English & EAL

Comparing The Penelopiad and Photograph 51

October 23, 2020

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This blog was updated on 23/10/2020.


1. Introductions

2. Characters

3. Themes

4. Literary Devices

5. Important Quotes

6. Comparing Penelopiad and Photograph 51 Video Transcription

7. Sample Essay Topics

8. Essay Breakdown

For a detailed guide on Comparative, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.


The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood retells the story of the Odyssey by Homer from the perspective of Penelope, a half mortal and half divine princess who also happened to be the wife of Odysseus, and her Twelve Maids. A retrospective narrative, Atwood opens her mythological tale with Penelope and the Maids in the afterlife reflecting on the events that occurred centuries before. Told in chronological order from her birth, the Maids serve as a traditional part of greek theatre in their purpose of a Chorus as they make commentary on their life.  

Anna Ziegler’s play, Photograph 51, is set during the 1950s in the age of scientific discovery as researchers are scrambling to be the first to unlock the mysteries of DNA. Its protagonist, scientist Rosalind Franklin is an under-appreciated genius working as the only female in her respective field. As one of her photographs uncover the truth of DNA, her competitors' ambition leads the men around her to success. 


The Penelopiad 

Major Characters
  • Penelope
  • Odysseus
  • Helen
  • Eurycleia
  • Telemachus
  • The Suitors
  • The Twelve Maids 
  • King Icarius of Sparta
  • Penelope’s Mother (The Naiad) 
  • Menelaus
  • Laertes
  • Uncle Tyndareous
  • Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks 
  • Palamedes
  • The Fates
Minor Characters
  • Autolycus 
  • Anticleia
  • Actoris
  • Theseus and Peirithous
  • Paris
  • Agamemnon
  • Teiresias
  • Antinous
  • Medon
  • Iphthime 
  • Sisyphus
  • Piraeus and Theoclymenus
  • Poseidon
  • Athene
  • Hermes
  • Zeus
  • Artemis
  • Pan

Photograph 51

  • Rosalind Franklin 
  • Maurice Wilkins 
  • James Watson 
  • Francis Crick 
  • Don Caspar 
  • Ray Gosling 



Both texts explore the use and demonstration of power in its various forms of physical displays of strength to the patriarchal forces that govern each texts respective world. Indeed, the power of men prevailing atop the social hierarchy while displacing those below them is a common theme within both texts. The authority associated with Icarius’ title of King allows his drunken and rude behaviour to go by unquestioned while in Photograph 51 Wilikins embodies the power possessed by white men. The patriarchal power that men possess within each of the respective texts becomes closely linked to fragile masculinity in their exertion of physical strength or intellectual superiority; Odysseus self-proclaimed superhuman strength is equated to Wilkins need for intellectual dominance, especially over the brilliant Rosalind. 

While the men within each text exert their inherent power of supposed supremacy, the women within each world draw are shown to draw on their physical appearance as a source of power or is shown to be disempowered by it. In The Penelopiad, Helens is known for her legendary beauty which she uses to relentlessly taunt Penelope, the proverbial ugly duckling, through which Atwood demonstrates how, like other forms of power, can be used to oppress others. Conversely, Photograph 51 examines how Rosalind is disempowered by her perceived lack of traditional physical beauty. Many of the men around her using her unflattering appearance to ridicule and minimise her and her work. 


While the time periods in which the two texts are set may greatly differ, the notion of identity is still a prevailing theme that is explored. Indeed, the role others perceptions play in each character's construction of their own self-worth and values provides both authors a basis for the examination of how societies enforce conformity while punishing uniqueness. In The Penelopiad, it can be seen that the glowing perceptions of Odysseus from his mother and his nurse nurture and grow Odysseus’ egocentric view of himself as a hero. In contrast Photograph 51 demonstrates the negative effects these perceptions can have on one’s self-identity, as the negative views that surround Rosalind ultimately make her question herself and her actions. 

