In Homer’s epic story of Odysseus, the character that stands out most to me is the character, Penelope. Although she has been left behind to run her husband’s kingdom and raise his son with little or no help, she still manages to find a way of keeping her family together. This is symbolized by her weaving. Although Odysseus hasn’t been seen for 20 years or so, Telemachus sneaks off on his own to find news of his father, Laertes has apparently become useless as a king following the heartbreaking disappearance of his son, the palace of full of potential suitors who all wish to get their hands on Penelope’s treasure and Penelope is a woman who traditionally didn’t carry much power of her own over her own person much less over the affairs of state, Penelope manages to maintain her equilibrium over self and country by weaving.
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As the story progresses, Penelope is seen to have a strength of her own that has nothing to do with the physical strength prized by the men of her world. The suitors believe that because she has no man to guide her, Telemachus doesn’t count, they presume they can force her to renounce her marriage to Odysseus, whom they believe long dead, and choose one of them as her new husband and lord. However, Penelope employs her mind and her ‘feminine wiles’ to hold them off while working to keep her family woven together by promising that she will select a suitor once she is finished weaving a funeral shroud for her still-living father-in-law Laertes. This signifies to me that she will only be willing to accept a new suitor once she has finally managed to put her old family to rest. Laertes is the only one of these who remains close by and is thus the only person on whom she might focus. However, she is unable to simply sever the ties she has to Odysseus and her son Telemachus despite their absence and hopes news of them will reach her before her great secret is discovered – that each night she unravels the work she’d done the day before. When the men finally do learn of her trick, through the word of one of her maidservants, the men indicate “She may rely too long on Athena’s gifts – / talent in handicraft and a clever mind; / so cunning – history cannot show the like” (book 2). Despite this warning to them regarding Penelope’s superiority in thought, they still think to trick her into marriage.
Unknown to the men, though, by the time they had discovered Penelope’s trick, Odysseus had returned home under disguise. It is fitting that he meets up with Telemachus before arriving at the palace. Telemachus has, in the meantime, been out to see the world and has gained some experience regarding what is expected of a man in a proper court thanks to his encounters with successful father/son relationships and thus knows how to behave when he comes into contact with his own father. When Odysseus finally appears at the palace, Penelope does not instantly recognize him but has her suspicions regarding the true identity of this beggar who seeks her favor. As I’ve mentioned, this is also about the time that the suitors have discovered Penelope’s trick regarding the weaving, which is now no longer necessary because her family that has been held together figuratively is now held together physically. However, they must still clean the house. Penelope provides the impetus by again outsmarting the suitors. She proposes a contest between them to see which one can pull the great bow that once belonged to her husband and which only he had ever been man enough to pull. “Come forward now, my gallant lords; for I challenge you to try your skill on the great bow of King Odysseus. And whichever man among you proves the handiest at stringing the bow and shoots an arrow through every one of the twelve axes, with that man I will go” (Book 21). She is confident there is still only one man who can accomplish this feat and, at the same time, places a weapon neatly in the hands of her beloved husband to use against the suitors should the beggar turn out to be him.
Penelope’s ability to ‘weave’ her family together when they are apart, her extreme dedication to this task, and then her ability to provide them with the tools they need for success without giving warning to their enemies is the reason why I find this character so inspiring.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. E.V. Rieu. New York: Penguin Books, 1946.