The Odyssey: Penelope and the Strength of Women

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How do we decide which female characters are "strong"? And why the fuss over their strength?

How do we decide which female characters are “strong”? And why the fuss over their strength?

Note: This is a blog post written by a young man about women in literature. I do not claim to understand the psyche of a woman as much as I ought and I pray that one day, I would. I would just like to be clear from the outset that if any idea come off as offensive or sexist or approaching misogyny, I am sorry for the negative feelings it may invoke. I believe that sexism and misogyny are real problems and some members of our society have little to no idea when they are being sexist or offensive. I do not consider myself an exception. Please, for the mean time, excuse my penis.

We were recently tasked in our World Literature class to describe how women have been portrayed in The Odyssey and to point out which female character appealed to us the most. I have already read the text once and I do not think I have the proper tools of assessing whether female characters have been given just portrayals in the epic. But it is apparent that there are several instances where female characters have played crucial parts to the development of the story. Thus, it must be said that the women in the tale of Odysseus’s homecoming cannot be neglected.

Women in the Odyssey: Diverse and Contrasting Characteristics

It is notable how diverse and contrasting the characteristics of women are in Odyssey. On one hand, there is Athena, the goddess of wisdom (as if you didn’t already know), whose presence is everywhere: intervening and making arrangements for the story to move forward as she likes it to. On the other, you have Helen of Sparta, who seems to be having a crisis of identity brought about by the war which was supposedly waged because of her. While Athena is the embodiment of perfect and utter control over the situations which present themselves, Helen seems to not have recovered from her status as victim and trophy from the Iliad, and in this story would much rather prefer to be intoxicated in order to forget about sad things than to be involved in them.

Not only is there diversity in the amount of agency female characters have, there is also diversity in their moral characteristics: we find Eurycleia, Odysseus’s loyal maidservant, as well as Melantho, his not-so-loyal maidservant. While we may find seductresses like the goddesses Calypso and Circe, we also find the value of fidelity in Penelope and propriety in Nausicaa.

The attribution of female characteristics are not only exclusive to mortal and divine women, but are also extended to forces of nature. The sea nymph Ino, the sirens (portrayed as temptresses of the sea), Scylla the six-headed monster and the whirlpool Charybdis are also regarded as female. Female characters in Homer’s Odyssey may be seen to wither aid Odysseus or hinder him from his goal to reach home.

The choice Odysseus had to make between Scylla and Charybdis may have inspired the expressions, “between the devil and the deep blue sea” and “between a rock (Scylla has also been rationalized as a rock) and a hard place.”

Emotional Temptresses and Sentimental Widows?

It cannot be denied that some female characters in The Odyssey have flaws which stand out and often cause disturbance to the modern reader. When Hermes delivers that the gods have agreed for Calypso to let Odysseus travel back home, Calypso throws a tantrum before eventually doing what she was told. Circe still makes love to Odyssey though he has made it perfectly clear that he intends to go home to his wife. Anticlea, Odysseus’s mother, dies of grief as her son has not yet returned instead of moving on with her life and Penelope may be accused of leading her suitors on when she has no intention of marrying anyone of them, or being unable to detach herself from her husband who was presumed dead.

It is as The Odyssey is saying that women may be either dangerous due to their unpredictable and irrational use of their capabilities or emotionally fragile and dependent upon men for security. While women may be in positions of power, it can be observed that how women in this tale exercise their power brings about ultimately, either death and destruction or loneliness and misery.

I do not however see this as the entire case. While I think that there are certain limitations imposed upon authors by time and tradition which may have influenced the author to have some taken-as-fact assumptions about women, I do not think that the author of The Odyssey has been utterly unfair in terms of portraying women. While women are shown to be capable of abusing their powers and capabilities and to let emotions cloud their judgement, men in the story are not immune to such irrational behavior as well. A case in point is when Odysseus just had to boast to the Cyclops he blinded who he really was after he defeated it by giving it a fake name. Emotions and pride get the best of characters in The Odyssey, regardless of gender.

I think the Author also gives justice to the women in The Odyssey – oddly enough – through Calypso’s tantrum. The statements expressed by Calypso regarding the double-standards imposed the promiscuous male gods to female gods like him say that she is aware of her condition and she is not merely exercising blind obedience to the male gods, particularly Zeus. A similar act may be said of Penelope’s ploy to trick her suitors into waiting for too long by faking taking too long to finish her husband’s burial cloth. These women in The Odyssey are not just emotional temptresses and widows, they are women who know how the world sees them and chooses still to act and work around their conditions.

Penelope versus Katniss

We of modern times of course, equate “strong female characters” with the ability to stand up to authority and destroy an established institution, be it formal or informal. When we say “strong female character”, we rarely mean characters like Penelope who has found loopholes in the practices she is expected to abide by as a woman, a wife and a daughter and uses them to her advantage. We most likely pertain to characters like Katniss Everdeen who becomes a face of a revolution against ruling forces. Even if such a revolution was orchestrated by men and Katniss was a mere tool for them to achieve their goal.

Penelope for me is not a “strong female character”. She is a strong character. While there are characters in The Odyssey and in other works which we tune in to because we expect them to develop, there are characters like Penelope who we watch because we are intrigued about just how firmly they hold upon their principles. For every Aragorn we follow as he grows more and more into a king, there is a Gandalf we are amazed by because of his invincibility. In The Odyssey, Penelope fulfills this role. And whether or not it is because she is the embodiment of what a woman should be like that she has accomplished her task of fidelity and uncompromising love, it is definitely a credit to her time that they could produce such honor and loyalty in a person, when there are promiscuous infidels like Odysseus who are running about.

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One thought on “The Odyssey: Penelope and the Strength of Women

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