Ways into Comparative Texts ‘The Penelopiad’ and ‘Photograph 51’

Photograph 51 By Anna Ziegler

For Years 11 & 12 students in the Victorian Curriculum studying AOS1: Units 2 & 4 Reading and Comparing Texts with the pairing of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Anna Zielger’s Photograph 51 

Task Requirements for Units 2 & 4

The SAC task for Units 2 & 4 is to write an essay comparing two texts (1000 words in length).  Students must write an essay analysing the ways in which the two texts present ideas, issues and themes with similarities and differences chosen by the authors to convey particular perspectives.

Comparative Text Essay Structure to Follow

  1. Introduction = Main Contention & Message of Author/Director
  2. Body Paragraph 1 = Cause/Accept Prompt / Topic Sentence / Text 1 Evidence & Explanations / Transitional Sentence from Text 1 to Text 2 / Text 2 Evidence & Explanations / Link back to topic
  3. Body Paragraph 2 = Response/Develop Prompt Further / Topic Sentence / Text 1 Evidence & Explanations / Transitional Sentence from Text 1 to Text 2 / Text 2 Evidence & Explanations / Link back to topic
  4. Body Paragraph 3 = Consequences / Topic Sentence / Text 1 Evidence & Explanations / Transitional Sentence from Text 1 to Text 2 / Text 2 Evidence & Explanations / Link back to topic
  5. Conclusion = Sum up briefly / Message of Author/Director

Why Compare The Penelopiad and Photograph 51?

Both Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad place a great value on the power of story and the importance of a woman’s perspective.  This is suggested by the lack of truth and visibility that have tended to omit women and their achievements from the books.  Ziegler’s play has sparked great interest in how and why important women have been forgotten or not celebrated, leading to settling for half-truths.  Atwood’s novella turns literary tradition on its head and empowers the usually silenced maids and long-suffering wife, Penelope.  Both texts lead the reader/audience to appreciate and question what the real truth really is, especially when everything has come from a male-dominant society.  These texts also challenge us to look at contemporary society and assess the current reality for women – is gender still a barrier? How? When? Why?  Both texts encourage us to examine and question everything we are told, to check for bias, distortion and deception.  Many more people in our society have realized that the truth is very subjective and stories have often been told to us from the perspective of the powerful.  There has been a greater emphasis placed on redressing this imbalance and presenting the voices of those who have been marginalised and/or forgotten.

Values of Atwood and Ziegler

Understanding the values embodied in the texts is important as authors use what they obtain from society, history and culture to influence their beliefs and opinions.  Both Atwood and Ziegler explore widespread misogyny [ingrained prejudice against women] and the ways in which women deal with such an environment. Make sure that your essay contains the ‘Message of Author’ for both texts.

Contemporary Feminist Viewpoint

Both authors have brought a contemporary feminist viewpoint to the task of re-framing narratives they consider misogynist.  Ziegler retells the history of the discovery of the structure of DNA to show it was a female scientist (Rosalind Franklin) whose work was central to winning the DNA scientific race.  Atwood retells a mythological story to give voices to Penelope and the poor marginalised maids.

Both texts interrogate the ways that women’s lives have been historically sidelined and their experiences ignored or dismissed in the past.  Both texts explore the idea that truth is not a fixed entity and that it changes depending on whose lens the events are viewed through.

Texts set in Different Eras

Atwood’s novella and Ziegler’s play are set in different eras, yet readers and audiences recognise the treatment and social expectations of women, gender relations, power and powerlessness, ambition and rivalry and the power of storytelling, that is still relevant today.  As contemporary writers they have crafted their narratives offering multiple perspectives by giving voice to those who have been previously silenced and power to the dis-empowered.

The Importance of the Maids’ Tales in The Penelopiad

Think about why Atwood uses Penelope’s story to tell another story within it (the story of the hanged maids).  Like a true sleuth Atwood explores and expands Homer’s text by giving her readers much more than just the masculine heroics of ‘The Odyssey’. She questions the subversive stories of ‘those naughty little jades” and through their songs and burlesque dramas Atwood speculates on what led to the hanging of the maids and what was Penelope really up to.

