Homer’s Odyssey is a story of the homecoming of Odysseus after the Trojan War. Odysseus left his wife, Penelope, and their young son, Telemachos, almost twenty years before the telling of this story to fight in the Trojan War. His absence places Penelope in a rather precarious position. Faced with many different circumstances, both good and bad, Penelope is on her own to decide the path she wishes to take. Depending on her decisions, the situations could either be filled with wonderful opportunities or perilous dangers. The strong character of Penelope is revealed by her decisions.
While Odysseus is away from home, Penelope finds herself playing the role of dutiful wife coupled with the conflicting role of a single mother trying to run a household. As a dutiful wife, Penelope is faithful to Odysseus although she is plagued by suitors who are all eager to marry her. She waits patiently, albeit sadly, for Odysseus to return while successfully keeping her suitors at bay. There is nothing that she would like more than for her husband to return safely to her and so she yearns for his return. ‘Since the unforgettable sorrow comes to me, beyond others, / so dear ahead do I long for whenever I am reminded / of my husband, whose fame goes wide through Hellas and midmost Argo’s (Odyssey 1.342-344).’ Since Telemachos was so young when Odysseus went off to war, he is not even sure that Odysseus is his father. It is up to Penelope, in her mother’s role, to dispel this doubt from Telemachos’ mind. He states, ‘my mother says indeed I am his. I for my part / do not know (Odyssey 1.215-216).’
Penelope is in great danger of losing control of the household, a position she took over when Odysseus went off to war. This danger comes from both the suitors and Telemachos. The suitors have taken up residence in her house and they refuse to leave. ‘For my mother, against her will, is beset by suitors… (Odyssey 2.50).’ Assuming that Odysseus had died in the course of the war, they wish to marry her, although no news has yet been delivered as to Odysseus’ true fate. Meanwhile, the suitors are eating all her food, killing off all her livestock, and generally using up all the resources of the household (Odyssey 1.248-251). Elders of the town suggest Penelope forget her pride and go home to her father and for him to arrange a new wedding for her. ‘Let him urge his mother to go back to her father’s, / and they shall appoint the marriage and arrange for the wedding presents… (Odyssey 2.195-196)’ Thus, the suitors pose multiple dangers for Penelope. If the suitors ruin all the household’s resources, or if one were to successfully persuade her to marry him, she would lose her power position. Likewise, if the resources run out and she is forced to move back in with her father, she would lose both her power position and her autonomy.
Along with the suitors, Penelope also faces possible dangers from her own son. Even though Telemachos is not in support of sending Penelope back to her father, he does not fail to underestimate and otherwise disregard her. Following the typical Greek mindset, Telemachos views women as inherently inferior to men. This view includes how he sees his mother. He automatically assumes that she cannot run a household because she is a woman. When Telemachos develops a plan to sail to Argos and Pylos to inquire about the whereabouts of Odysseus, a trip sanctioned by Athene, he neglects to tell his mother. On one hand, he loves her dearly and does not wish for her to have to worry about him. ‘But swear to tell my beloved mother nothing about this… / so that she may not ruin her lovely skin with weeping (Odyssey 2.373-376).’ On the other hand, he lumps her together in a category with the serving women, a derogatory categorization, although she is the woman of the household. ‘But my mother has been told nothing of this, / nor the rest of the serving women’ (Odyssey 2.411-412).’ In this vein, he treats her activities as trivial and presumes the household power as his own, not his mother’s. ‘Go therefore back in the house, and take up your own work… but the men must see to the discussion, all men, but I most of all. For mine is the power in this household (Odyssey 1.356-359).’
Homer employs an extended metaphor when he parallels the story of Penelope, Odysseus, and Telemachos with that of Klytaimestra, Agamemnon, and Orestes. In the latter story, Agamemnon is also away fighting in the Trojan War. Klytaimestra has an affair and ends up killing Agamemnon upon his return. In response to these deeds, Orestes kills both Klytaimestra and her lover. Penelope has the potential to be placed in a remarkably similar situation. If she were to pick a lover from one of her many suitors, Telemachos could be right there to end both her life and her lover’s.
