English & EAL

Comparing: Bombshells and The Penelopiad

Anna Wittwer

July 22, 2017

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Bombshells and The Penelopiad are studied as part of VCE English's Comparative. For one of most popular posts on Comparative (also known as Reading and Comparing), check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.

1. Introductions

Bombshells is a collection of six monologues written by Joanna Murray-Smith, each featuring one female character who is symbolic of a specific stage in life and role. Together, they are a telling account of the struggles of being a woman in a modern world, and the monologue format allows the author to emphasise how they are simultaneously unique and universally relatable.

The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from Odysseus’ wife Penelope’s point of view. The story is narrated first-person by Penelope who resides in the underworld, but is also peppered with spoken, sung or chanted testimonies from the twelve dead maids of the story who act as a Chorus, a traditional part of ancient Greek theatre. Although the story is old and much-retold, the voice is modern and the author’s messages concerning women and their position in the world and their relationship with men are universal, regardless of the historical period.

2. Themes

3. Characters


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The Penelopiad

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4. Sample paragraphs

Prompt: How do Bombshells and The Penelopiad emphasise the subtleties of the male-female relationship dynamic?


While the narratives of both Bombshells and The Penelopiad are firmly focused on the female perspective of issues relevant to them, the texts also address the male perspective and role in such issues. Like the women, the men created by the authors have instrumental roles in the way the stories play out, which interestingly are sometimes disproportionate to their actual involvement in the plot.

Body paragraph

One of the main differences between the texts, other than the literary format, is the level of dialogue and active participation afforded to the male characters. In The Penelopiad, the male characters arguably largely direct Penelope’s life, from her father essentially selling her into marriage to Odysseus’ life-disrupting departure, return and ‘lies…tricks and… thieving’, not to mention her ‘quite spoiled’ son Telemachus’ will to usurp and disobey his mother. Penelope’s narration gives them large amounts of dialogue and paints them as three-dimensional people in her life, whereas the male characters in Bombshells have barely any dialogue – most of them have none – and yet manage to cause a similar level of turmoil in the female characters. The marriage of Theresa McTerry to her fiancé Ted, for example, sends her into long, capitalised rants heavily punctuated with exclamation marks and profanities; Murray-Smith does not even give Ted a full description. Even without forming the male characters into rich, detailed personas, she still manages to fully showcase the chaos visited upon Theresa by her ill-considered marriage. She draws greater attention to her inner panic and desperation than we see in Penelope, whose voice retains a sense of shocked detachment even when crying or suffering. As such, the differing approaches of the authors both showcase the fact that men can wreak significant havoc with women’s lives, and that we do not actually need to know much about the particulars of the men or their acts to comprehend the women’s suffering.


The approaches of Atwood and Murray-Smith towards the level of engagement of their male characters differ significantly, yet both show the full impact of their actions on the lives of their female counterparts. Even when the men are given only cursory mentions, their presence as an agent of change within the story is sufficient for them to dramatically alter the courses of the characters they consort with.

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5. Tips

It’s very hard to look past the overt feminist overtones of both try – even though these are some of the most interesting parts of the texts and you definitely should discuss them, there is more to them than messages about women. Maybe expand your view to more general ideas about human beings, how we live our lives and the ways we react to situations of duress.

Also consider that these texts are in two different formats; how does the live performance of Bombshells change the way it is perceived? How do the different media of these texts support or emphasise the authors’ messages? What can a monologue do better than a book in terms of transmitting an idea and vice versa?

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