After grading a student’s paper about Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” I thought it would be nice to give a shout-out to another great Penelope, she of the never-ending tapestry in Homer’s Odyssey.
I’ve never done any research on critical responses to the Odyssey, but I’m guessing that Penelope is not a favorite character among feminist theorists, since she’s gone down in history for nothing more than being faithful to her husband, who’s out there having adventures with the boys and spending time with gorgeous sea witches. But Penelope isn’t a brainwashed, bovinely loyal house-slave. She’s smart, for one thing–note the brilliant weaving idea. And her faithfulness to Odysseus is perfectly rational. After all, the men she’s trying to fend off are coarse-talking, booze-swilling idiots who can’t even string a bow, let alone shoot an arrow straight. I suppose she could give up men entirely and go off on adventures of her own, but she has a good reason for staying home: the man she’s waiting for is worthy of a brave, intelligent woman. Odysseus is clever (he came up with the Trojan horse plot), resourceful (having survived Circe, Calypso, Charibdys, the Cyclops, and other obstacles, not all of which begin with C), and pretty obviously in love with his wife. He’s clearly worth waiting for. So in Penelope’s case, faithfulness and personal fulfillment go hand in hand. They aren’t always mutually exclusive, something feminist theorists (at least of the knee-jerk variety) seem unwilling to understand.
Penelope is such a great character that Tennyson’s easily overlooked reference to her in “Ulysses” is insulting. Telemachus, the son, gets a couple of lines, but Penelope only gets three words: “an aged wife.” Come on, man! Not even her name? In general, I love Tennyson’s stirring and wistful interpretation of Odysseus’s last great speech, but the treatment of Penelope is disappointing. Better for her not to be mentioned at all than for her significance to be tossed aside in such a demeaning way.
Well, if Tennyson won’t give Penelope the respect she deserves, I will. Penelope Clearwater salutes you, Penelope of Ithaca.