A specific issue to discuss in the essay is the portrayal of Penelope’s loyalty and patience while waiting for Odysseus to return from his two-decade journey. Although it is natural for a woman to remain faithful to her man, it may seem that the main female character’s belief in a happy ending for her family is too intense. Hence, the question worth exploring is why and how Penelope has managed to withstand numerous attempts of her suitors and to remain a dutiful wife. The arguments to be examined in the essay are the sense of home as Penelope’s most representative feature, her inclination to grieve as a sign of giving up, and her cunning as a leitmotif feature helping Penelope to reach her goals. At the same time, one should bear in mind that Penelope did accept some signs of affection and gifts from her suitors, which requires the analysis of the other side of her personality and demands a rebuttal of possible accusations against the heroine. I argue that “loathsome Eriphyle” (11.369) is mentioned among “the grand array of women” (11.258) to serve as an antagonist to Penelope, who has been faithfully waiting for Odysseus for many years and, rather than letting anyone seduce her, deceives the suitors to make sure that she can express loyalty to her husband when he finally returns.
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Mythology palace; moreover, she is hardly seen in the company of suitors, being isolated from the outer world. However, the personification of home is tightly interwoven with Penelope’s misery and tendency to undermine her virtues. As Eumaeus describes the situation to Odysseus, “she’s still waiting / there in your halls, poor woman, suffering so, / her life an endless hardship… wasting away the nights, weeping away the days” (16.41-44). Furthermore, Penelope’s belonging to her home and family is reflected in the woman’s modesty and refusal to communicate with suitors even in her own palace. She asks several people to support her speech in the hall full of suitors justifying her request by the belief, “I’ll never brave / these men alone. I’d be too embarrassed” (18.208-209). When spoken of her beauty, Penelope humbly says, “Whatever glow I had died long ago…” (18.204). Indeed, the woman seems to be stricken with grief of her husband’s missing status that she does not notice anyone or anything around her.
Although Penelope rejects all the attempts of suitors to marry her, her inclination to grieve and cry seems to contradict with her faith in her husband’s safe return. Neither is she much hopeful about her son’s return from the quest upon which he has set. Instead, Penelope is “weeping, pitifully” (4.811) and “sobbing uncontrollably” (4.813). These instances signify Penelope’s disbelief in Odysseus’ and Telemachus’ safe return at different points of the epic. There is even a period of utter despair when Penelope wishes to be dead rather than alive and living in a constant state of expectation. She says, “if only / blessed Artemis sent me a death as gentle, now, / this instant – no more wasting away my life, / my heart broken in longing for my husband…” (18.229-232). While it is understandable that Penelope can have moments of weakness, such behavior contradicts with her image of a strong and faithful woman ready to resist all hardships and cunning on her way.
The mentioned arguments make it relevant to consider that the inclusion of Eriphyle resonates with the issues of Penelope’s faithfulness and despair due to both heroines’ involvement in the gift-receiving process. However, whereas Eriphyle, who is mentioned in Book 11, has consciously agreed to participate in the treason of her husband, Penelope’s attitude toward precious presents is quite dissimilar. In Book 11, Homer refers to Eriphyle as a “loathsome” woman “bribed with a golden necklace / to lure her lawful husband to his death…” (11.369-371). By using this description of the character, the author emphasizes her disloyalty and willingness to sacrifice her husband’s life in exchange for an expensive necklace. Meanwhile, throughout The Odyssey, no matter how tired of waiting and grieving she is, Penelope never fails Odysseus. At one point, though, she agrees to accept some gifts from her suitors, one of which is also a necklace – “richly wrought, / gilded, strung with amber and glowing like the sun” (18.331-332). This example could have served as a reproach to Penelope. However, as it is evident from the text, Penelope’s motives are quite different from Eriphyle’s ones.
The explanation of Penelope’s readiness to accept gifts is related to the opposite side of her character, the one no so meek and fragile. Some may argue that by accepting the necklace from Eurymachus and other things from other suitors, Penelope has disgraced herself and betrayed her husband. However, one can retaliate this assumption by analyzing the true motives behind her behavior. She does not want any of the presents from her suitors. Neither does she desire to marry even the noblest of them. Penelope is only practicing “trickery luring gifts from her suitors now, / enchanting their hearts with suave seductive words / but all the while with something else in mind” (18.317-319). Thus, it is relevant to conclude that Eriphyle’s character is included in the epic not to emphasize Penelope’s greediness but to contrast Odysseus’ wife’s motives with those of Amphiaraus’ spouse.
Another likely reason why Eriphyle is mentioned in Odysseus’ journey to the underworld is the endeavor of the author to bring up the issue of cunning pertaining to Penelope. As well as Eriphyle, Penelope is not honest with men. Still, unlike Eriphyle’s slyness, Penelope’s is directed not against her own husband but his enemies. The greatest trickery employed by Penelope is her promise to marry one of her suitors once she finishes her weaving. As she confesses, every night, she “would unravel” everything she has weaved during the day (19.169). Another indication of Penelope’s slyness is the mentioned practice of receiving gifts from suitors while she knew that they would never get the prize they wanted. Finally, at the end of the epic, Penelope outwits the unwanted suitors once again, promising that she will marry the one whose hand can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot “an arrow clean through all twelve axes” (21.87). Penelope knows for sure that she will not have to get married because only Odysseus is strong enough to fulfill this task. Therefore, mentioning “loathsome Eriphyle” (11.369) serves as the explanation of Penelope’s actions aimed at deceiving suitors and remaining faithful to Odysseus.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1997.
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