07.04.2020 in Literature

Comparing Homer’s The Odyssey and Atwood’s The Penelopiad

At first glance, there seems to be a great deal of similarity between Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Atwood’s “The Penelopiad.” It is easy to understand this kind of conclusion coming from the reader’s mind because it seems like Atwood’s novel was just a mere continuation of Homer’s classic tale of a warrior’s quest to go back home to his wife’s loving arms. However, a deeper understanding of the plot and the context of Atwood’s novel reveals a different worldview, especially after taking into consideration that the female author published her masterwork in the year 2005. Thus, one can assert that the ultimate difference between these two literary outputs is discerned after figuring out the cultural preoccupation of the different eras that produced the said classics.

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Background Information

Homer’s masterpiece of a story was created at a time when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. The historical background alone provides a significant source of insights on the cultural forces at work when the blind poet from Greece started composing the immortal lines from the said poem. Homer’s The Odyssey continues the story of The Iliad, the one that talks about the grand battle between Greece and Troy. In the popular narrative about a beautiful maiden responsible for igniting one of the greatest if not the greatest naval warfare in the land of mythology, readers were treated to the magnificent tales of adventure wherein heroes like Achilles and Hector battled it out for glory and everlasting fame.

However, after the dust of conflict had settled, another quest began, and this time around a new hero emerges, one who has to fight the elements, goddesses, monsters, and other beings to perpetuate a love story between himself and his wife. On the other side of the story, Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, was presented as a loving, faithful, and patient wife, and she suffered tremendously for her love for Odysseus. At the end, her sacrifices were rewarded by the triumphant return of her husband.

Atwood’s novel on the other hand begins a thousand years or so after the death of Penelope. One can argue that the “thousand years” idea was not an accident. It seems that the author wants the readers to see that, due to the passage of time, Penelope was able to grow the courage to speak out the truth. In addition, it is important to point out that the novel was published at the turn of the 21st century, at a time when women enjoyed a different worldview in comparison to their counterparts during ancient times. As a result, those who had no background information of Atwood’s literary work and yet familiar with Homer’s The Odyssey would have expected a continuation in the same way that Homer made his own continuation for his first masterwork entitled The Iliad. However, when Atwood completed the introduction part, her reason for writing it became clear, that The Penelopiad was crafted like a cutting commentary on how men treated women during ancient times. There is only one way to explain the said biting commentaries and the extreme opposite worldviews presented by the two authors, and it is none other than the socio-political environment that shaped the cultural preoccupation within the two different eras that, in turn, produced the said classics.

Evidence to Support the Claim about Cultural Preoccupations

According to Mary E.B. Green, Homer presented the archetypal quest story. She meant to say that the lines from the Homeric poem satisfied ancient expectations about the heroic and the romantic. In this worldview, the center of the universe is the male ego. His strength, knowledge, and experience were treated as sacred object and the rest of the community worships at the altar of male dominance. As a consequence, women learned to silence their criticisms and their displeasures. In fact, in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, women played key roles, but they never went beyond the understanding that they were mere objects in the sight of men. Helen of Troy was a powerful figure in the stories, but she was not much of a political figure able to change policies and the direction that society was compelled to follow. The same can be said of Penelope. She was the object of Odysseus’ desires; she was the main reason why he embarked on a perilous journey back to his home. Nevertheless, the story pivots on the life of Odysseus. The most telling evidence that separates men from women was the way society turns a blind eye on men’s sins, as the moral failures of the husbands were of no consequence. During Homer’s time, the cultural preoccupation was to maintain the status quo with regards to women’s place in the world order, because they were supposed to serve their masters – husbands and male partners. There is no other glaring example than the fact that even immortal and powerful goddesses seemed to have been under the influence or seductive power of the mortal man in the person of Odysseus.

Atwood’s novel on the other hand opposes the traditional appreciation and celebration of male dominance. It is important to point out that when Atwood published her novel, the human race had already been through the impact of various waves of feminism. In the first wave, there was the struggle for the right to vote, and in the second wave, there was a struggle with the inequality of laws. In other words, women had a different perception of their role in society in 2005 compared to their counterparts’ understanding of theirs in antiquity. Therefore, during Atwood’s time, the cultural preoccupation was focused on the equality between genders or the need to learn how to respect the rights and liberties of people regardless of gender, race, or creed.

Atwood made a clever presentation of these ideas when she implied that she had to die in order to speak out the truth. Consider the following lines from her book, the echoes of a life full of regrets because she was unable to express her true feelings: “I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy ending are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages”. During the time of Homer, it was common for wives to lead a life of a martyr, perpetually silent over their husband’s promiscuous and philandering ways. Two thousand or so years after Homer, Atwood made it clear that times have changed; society expects men to answer for their sins, no matter how their quest for glory and fame may have sounded heroic and romantic to people of ancient times.


The major difference between Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Atwood’s “The Penelopiad” goes beyond the dissimilarities in plot and setting. Although there was a thousand-year difference between the end of “The Odyssey” and the beginning chapter of “The Penelopiad,” the root cause of the different worldviews and presentation of core values had more to do with the cultural preoccupation of the two eras that produced the said text.

Atwood was heavily influenced by the feminist movement of modern times that she was able to see how women were treated badly during ancient times. It is a worldview that escaped the attention of Homer, because in antiquity, the cultural preoccupation was to honor and celebrate the achievements and adventures of men during a time when nations were shaped and established through their romantic and heroic efforts.

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