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Homers Penelope

.. eats the meaning. Granted, these are minute details, but her unawareness of small things like this makes one wonder what else she may have missed. This brings me to my last point. A main facet of Foley’s interpretation of Penelope’s nearly tragic decision (whether or not to offer up Odysseus’ bow in a contest to determine who she would marry out of the group of suitors) is the question of her perceived fidelity to Odysseus in doing so.

This is important because, as Foley argues, both to remarry and not to remarry are potentially acts of infidelity to Odysseus (Foley 102). In her essay, the question of fidelity is judged according to a variety of interested parties, namely according to Odysseus, Telemachos, Penelope, and society at large. In succeeding paragraphs I discuss each party’s perceptions of the situation, but I would like to mention here that this question of fidelity is further complicated by Penelope’s opinion about whether or not Odysseus is alive or not. Although in her essay Foley treats it as a given that she believes him to be dead and ultimately rejects hope in favor of practicality, I would argue that it is much more debatable than she admits. Late in Book XVIII, the reader learns that Odysseus himself has sanctioned Penelope’s remarriage (upon the maturation of Telemachos) in the case that he should die in the battle at Troy (Homer 18.257-270).

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Then, when he comes to his own palace, he holds off in revealing himself to Penelope because he wants to test her. What this means is not explicitly explained. But because this comment comes after his discussion with Penelope and she makes it clear to him that he is never coming home and she is therefore obligated to follow his wishes in remarrying, I would interpret this to mean that to Odysseus, fidelity entails considering the suitors’ proposal. Foley writes, Odysseus’ parting instructions to Penelopeplace the choice to remarry in Penelope’s hands (Foley 99). On this point I would disagree: in his statement in which he tells her that she marry whatever man [she pleases] (Homer 18.270), Odysseus’ tone, as conveyed by Penelope, seems to indicate that she would be doing a disservice to herself, her son, and Odysseus by remaining a single widow.

Therefore, her choice to remarry is considerably reinforced (and, in fact, severely influenced) by her sense of obligation to Odysseus and his parting words. When it comes to who should make the decision and whether or not his mother is acting in the interest of the household, Telemachos is not at all consistent in his opinion. In Book IV, his hope (encouraged by Pallas Athene) takes him on an extensive journey in order to find out the demise of his father and in the meantime he has faith that his mother will continue to resist the suitors. In this case, he is obviously leaving the decision in the hands of his mother. As to whether or not remarriage would constitute infidelity, his opinion seems to hinge on what he finds on his journey.

When he learns that his father is alive and well and staying in the palace in the guise of a beggar, Telemachos then decidedly takes a back seat in decision-making in the household, perhaps because he feels trumped by Odysseus’ authority. His actions are limited to encouraging his mother to remarry on the condition that she felt that Odysseus was dead. Only in secret does he divulge to the serving woman Eurykleia that he feels his mother to be incapable of making an informed and practical decision: That is the way my mother is, though she is sensible./ Impulsively she favors the wrong man, the worse one/ among mortals, and lets the better man go, unfavored (Homer 20.134-135). Although public opinion around the situation is not revealed much at all in the Odyssey, it is generally assumed that the rest of society expects Penelope to remain the devoted wife until she hears that Odysseus is either alive or cannot return to Ithaka (Homer 16.75 and 23.149-151). In relation to Penelope’s impending decision, the force of public opinion upon that choice should not be undermined in the least, even though Homer neglected that portion textually. Conversely, while the opinion of the suitors does not account for much in Penelope’s eyes, but I want to include their rationale precisely because of it’s prominent presence in the poem.

According to the suitors, it is Penelope’s parents should make the decision, not her. Furthermore, the question of fidelity to Odysseus is a moot point since they believe him to be dead and therefore his authorization of Penelope’s remarriage should be of foremost concern. These expectations of Penelope in her decision-making aside, it is important to realize what Penelope has been told and/or believes to be true. This is a fact that I felt was ignored in Foley’s essay. She does mention this fact on page 101 when she says that critics have argued that because Penelope has received repeated signs that Odysseus’ return is imminent, her decision to remarry is both ill-timed and an inadvertent betrayal of her husband (Foley 101).

However she refutes this view by saying that this point comes as a result of a focus on the narrative context in which her choice is made (Foley 101). Personally, I cannot see the value in this argument. The validity of Penelope’s verbal admissions, in my opinion, cannot be ignored. I would argue that Penelope is much more intelligent and aware than most critics give her credit for. Also, there is evidence outside of that narrative context which, according to Foley, is invalid in determining her state of mind surrounding the incident.

To be sure, Penelope does deny believing Eurykleia when she tells her of the slaughter of the suitors at Odysseus’ hands, and only will refer to their slayer as the man who killed them (Homer 23.84). This fact, however, is overshadowed by the following narration that she inwardly was pondering/ much, whether to keep away and question her dear husband,/ or to go up to him and kiss his head, taking his hands (Homer 23.85-87). It is my contention that simply because Penelope reveals one thing in her conversations with others, it is not necessarily what she is truly thinking. Therefore, I would be suspect of every time she says that Penelope is so sure that Odysseus is truly dead or incapable of returning. If this were true, it would mean that she is undeserving of the reverence given her by Agammemnon in Hades and later Greek tradition. It would also be in opposition to Foley’s assertion that Even when she has reliable evidence from EurykleiaPenelope refuses to recognize her husband until she has tested his knowledge of the ir bed (Foley 102).

To this, I would not discard the option that Penelope can be just as cunning and devious as Odysseus is in his guise as a beggar. Although she inwardly admits that the man awaiting her is truly Odysseus, she outwardly demonstrates suspicion because of her cleverness in avoiding trickery by a false Odysseus (Homer 23.215-216). Because of this fear she craftily gets her husband to tell her characteristics of their bed that only he would know. She does this by telling the servant to move it outside her own chamber for him to sleep on, knowing full well, however, that the bed is so heavy that it would be difficult/ for even a very expert one, unless a god, coming/ to help in person, were easily to change its position (Homer 23.184-186). Here Penelope once again demonstrates her wit in getting what she wants.

I would also contradict Foley when she says that Penelope puts her fate into male hands but does so in a way that ensures him to be like her former husband (Foley 104). To that, I say that she is ensuring the winner to be her husband or none other. It cannot be ignored that the text indicates that only Odysseus would ever be able to accomplish the task Penelope sets before the suitors. Even Eumaios, a suitor, admits, I do not think/ that this well-positioned bow can ever be strung so easily./ There is no man among the lot of us who is such a one/ as Odysseus used to be (Homer 21.91-94). Surely, the wife of the godlike Odysseus would realize that such a feat is impossible (as it eventually proves itself to be) and would act accordingly. Although Homer never formally recognizes it in the text, I interpret this scene to be yet another web woven by the ingenious Penelope.

In conclusion, Helene Foley’s essay serves to call attention to the complexities that arise from outside expectations (those of Odysseus, Telemachos and the public) involved in her decision, but neglects to mention what she believes to be true about Odysseus’ whereabouts. It is this former aspect of her thought process in making the decision to present the bow to the suitors as a more pressing concern to Penelope and ultimately makes her decision for her. English Essays.


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