Not only do others perceptions shape one's personality, but the expectations enforced by Society. Both protagonists within each text feels pressure from those around them to live up to certain expectations; Penelope feels she must constantly encourage Odysseus’ self glorifying tales of heroism, while Rosalind feels similar pressure to follow her father's advice to consistently be right which eventually leads to her unfavourable reputation for being difficult to work with. 

Both Ziegler and Atwood suggest that in order to overcome the pressures and external expectations of society each which of these women must have a positive and strong sense of self. In the case of Photograph 51, Rosalind must adopt a strong self-belief in her work in order to survive the hostile masculine environment around her. By contrast, Odysseus constantly boasts and exaggerates his stories of heroism and the cleverness of his actions. While both Odysseus and Rosalind have a strong self-belief, Odysseus’ is guided by ego while Rosalind’s is guided by intelligence

Women and Misogyny

The feminine figure and roles are depicted in contrasting ways between the texts, but both show how the construction of characters who either adhere to or reject the social constructs of femininity during their era are forced to grapple with the harsh realities of being a woman in both ancient and modern times. One of the biggest examples of femininity shown within each text is the value the patriarchal system places on motherhood and the high expectations they have for mothers and mother figures. Some mother figures in the The Penelopiad demonstrate the gentle and protective qualities associated with typical feminine attributes; the two contrasting figures within the same text, Odysseus’ nurse and mother demonstrate the two extremes of femininity relating to motherhood. Eurycleia is presented as benevolent and dedicated to the mother figure ideal as she is shown to snatch Penelope's newborn son and envision him as her own. In contrast, Penelope's mother an elusive and neglectful Naiad leaves her child to swim around unsupervised. 

In Photograph 51 mothers are depicted as primarily concerned with the needs of their children and husbands as they are shown to identify themselves with their attributes and successes. It can be seen that such characters as Gosling's mother's interest in his PhD suggests that like Penelope she judges her own worth by her child's success. Indeed, while these mothers are shown to be nurturing and caring most of it emphasises their need to control and guide their child's life.

Not only mothers, but wives become another primary source of femininity that is examined within both texts. The Penelopiad’s notion of wives becomes closely related to the idea that within a patriarchal system women are associated with being a possession rather than an equal. Regardless of class and social standing every woman on some level is shown to be oppressed by this traditional and conventional idea of womanhood. Penelope is encouraged to be a doting wife to her husband Odysseus, while in contrast, the Maids remain unmarried yet are still subjects of oppressive mistreatment. Unlike The Penelopiad, wives have little to no significance within Photograph 51, a text heavily focused on the scientific discovery of DNA, Indeed, the woman or the wife is seen as irrelevant in the scientific field while any mention of women outside of Rosalind is confined to the wives of men contained within the domestic sphere. 

Storytelling and The Narrative 

The notion of storytelling and the power of narrative becomes closely linked to such ideas as femininity and womanhood within each text as each closely revolves around women taking back control of their own narratives and stories. The Penelopiad is a story about other stories as it is based off retelling an already famous story. The Odyssey becomes a vessel for Penelope to share her own insights and feelings while her actions of retelling the well-known work is a source of empowerment for her as she is able to negate stories about herself that she would prefer not to hear. This frees her from the burden of being a legend or a myth as she urges women not to follow her example of keeping their mouths shut. In contrast, Rosalind Franklin does speak out initially but gained an unfortunate reputation as a difficult woman in stories about her that are circulated by men. 

Through this, it can be said that the aim of both Ziegler and Atwood is to challenge the historical invisibility of women throughout time. While Ziegler's play attempts to highlight the ways in which stories told by men have worked to minimise or downplay the roles and contributions of women, The Penelopiad attempts to offer new perspective of already well-known stories that intend to give insight into the woman's understanding of life.

