The hero Odysseus sits on the shore of an enchanted island. Around him wait lavish comforts, and a goddess who dotes upon him. Yet he weeps, his eyes fixed on the horizon. He yearns for home and his wife Penelope.
The goddess, Calypso, confronts him over it. Why can’t he be happy with her? She is more attractive than Penelope in every way, and Penelope is a mortal, who can never compete with the pleasures that gods can offer. If he stays, Calypso will make him a god, too.
Odysseus doesn’t disagree. It’s true, he says. His wife is nothing compared to her. And yet, he wants to go. Penelope is the one he desires.
In the nearly three millennia since the Odyssey was composed, readers and writers alike have largely agreed with Odysseus, and embraced Penelope. Ovid made her the first speaker in his poems of famous heroines; St Jerome listed her as one of the pagan exemplars of virtuous women. In more modern times, she’s made appearances as Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses; in Derek Walcott’s 1990 Omeros as Maud Plunkett, and as herself, telling her own story, in Margaret Atwood’s 2005 novella The Penelopiad.
The outline of Penelope’s story runs as follows: her husband Odysseus, prince of Ithaca, sails for the Trojan War leaving his young wife alone with their infant son, Telemachus. Ten years pass, and the war ends. The other heroes make their way home, but Odysseus remains unaccounted for, and most assume he is dead. Suitors arrive at Odysseus’s palace, hoping to marry Penelope. When she refuses them, they lay siege, installing themselves in the palace, consuming the family stores, and harassing the household. As a woman alone, she can only endure until her husband returns, bringing bloody vengeance followed by happy reunion.
Even from this abbreviated account, it’s easy to see why Penelope is appealing. She’s manifestly sympathetic: a good woman hounded by bad men. She’s also romantic. Ancient myths are notoriously short on mutual, non-tragic relationships and Odysseus and Penelope’s devotion to one another (affairs with goddesses aside) is both rare and affecting. Her loyalty, in the face of terrible pressure, to a man who might very well be dead, is heroic. Even the bitter ghost of Agamemnon, permanently soured on women after his wife had him butchered in the bathtub, admits she is superlative.
But perhaps the most notable aspect of Penelope’s appeal is her intelligence. The adjective Homer uses to describe her again and again is periphron, which means prudent and carefully calculating. This intelligence is famously demonstrated by a trick she plays on the badgering suitors.
She tells them that she will choose a new husband once she has finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Every day she works on it, and every night she secretly unravels what she has done, knowing that the men won’t have any idea how long it takes to weave a shroud, nor be able to judge how much progress is being made. And so, for three years, she holds them off. It takes a woman, one of Penelope’s maids, to betray her.
Penelope’s intelligence holds its own when wily Odysseus returns. After he reveals himself to her, she remains cautious, wary she is being deceived, and sets him a test that only the true Odysseus could pass. Long ago, Odysseus had carved their marriage bed from a living tree, rooted in the earth. When she orders this bed to be made up for him outside their bedroom, Odysseus erupts in anger, demanding to know how it can have been moved, and by his outburst confirms his identity. It’s a fascinating moment: Homer has spent the whole poem honouring his hero’s wiles, but it is his heroine who plays the final trick.
Despite all that, Penelope has historically been given second billing to her flashier husband who, after all, gets to charm witches, topple cities, and fight monsters. Tennyson’s 1842 poem, “Ulysses”, doesn’t even refer to her by name. Instead, Odysseus dismisses her as his “aged wife”, the embodiment of the world’s dullness which seeks to enclose him. Meanwhile he, though also old, retains his potency and “heroic heart”. Now that her youth and desirability are gone, she is no longer of interest. She drops out of the story, while the great epic protagonist sails off on another adventure.
Dorothy Parker incisively critiques just this double standard in her 1928 poem “Penelope”:
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor’s knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.
Other authors have sought to inhabit Penelope’s perspective. Joyce gives Molly Bloom perhaps the most famous chapter in Ulysses, in which she admits to a sexual encounter – and in doing so, overturns Penelope’s famous fidelity.
The poets Carol Ann Duffy and Louise Gluck likewise create Penelopes who push back against the traditional story. In Duffy’s 1999 “Penelope”, Penelope’s homely weaving becomes an artistic calling. She happily devotes her life to a glorious tapestry, with a smiling woman at its centre, who is “self-contained, absorbed, content, most certainly not waiting”.
Gluck, like Joyce, subverts Penelope’s canonical fidelity. Just as Odysseus has slept with Calypso and Circe, so the Penelope in “Penelope’s Song” (1996) speaks of doing things with her “troublesome body” that “you shouldn’t/ Discuss in poems”. In Atwood’s The Penelopiad, meanwhile, when Odysseus returns home disguised as a beggar, cagey Penelope recognises him at once, but keeps diplomatically mum: “if a man takes pride in his disguise skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognise him: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness”.