The Right Word For Woman

the birth of venusAs 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.

My students’ expectations of what women should and shouldn’t be surprise me. While these 21st century university students readily enough agree that sexual equality is a good idea, dated gender roles linger in their readings of literary characters and of themselves and each other, too. In class, I sometimes feel like I’m talking to someone much older than 18- or 19-year-olds. I wonder what Flaubert thought of Penelope’s character? Did he, like my students, admire her for knowing her place?

If Penelope literally remains in Ithaca while Odysseus wars and adventures his way about the Mediterranean, she also figuratively knows her place. She obeys her son Telemachus’s commands – even though his youth and inexperience leave the other men laughing at him. When Penelope cries at the bard’s song of soldiers’ homecomings and demands he stop singing, Telemachus commands her back to her rooms:

As for giving orders,

men will see to that, but I most of all:

I hold the reins of power in this house.

Reprimanded by her teenager, Penelope returns to her rooms, taking “to heart/ the clear good sense in what her son had said.” When we next see Penelope, she’s in tears at Telemachus’s return from Sparta – and he promptly commands her back to her rooms. Penelope’s tearful appearances in the text are marked with submission. Men, arguably even boys like Telemachus, traditionally did rule homes and women and city-states in Homer’s 8th c. BC Greece. If students see strength and loyalty in Penelope, perhaps it’s a loyalty to a powerful patriarchal tradition.

In an undergraduate survey class, I contextualize texts with a few broadstrokes of history and philosophy and culture. We’ve not time for a careful examination of men’s and women’s potential roles in each era of western civilization we browse. My students are reading Penelope’s “strength and loyalty,” then, not within the bounds of her then limited social freedom but rather as her character might exist today. They’re admiring what a woman today should be – based on values from thousands of years ago.

Tradition is just what “the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess” Calypso bucks. To help Odysseus home, Zeus sends Hermes to command that Calypso release Odysseus, who she keeps “deep in her arching caverns, craving him for a husband.” In contrast to Penelope’s quiet withdrawals, Calypso counters Zeus’s command with a would-be feminist critique:

Hard-hearted

You are, you gods! You unrivaled lords of jealously –

Scandalized when goddesses sleep with mortals,

Openly, even when one has made the man her husband.

After voicing her grievance with the double standard, Calypso releases Odysseus. Even Calypso must bow to the patriarch. But must we?

Students label Calypso a woman who wants what she cannot have, as if desire is a fault. Or perhaps they mean that she desires more than what her social place offers. But isn’t this why we admire characters like Cinderella? In that story, we call it hope. When Calypso admits her desire and frustration, students call her clingy. I think they mean passionate.

Young women tell me they’ve more self-respect than Calypso, as if standing up to authority or for your self is not a respectable characteristic in a woman. Or maybe they mean they’ve more self-respect than Calypso, because she “sleeps with [men], openly.” Maybe they dislike Calypso because she is unapologetically a woman.

If we are impressed with Penelope and embarrassed by Calypso, it’s because we’re still impressed with the powerful tradition of the patriarch, and still embarrassed of being women.

Not able to put their fingers on le mot juste, my students like and tell me they’d like to be like Penelope, because she’s strong and loyal. But really, what they think women should be is still and quiet so the adventure can happen around us.

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2 thoughts on “The Right Word For Woman

  1. Such a great approach regarding Calypso!… And we were lucky that there were sirens in between or otherwise… (!)
    Anyhow… It is worth highlighting that once agin women are being linked to sin, temptation and evilness… Helen of Troy, Aphrodite, Pandora, Medea, Calypso … and the list goes on!.
    Thanks for sharing … Your blog truly stands out!. Best regards, Aquileana 😀

  2. Many thanks for your generosity, Aquileana! Your compliment is all the more appreciated as it comes from a writer so wonderfully steeped in mythology.

    And yes – again with the sin. It’s almost empowering if utterly ridiculous to add my name to the list and think of myself as somehow essentially responsible for the fall of man. But such is the pretext, right?

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