Literary Devices

  • Dramatic Irony 
  • Dramatic Monologue 
  • Genre, literary form and its construction 
  • Imagery 
  • Metaphor 
  • Authorship 
  • Narrator 
  • Narrative structure 
  • Style and language 

Important Quotes 

The Penelopiad 

“And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with.” (ch.1) 
“We were told we were dirty. We were dirty. Dirt was our concern, dirt was our business, dirt was our specialty, dirt was our fault. We were the dirty girls. If our owners or the sons of our owners or a visiting nobleman or the sons of a visiting nobleman wanted to sleep with us, we could not refuse.” (ch.4) 
“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it.” (ch.7) 
“Oh gods and oh prophets, please alter my life,
And let a young hero take me for his wife! 
But no hero comes to me, early or late—
Hard work is my destiny, death is my fate!” (ch.8) 
“The more outrageous versions have it that I slept with all of the Suitors, one after another—over a hundred of them—and then gave birth to the Great God Pan. Who could believe such a monstrous tale?” (ch. 20)

Photograph 51 

“Dr Wilkins, I will not be anyone’s assistant” (Rosalind pg.13)
“It’s for men only” (Wilkins pg.17) 
“But those are precisely the conversations i need to have. Scientists make discoveries over lunch.” (Rosalind pg. 17) 
“...You don’t have to try and wing me over. In fact, you shouldn’t try to win me over because you won’t succeed. I’m not that kind of person.” (Rosalind pg.35) 
“To Watson and Crick, the shape of something suggested the most detailed analysis of its interior workings” (Casper pg.41)

Comparing Photograph 51 and The Penelopiad

[Video Transcript]


The play Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler invites us to revisit the events surrounding the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. While the DNA double helix structure is common knowledge now, in the 1950s many scientists were racing to claim its discovery. Ziegler's title, Photograph 51 is simply named after the X-ray photograph taken of the hydrated B form of DNA, which was crucial in the consequent events that eventually led to the identification of DNA's structure. However, much controversy has surrounded exactly who deserves credit for the discovery, particularly because the Nobel Prize was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins - 3 people who did not actually take Photograph 51 itself. Instead, people have argued that Rosalind Franklin should have been one to be award the prize, or at least share the prize as it was her work that led to Photograph 51 and without it, Watson, Crick and Wilkins may not have discovered the DNA structure. Yet what makes this situation even more complicated is that Franklin’s work was shared with Watson without her knowledge in addition to the fact that Franklin died of ovarian cancer 4 years before the prize was awarded. Since the Nobel Prize does not generally make posthumous awards, Rosalind’s work has never shared in the glory along with the other men. Ziegler takes this opportunity to explore Rosalind’s perspective, and gives the audience a chance to peer into her experiences, interactions with others, and strong mindset. The question now begs: if Rosalind’s data had not been leaked, would she have gone on to discover the structure of DNA on her own? If Watson and Crick had not seen Photograph 51, would they have gone on to discover the structure of DNA on their own?

The Penelopiad is similar to Photograph 51 in that it is written from a women's perspective previously never explored in literature. While in Photograph 51, Ziegler allows us to be privy to Rosalind’s thoughts - a perspective unknown to media and publications because of her death, Margaret Atwood chooses to write from Penelope’s perspective, a view also previously never explored in Greek literature. Penelope’s reminisces about her life from her deathbed in Hades, the underworld. We learn of Penelope’s key life moments from childhood through to adulthood, such as the psychological damage inflicted upon her when her father attempts to drown her as a child, to her pretending to weave a shroud so that she can delay the decision to choose a Suitor who undoubtedly only wants to marry her so they could take up the throne and treasure. Her narrative is occasionally interrupted by the 12 maids who were killed by Odysseus, Penelope’s husband, upon his return. These maids were wrongly murdered and their presence in Atwood’s story brings attention to their plight as not only females, but as slaves during Ancient Greece. When studying The Penelopiad, I would strongly encourage you to be familiar with its historical context - mainly, you should have a good understanding of the story ‘The Odyssey’, the Trojan War, and the roles of the Gods mentioned in the novel. I’ve created a playlist I’ll link below for you with some videos I believe will be helpful for your studies. 

