Inan epic poem, The Odyssey, by Homer, Odysseusstruggles to come back home while his wife, Penelope, faces barbarous suitorswho plague her house to court her for the marriage in order to claim the kingshipof Ithaca. With an absence of the man of the household and a son who is not oldenough to rule over the country and handle the domestic complications, Penelopeendeavors to keep the household orderly and civilized.
In order to prevent furtherchaos in the household, Penelope maintains her role as the Queen of Ithaca andOdysseus’s wife through her loyalty and cunning. Fora woman who does not know when her man will return home, Penelope is extremelystrong to keep hope and wait for her husband; thus, her unwavering loyalty to her husband keeps thehousehold stable. She remains faithful in the absence of her husband,unlike Clytemnestra. Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra,commits adultery when Agamemnon leaves to fight in the war of Trojan. She evenplots against her husband and kills him when he comes back home. Her course ofaction consequently leads to the collapse of Agamemnon’shousehold with the death of the man of the household and the disappearance ofthe heir of the throne.
However, Penelope’s loyalty to Odysseus is neverquestioned. For example, when she sees a beggar transforming to Odysseus, shedecides to test him about the bedroom built around the olive tree branches,which is the information that only they know, in order to assure that the manin front of her is truly Odysseus. After hearing Penelope telling the maid tomove the bed, Odysseus becomes furious and retorts that the bed cannot be movedby anyone as he builds it with his own hand. Upon hearing that answer, whichconfirms that he is truly the man she has been waiting for 20 years, sheanswers, “In my heart of hearts I always cringe with fear some fraud mightcome, beguile me with his talk; the world is full with sorts, cunning one whoplot their own dark ends” (Homer, Odyssey,23.213-216). Her words demonstrate how she is so frightened by a thought of herbetraying Odysseus.
She takes cautions in everything she does to guarantee thather household does not belong to any man other than Odysseus. The householddefines Penelope who she is and her rank in the house, and with itsdestruction, Penelope would lose her identity as Odysseus’s wife; hence, she protectsit by staying faithful. Penelope fulfills her role of Odysseus’s wife with hercourage to remain loyal and determination to keep the household in order.
Onthe other hand, one may argue that Penelope is weak; she lets the suitorsexploit all resources of her household and that all she does is weeping andgrieving over her husband. However, for a woman in Homer’s society, who belongsto either her father and her husband, she is the head of the household for 20years in the absence of Odysseus. She does not preserve peace in the household,but she takes actions to prevent the destruction of ranks of the household by delayingher marriage so that when Odysseus come back home, he can reclaim the kingship,or when Telemachus is old enough, he can take the throne which is rightfullyhis. In the position where women have no power, she uses her intellectual strengthto control the suitors.
Penelope promises the suitors that she will choose oneof them to marry after she finishes weaving the shroud for Laertes because itis shameful if she does not do anything for her father-in-law. The suitors eagerlycomply to her request without knowing what Penelope plans to do. After discoveringPenelope’s deception, the suitors complain, “Her very words, and despite our pride and passion webelieved her. So by day she’d weave at her great and growing web- by night, bythe light of torches set beside her, she would unravel all she’d done. Threewho years, she deceived us blind, seduced us with this scheme” (Homer, Odysseus, 2.
101- 106). With one simplepromise, she is able to keep the suitors in control for three years, whichdemonstrates her intellectual strength. Penelope, a woman who perceives to be aweak character and unable to keep the household together, manages to assert dominanceover 108 men with words alone. She shows wisdom in personal management inprivate household, satisfying the role of head of the household, throughtactics. Moreover, Penelope continues toassert control as the head of the household even when she has no way to escapethe marriage as she is pressured by her parents. Instead of choosing one of thesuitors as a surrender, she proposes them with a challenge.
She announces, “Thehand that can string his bow with greatest ease, that shoots an arrow cleanthrough all twelve axes- he is the man I follow…” (Homer, The Odyssey, 21.75-77) Penelope explains that she will marry the man who can strings the bow,and it is a clever way to deceiving the suitors as the only person who has theability to string the bow and shoots an arrow is Odysseus. Once again, she usesa cunning skillful act to ensure that marriage with her is impossible. Heraction displays her effort to retain her identity of Odysseus’ wife althoughshe has no knowledge of when her husband will come back home.
In the society where men have powerover women, Penelope successfully chooses the fate she wants with unpredictablemethods and uphold her status against villainous suitors. Overall,Penelope appears to be weak, but she manages to use her vulnerability to hergrief and emotions as her advantage, which consequently makes her an empoweringcharacter. While Odysseus is a complicated hero in his voyage to return home,Penelope is considered as a skilled tactician in her private household. Shenever succumbs to any atrocious suitors or to any men, and she stays faithfulto her husband in order to prevent annihilation of the order of the household. Penelope’sperseverance to fulfill the role of Odysseus’ wife and head of the householdthrough cunning ultimately allows Odysseus to have a home to come back to.