ENGB03H3 Study Guide - Final Guide: Tenderly, Margaret Atwood, Unreliable Narrator

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8 Aug 2016
Nirojan Jeevanantham
Penelope, the Unreliable Narrator
In The Penelopiad, author Margaret Atwood presents Penelope as the narrator telling the story
of Odyssey from her perspective, while she awaits her husband to return form the Trojan War. Being
dead for a few millennium, Penelope portrays her story to the modern day reader and audience.
Throughout the context of the novel, Penelope emphasizes that she is a kind and clever girl, who has
remained faithful to her husband Odysseus, while he is off battling in the Trojan War. Penelope tells her
story, where she wants the reader to sympathize with her, that the facts and content she prevents is
truthful, and that the reader can trust and rely upon the character she informs the reader to be. The
definition of a reliable narrator is someone who speaks from a position of knowledge, truthfulness and
shows a strong strength of character, the ability to follow the moral standard they set for themselves.
After reading the text, and analyzing the content it is evident that Penelope lacks such heroic qualities.
The reader is presented with concrete evidence that magnifies how easily Penelope is persuaded into
dishonesty, her lack of knowledge and authority she displays and ultimately her flaws as a character
begins to contradict her own image and persona of herself.
A reliable narrator is someone that speaks from a position of knowledge and authority. The
character presents knowledgeable and factual information throughout the context, and makes powerful
impacts on the story and his or her presence can be felt by others in the context. Penelope describes
herself almost the exact opposite. Living in a misogynist world, she identifies herself as a fifteen year old
girl, who has reached the age of child bearing. Describing herself as a material object, whose sole
purpose is to give birth devalues her as a character, and ultimately indicates the minuscule authority she
has in the novel. The reader notices this when she states, “ A couple of maids were with me- they never
left me unattended, I was a risk until I was safely married, because who knew what upstart fortune
hunter might try to seduce me or seize me and try and run away with me ? ”(Atwood, 30) Analyzing this
quote, the reader questions Penelope’s power of authority. When Penelope states that she was never
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Nirojan Jeevanantham
left unattended, the reader gets the impression that Penelope is still in the adolescent stage and is
someone who has not yet reached full adulthood or maturity. Furthermore, when she states that” she is
a risk” almost implies that Penelope has no control of her actions or surroundings, and like an infant
needs constant watching, because she is a risk to herself. A narrator with authority and power does not
display these conspicuous flaws. In addition, Penelope is not a character that has garnered any respect
throughout the novel. Though it is mentioned that she is a clever individual, it seems to be the only
superlative the reader can trust about her. For a vast majority of the time, Penelope is always the
expense of a joke, or someone that is patronized and whose accomplishments or awards and diminished
or lowered in value. For instance, Penelope states “ She gave the patronizing smirk of someone who’d
has first glance at a less than delicious piece of sausage but had fastidiously rejected it. Indeed Odysseus
had been among the suitors for her hand, and like every other man on earth he’d desperately wanted to
win her. Now he was competing for what was at best only second prize.” (Atwood, 34) Interpreting this
quote, the reader is given an insight into how low a self-esteem Penelope has for herself which
ultimately diminishes the respect other have for her. By stating that Odysseus, picked her because Helen
in the end turned him down, stating at best she is second price further diminishes her value. The lack of
respect she carries for herself, how much she admires Helen diminishes her authority. In addition, she
states that Helen gave her patronizing smirk. The reader realizes that Penelope is not a figure with high
authority. It is almost ironic that her constant monitoring and supervision is done by her own maids, and
the very same maids laugh at her own expense. It would be difficult for any reader to rely upon
Penelope as a narrator, when it is clear that from the constant supervision and patronizing remarks that
Penelope does not display any authority in the novel.
Truthfulness is the embodiment of a reliable narrator. As a reliable narrator the reader hangs on
to every word the narrator speaks, and the context in which it is presented. However, Penelope has
given many evidence of how she is not a trust worthy narrator. For starters, on the first night after her
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