreed it is just for humans (men and women) to work and to endure suffering, that Zeus is exceptionally concerned with stability among the Olympians, and that women are not, like men, in the gods’ direct lineage.

According to Graziosi and Haubold, Homer provides a micro exploration of the god-mortal relationship through the figures of Achilles, Odysseus, Penelope, etc. Their journeys—Achilles’ to reconcile his mortality and Odysseus’ to endure his labored journey home—illuminate what must be accepted about the human condition, as dictated by Zeus.

While the argument had some gaps, it was illuminating simply to mentally shift my perspective on the epic. The book answered questions I hadn’t realized had been nagging me, especially about the wholesale grafting of 19th and 20th century social and literary theories onto the ancient world. This has never felt satisfying to me, and I understand a little better now why. Insisting that everything is exactly the same across time—enslavement, colonization, gender relationships—blurs the edges. I understand the need and desire to see ourselves in the other, but doing so can also mean we don’t see others in their uniqueness, complexity, and wholeness. I also appreciate the need and desire to trace a problem to its roots, but the idea that we can, and that doing so will enable us to “fix” the past, is itself a myth. Ideally, we become comfortable with paradoxes: We both are and are not the same; we both can and cannot find the answers we seek, solve the problems that we want to solve.

That, ultimately, is what I valued so much about reading The Resonance of Epic and why I didn’t enjoy The Penelopiad as much as I did the first time I read it. Upon rereading, it seems fundamentally ahistorical in the way it reads The Odyssey and Penelope within it. Like Madeline Miller’s Circe, it appropriates antiquity to tell us a story about ourselves rather than reading the myths as fundamentally other and approaching them as such.

A version of this discussion originally appeared on Books, Ink