Common Themes

Women’s reactions to misogyny

Misogyny is widespread in both Photograph 51 and The Penelopiad, and both writers explore the ways in which females deal with such an environment. Penelope is more graceful in her response, as she is accepting of her place as a woman, as poignantly expressed: "I kept my mouth shut; or, if I opened it, I sang [Odysseus] praises. I didn’t contradict, I didn’t ask awkward questions, I didn’t dig deep.” Meanwhile, Rosalind reacts with snark hostility, "I don’t suppose it matters whether or not it suits me, does it?”. Rosalind refuses to let her womanhood impede her career as a scientist, to the extent that her stubbornness is self-defeating and her being constantly on guard only causes further misunderstandings and tension with Wilkins: “You know…I think there must come a point in life when you realise you can’t begin again. That you’ve made the decisions you’ve made and then you live with them or you spend your whole life in regret."

Misogyny from a male lens

In The Penelopiad, even Telemachus shows a lack of understanding and empathy for his own mother, and wants her to find a Suitor quickly because she is "responsible for the fact that his inheritance was being literally gobbled up." He disobeys Penelope’s wishes and resents being “under the thumbs of women, who as usual were being overemotional and showing no reasonableness and judgement”. Like Telemachus, the men in Photograph 51 have NO sense of what it means to be a woman. They is frustratingly presumptuous in the female psyche, as seen when Crick boasts: "See, women expect men to fall upon them like unrestrained beasts.” The viewpoints of the males in both texts highlight misogyny that is deeply rooted in society, and a demonstration of how far we can be from the truth when we formulate our own assumptions.

Women’s undervalued abilities 

Penelope is clever, but it’s only beauty and sex appeal that is valued in society as so clearly shown by all men charmed by Helen of Troy. Penelope's intelligence, and more widely, all women’s intelligence is seen as a threat to men as she says, 'cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him". Unlike Penelope’s era where women usually didn’t actively or overtly fight for their rights, the 1950s sees more agency in women. While Rosalind’s intelligence secures her a job and career, she still faces a hostile, sexist environment. Her fellow male scientists dismiss her credentials. From the get go, Rosalind is expected to ‘assist’ Wilkins, and is disparagingly referred to as ‘Miss Franklin’, rather than as ‘Dr Franklin’ as she is rightfully entitled to. Moreover, her methodical approach to her work drives the frustrated Wilkins to share her confidential research with Crick and Watson, displaying the men's inherent distrust and disrespect of women.

Here’s a tip for you. You may have noticed that the common themes I mentioned aren’t just one-worded themes, like ‘misogyny’. Yes, I could’ve lumped my themes together under the umbrella of ‘misogyny’ but I wanted to go that extra mile. By breaking it down further, I am better able to showcase my detailed understanding of the texts, and you’ll find that adopting this specificity in writing is rewarded in VCE. 

Here’s another tip. At the Year 12 level, and particularly in Reading and Comparing, your assessor expects you to not only understand the text itself, but to understand the real-life implications explored. Here we’re looking at human reactions and responses to our world and experiences. So when you start comparing Photograph 51 and The Penelopiad think about the human condition. For example, on a textual level, you’d be asking yourself: what factors drive Rosalind to act with such hostility towards men? Why is the way she deals with misogyny so different to that of Penelope? Now if we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, you need to start asking yourself: What do these texts say about us as people? What can we learn from these stories?

Obviously there’s so much more you can extract from these books and compare, but I hope this has given you something to think about!

At LSG, we use the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy to help us easily find points of similarity and difference. This is particularly important when it comes to essay writing, because you want to know that you're coming up with unique comparative points (compared to the rest of the Victorian cohort!). I don't discuss this strategy in detail here, but if you're interested, check out my How To Write A Killer Comparative.

Sample Essay Topics

Whenever you get a new essay topic, you can use LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, then check it out in How To Write A Killer Text Response.

Character-based Prompt:

While Rosalind and Penelope are examples of strong female characters, they are both severely flawed. Discuss. 

Theme-based Prompt: 

In what ways do misogyny and expectations impact individuals identity within each text?

Structure-based Prompt:

What structural elements help convey the strength of women within The Penelopiad and Photograph 51?

