As we consider The Odyssey’s characters and their characteristics, my students tend to identify with Penelope’s strength and loyalty, and they dislike the goddess Calypso, who they call clingy. But I wonder at aspiring to and hoping for a generation of Penelopes.
Students, especially young women, admire Penelope’s hopeless romanticism, as she awaits her husband Odysseus’s return. He’s been at war or at sea, however, for nearly twenty years. I too appreciate a good romance, but in this book romance is as absent as Odysseus. Homer’s readers must pore over 10,000 lines of epic Greek poetry before Penelope and Odysseus are finally reunited. For Penelope and for readers too her relationship is a wait, not a romance.
Penelope sometimes smartly passes the time, like when she promises to remarry after weaving a shroud for Laeretes and prolongs her task by weaving each day and unweaving each night. In this tactical maneuver worthy of Athena, she voices choice and independence. For the most part, however, Penelope waits. Perhaps what students mean by strength and loyalty, then, is passivity.
Penelope rarely appears in this adventure-filled epic and when she does, she’s at home. For the homesick Odysseus and the hopeful suitors, she is home itself, as both long to make their homes with her. Perhaps what students mean by strength and loyalty, then, is placeholder. Continue reading