Regardless of these ominous prospects, Penelope is also presented with many unique possibilities. With Odysseus out of the picture, Penelope had opportunities most women in ancient Greece never had. She is given the chance to display her own abilities, including wisdom and cunning, as well as her good character. ‘She is so dowered with the wisdom bestowed by Athene, / to be expert in beautiful work, to have good character / and cleverness… (Odyssey 2.116-118)’ Unlike Klytaimestra, who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away, Penelope retained her honor by staying true to her husband and refusing her suitors. If like Klytaimestra, her character had not been as strong, she, too, may have succumbed to infidelity. ‘Now in time before, beautiful Klytaimestra would not / consent to the act of shame, for her own nature was honest, / … but when the doom of the gods had entangled her, so that / she must submit, … she was willing as he was (Odyssey 3.265-272).’ Penelope not only refuses her suitors, but she also goes to great lengths to keep them from pursuing her. This action shows her strong moral character as well as her creativity and ability to handle herself in situations that may not be ideal.
One way Penelope shows her cunning is with a clever scheme she devises to hold off the advances of her suitors. She tells her suitors that they have to wait to court her until she had finished weaving a death shroud for Laertes (Odyssey 2.96-103). Using cleverness and trickery, Penelope develops the idea that ‘in the daytime, she would weave at her great loom, / but in the night she would have torches set by and undo it (Odyssey 2.104-105).’ In this way, she successfully deters her suitors for almost four years. Any ordinary woman would not have been able to keep up the deception for nearly that long.
By chance, Penelope is thrust into the position of the head of the household. Because Telemachos is neither old enough nor experienced enough to do so, the power of the household falls on Penelope’s shoulders. In a way, she is simply in the right place at the right time. In her wise decisions and cleverness, she is coming to be held in high esteem by certain Greek men. One example is the opinion of Nestor, king of Pylos. He states, ‘she is greatly resourceful (Odyssey 2.88)’ and ‘she is winning a great name / for herself… (Odyssey 2.125-126).’ Both these statements are signs of great accomplishments on Penelope’s part. Not only is she a woman who is being complimented on her achievements, but the person complimenting her happens to be a very well-known man.
Penelope acts very cautious and guarded whenever she is presented in The Odyssey. She treats others, especially her suitors, with extreme wariness. This treatment is understandable considering the many dangers that other people, especially her suitors, present to her. If Penelope did not show this extreme vigilance, all her opportunities would be transformed into perils. Her suitors would doubtlessly overtake the house and her. She would no longer be in control of herself or her house. Telemachos would be driven into a power position that he is not prepared for and there would be nothing awaiting Odysseus upon his return home. Penelope’s caution is shown in her epithet of ‘circumspect Penelope (Odyssey 1.328).’
Related to her circumspection, Penelope is depicted with a certain air about her, as if she were untouchable. With her husband away and she not wishing to be pursued by her suitors, this is not a bad air to give. She envelops herself with an assemblage of servants and surroundings denoting prestige. ‘When she, shining among women, came near the suitors, / she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery, / holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it, / and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her (Odyssey 1.332-335).’ This prestige could be seen as the hard-earned prominence that she has been building during Odysseus’ absence. It could also be a way of cocooning herself in imagined safety until her husband returns to save her. Either way, her airs serve their purpose and she is both revered and untouched by her suitors.
Penelope’s most defiant and bold gesture is her deceit involving the weaving and unweaving of the death shroud for Laertes. She devises this scheme both to protect herself from her suitors and to show her capabilities. From this action, she begins to take advantage of the opportunities supplied by her less-than-desirable situation. Penelope shows that she was able to think for herself and that she possesses keen wisdom. She also shows that she is a woman who knows what she wants and is not afraid to use any means possible, even deception, to get it. Penelope is eventually found out by the suitors and is forced to complete the shroud. ‘So, against her will and by force, she had to finish it (Odyssey 2.110).’ However, she is able to keep up the charade long enough for Odysseus to return and save her from the suitors.
Through her unfavorable situation, Penelope faces both perils and privileges. However, she is a strong woman and is able to take the dangers and turn them around to her advantage. Although she is threatened by Telemachos taking over household power, he still respects her enough to give her a say in what happens to her. ‘I cannot thrust the mother who bore me, / who raised me, out of the house against her will (Odyssey 2.130-131).’ And, though the suitors are eager for her to pick a new husband, they also respect her enough to believe her when she requests more time to finish Laertes’ shroud, thus allowing for the success of her scheme to delay them. Penelope is able to use her wisdom to turn her potentially perilous situation into one filled with numerous advantages and opportunities for her.