Quote-based Prompt:

“We were told we were dirty. We were dirty. Dirt was our concern, dirt was our business, dirt was our specialty, dirt was our fault. We were the dirty girls.” (The Penelopiad) 

Authorial message-based Prompt: 

What comments do the authors make about the corrupting force of power?

Essay Topic Breakdown

Make sure you watch the video below for extra tips and advice on how to break down this essay prompt!

[Video Transcript]

Essay Topic: The authors of Photograph 51 and The Penelopiad give voice to the women in their stories. Discuss. 


  • ‘Authors’ - means I should talk about their intention and what message they want us to hear
  • ‘Voice’ - power to speak, to story-tell, to share their side of the story
  • ‘Women’ - be sure not to only talk about the main characters such as Penelope and Rosalind but other women in the books
  • ‘Discuss’ - a word like ‘discuss’ gives you a lot of flexibility to discuss any ideas that are relevant to the topic, whereas a ‘do you agree’ style of question is a bit more limiting. With so much more flexibility to ‘discuss’ various ideas, I’m going to touch on topics that most interest me. I feel that this is a great way to get yourself in tune with the book, especially as you start writing. The more you can make the writing interesting for yourself, the more interesting it will be for your reader. 


By giving voice to the women in their stories, Atwood and Ziegler reveal stories of those previously silenced, and showcase how storytelling empowers women marginalised by misogynistic social constructs. 


Body paragraph 1: In giving a voice to the females, both Atwood and Ziegler offer a new, previously unseen perspective on misogyny. 
  • In The Odyssey, the maids are constructed as unfaithful and disrespectful of queen Penelope, Telemachus and other staff. Their own story is silenced and instead, is observed through others, whereas in The Penelopiad, the maids tell their own version of events - mainly that their actions were under Penelope’s instruction.
  • The patriarchal rule is accentuated through their lack of status and rape, which is considered to be a “deplorable but common feature of palace life”.
  • Moreover, we feel sympathy for these three-dimensional characters, as they ’toil and slave/ And hoist [their] skirts at [men’s] command’. 
  • Likewise Rosalind Franklin's version of events has never been revealed because of her early death. In Photograph 51, we learn of the misogyny Rosalind faced as a female scientist "My name is Rosalind. But you can call me Miss Franklin. Everyone else does."
Body paragraph 2: By offering these women a voice, the authors reject social conventions of femininity. 
  • Penelope is cunning and intelligent, foiling the Suitor’s plans to marry her by delaying her decision with the endless weaving of her ‘shroud’. The juxtaposition of unsuspecting men and strategic Penelope thwarts traditional gender roles where women are viewed as inferior.  "They were very angry, not least because they’d been fooled by a woman."
  • Meanwhile, Rosalind is stubborn and resilient nature rebuffs the narrow-minded beliefs of her fellow coworkers who believe that “kindness always works with women” and that "women expect men to fall upon them like unrestrained beasts."
Body paragraph 3: Most importantly, both authors showcase the importance of giving women a voice as a means to control their own narrative. 
  • Penelope opens her reflection with an emphasis on how she “owe[s] it to [herself]” to “spin a thread of [her] own”. She shares how she now has the opportunity to share her side of the story, whereas allowing others to speak of her from their perspective means that “they were turning me into a story…not the kind of stories I’d prefer to hear about myself”.
  • While Penelope is empowered to reveal her story and invites us to an alternate version of historical events, this is not afforded to Rosalind in Photograph 51. Rosalind is literally sidelined, “…we just hear her lines - a recording, or she speaks from offstage' and therefore unable to control her narrative. The stage direction (/) indicates that the men of past and present talk over her, reducing her opinion and overriding her speech with their own “self-aggrandisement."

To see another essay prompt breakdown for this text pair and a full sample A+ essay with annotations, check out this blog post.

Useful Resources

Compare the Pair- A guide to structuring a reading and comparing essay

The link between your contention and topic sentences in relation to the prompt

Master Reading and Creating

A Guide to Structuring a Reading and Comparing Essay

Reading and Comparing Essays

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