This article is part of a series on Favorite Characters in Literature. We hope that it may inspire children and adults alike to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with some of the classics of English literature.
A devoted wife, loving mother, prudent woman, and noble queen, Penelope portrays greatness as much as her heroic husband Odysseus whose glorious deeds led the Greeks to victory in the Trojan War.
While Odysseus remains absent in Penelope’s life for approximately twenty years fighting in the war, suffering captivity, and wandering on the sea, she governs the kingdom with the highest ideals of civilization, preserves the culture of the home and the unity of the family by not marrying any of her suitors, and educates her son Telemachus to be both strong and gentle like his father, both intelligent and kind, of sound mind and sound body.
Harrassed and Patient
Because Penelope rules as a wealthy queen with an absent husband assumed to be dead, many suitors harass her and urge her to remarry—a choice she has rejected and delayed for twenty years. Often she retires to her room, “and there she wept for Odysseus, her beloved husband.”
Ruled by her undying love for her spouse rather than by the expedience of remarriage, Penelope claims that she will consider remarriage only after weaving a shroud for her aged father-in-law Laertes, a garment she sews by day but undoes by night in order to bide more time for the possibility of Odysseus’s return.
Yearning for her missing husband, Penelope resists remarriage with strong convictions and true devotion. She says no to the temptations of the world.
The suitors by their gluttony, avarice, and lust are defiling the palace of the queen. Their constant drunkenness, lewdness before the maidservants, and greed for Odysseus’s wealth have reduced the home and palace of the king and queen to a state of vulgar barbarism, animal appetites and passions corrupting all the manners and morals exemplified by the cultured ways of Odysseus and Penelope.
Despite her loneliness, grief, and sufferings Penelope remains constant and faithful to her husband rather than submit to the demands and expectations of powerful assertive people. A model of fidelity, patience, and long-suffering, Penelope does not surrender to might or yield to weakness.
The Formation of Civility
During her husband’s absence Penelope has reared and educated Telemachus, a noble prince whose love for his mother, admiration for his father, and sense of family loyalty inspire him to defend his mother from the aggression of the suitors and to uphold his father’s sense of justice.
He has learned from his gentle mother the graciousness of hospitality and welcomes all travelers to Ithaca by honoring the sacred rites of hospitality dear to the Greek gods. From her example and teaching he has acquired a sensitive heart in touch with people’s feelings and needs.
When Pallas Athene arrives in disguise, Telemachus greets her with a hearty welcome: “Welcome, sir, to our hospitality! . . . You can tell us what has brought you when you have had some food.” Penelope has a formed a civilized son with a kind heart and a generous spirit, a respect for other human beings learned in the culture of the home and from the gentle heart of his mother.
Honoring her marriage and resisting manipulation, Penelope dedicates her life to the preservation of her home in the midst of constant aggravation and intimidation from the suitors–crass behavior that Telemachus calls “an outrage to decency” and “a scandal to our neighbors in the world around.”
A Wise Woman
Although aware of her weakness in the absence of her courageous husband and the powerlessness of her son outnumbered by the crowd of suitors insisting on remarriage, Penelope does not let stress, fear, or threats compromise her commitment to the truth about marriage or to the ideals of the family. Her intelligence not only outwits the suitors by the tactic of constant delay by the trick of unweaving the shroud but also detects many lies when suspicious travelers arrive in Ithaca who presumably bring news of Odysseus. Seeking reward for the information they report, these visitors undergo sharp interrogation from Penelope who is no fool.
A wise woman, she is not duped by the stratagems of the cunning. When the beggar in disguise (Odysseus’ identity to protect himself from the suitors) claims that he hosted Odysseus in his home, Penelope sheds tears at the good news of her husband being alive but then cleverly tests the traveler’s report: “Tell me what sort of clothes he was wearing and what he looked like, and describe the men who were with him.”
When the beggar’s account of Odysseus corresponds with Penelope’s knowledge of her husband’s purple cloak and the golden brooch that adorned it, she proves the truth and welcomes the good news. Never naïve about evil, she continues to be on guard against rumors and other false reports.
When Odysseus himself removes the disguise and finally identifies himself, even then Penelope puts him to the proof (“You too are strange”), noticing that he does not resemble the husband she remembers twenty years ago. Only when Odysseus mentions “the secret” of the bed he carved around an olive tree “thick as a pillar” does Penelope melt at the knowledge that her beloved husband has finally returned home to embrace her in his loving arms.
Without the weapons of a soldier Penelope deals with her enemies by keen intelligence, prudent judgment, and clear knowledge of good and evil.
The Constant Queen
In a story about the Trojan War and the many battles fought by Odysseus against his enemies, Homer reserves the greatest praise for Penelope who remained at home surrounded by the hostile forces of barbarism in the form of violent, depraved suitors: “Her glory will not fade with the years, but the deathless gods themselves will make a song for mortal ears, to grace Penelope the constant queen.”
As Homer shows, civilization depends upon the virtues of women like Penelope as well as the bravery of heroes like Odysseus. While noble husbands and fathers defend civilization from attack by the barbarians, great wives and mothers preserve civilization by their protection of marriage and the family. The fortress of family life requires both types of heroes.
The home is the center of civilization, and strong homes depend upon faithful marriages. If Odysseus accepted the temptation of the goddess Calypso to remain on her island paradise and not risk the dangers of returning home, the suitors would have destroyed the family and culture of Ithaca.
If Penelope let herself be convinced by the suitors to marry and assume that Odysseus had died, again barbarism would have annihilated civilization by attacking the family. Civilization depends upon fathers and mothers: first, the courage of men to protect their homes and families from destructive outside forces waiting to take advantage of absent husbands; second, the strength of women to be faithful to their husbands and children despite all the seductions and temptations of the world that tell them to think of themselves first.
Homer’s heroine presents another version of the noble wife honored in Proverbs 31:
“A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”
Statue Photo CC Kurt Bauschardt | Flickr