The maids haunt the narrative from beginning to end, undercutting Penelope’s confession, blaming her for their death and accusing her of repeated infidelities with the Suitors.  They maintain she connived in their hanging because they knew too much.  The maids refuse to be silenced thus transforming the novella into a polyphonic narrative where their dissident voices counter the authenticity of Penelope’s confession. In the end its the maids voices and not Penelope who have the last word.  They manage to defame the Homer monument to male heroism and female fidelity.

Consider this  – Is the hanging of the maids the main motive for Penelope’s narrative?

The Epigraphs in Photograph 51 – What do they mean?

The first Epigraph is from Ann Patchett’s novel ‘Run’  “Certain things exist outside of time.  It was ten years ago, it was this morning … It happened in the past and it was always happening”.  This suggests that the concept of time and memory are central in Photograph 51.  Time in the play seems elastic with the audience watching the characters in the present but knowing the events surrounding the discovery of the structure of DNA occurred in the 1950’s.  In effect time does not alter the past but can change how the past is seen.  Ziegler’s characters possess varying recollections of key events and the idea that memory is fallible.  “Wasn’t it the girl, after all, who had actually found the key to life?” makes us ask if the men who won the Nobel Prize for DNA even thought of Rosalind Franklin?

The second Epigraph is from Horace Judson’s ‘The Eighth Day of Creation’ “As scientists understand very well, personality has always been an inseparable part of their styles of inquiry”.  The troubled relationship between Rosalind and Wilkins provides a framework to the story of Photograph 51.  Rosalind’s abrupt, contradictory personality, along with her determination to work on her own, affects the working environment at Kings College.  Moreover, first impressions of Wilkins reveal him as sexist, assuming Rosalind will be his ‘assistant’ in ‘the study of the Signer DNA’.  Her response is to tell him clearly “Dr Wilkins, I will not be anyone’s assistant”.

Both The Penelopiad and Photograph 51 explore ideas about:

  1. Power in its various forms, including patriarchal power, power by possessing physical attractiveness, belonging to a particular race or class and supernatural power.
  2. Identity and its connections with physical appearance, self-perception and the expectations of others.
  3. Women’s roles/gender are shown in differing representations of the feminine in various types of characters, including maternal figures, wives, older women, young women and career women and the difficulties of being a woman in both ancient and modern times.
  4. Storytelling and the power of narrative is demonstrated in particular the liberating power of taking control of one’s own story in The Penelopiad for Penelope’s ability to spin her own ‘thread’. However, Rosalind in Photograph 51 who is isolated and vilified, is unable to take control of her narrative.
  5. Truth and Lies is shown as Atwood poses probable deceit by Odysseus as well as Penelope who told clever lies to manipulate others to get what they wanted or just simply to survive. Ziegler’s play suggests that it does matter who found the answer to DNA with Wilkin’s tacit approval of Crick and Watson’s use of Rosalind’s research data is shown in his comment that it doesn’t matter who found the answer.
  6. Personal Challenge by Penelope who must deal with her past trauma, her reserved personality and learning to manage her innate mistrust of others. Rosalind’s personal challenge was to be “always right” and this drove her to become a scientist who paid meticulous attention to detail.
  7. Responsibility for the maids’ death in The Penelopiad is unsure if Odysseus feels responsible but Atwood indicates that Penelope is “haunted” by their death and of her great affection for them. In Photograph 51 the responsibility, ethics and values of Wilkins, Watson and Crick in not acknowledging Rosalind’s research work is questioned and taking the acclaimed discovery of DNA for themselves with no apparent accountability.

Other Ideas, Issues and Themes to Consider

There are other ideas, issues and themes that you could consider such as life & death / performance elements / fulfilment / rumour & gossip / discovery / independence / humour / objectification of women / double standards & hypocrisy / disillusionment / loneliness and injustice.

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