Character analysis penelope from the odyssey

Character Analysis: Penelope from the Odyssey

            Penelope may not be as prominent as the other characters in Homer’s The Odyssey, but she still is one of the most crucial major characters in the story.  Unlike the other characters which reveal physical strength or supernatural capabilities, Penelope seems to be weak and powerless.  Upon closer analysis, however, one could see her incomparable strength and faith, as well as her admirable intelligence.

            In “The Odyssey,” Penelope is the wife of Odysseus and the mother of Telemachus.  Early on in the story, she is faced with a dilemma as her husband had failed to return after the Trojan War.  In her conversation with the minstrel Phemius 2 in Book 1, she said: “…Cease this sad tale, for it breaks my sorrowful heart, and reminds me of my lost husband whom I mourn ever without ceasing, and whose name was great over all Hellas and middle Argos” (Homer).  Penelope loved her husband very much.  Prior to the war, they spent ten years of wedded bliss.  The duration of the Trojan War was also a decade, but soon after, there was no more news about Odysseus’ whereabouts.  She is overcome with so much grief upon his long absence that she cries herself to sleep.  In Book 23 of “The Odyssey,” Penelope spoke to the maid Euryclea: “I have never slept so soundly from the day my poor husband went to that city with the ill–omened name” (Homer).

Odysseus was absent from Penelope’s life for twenty years.  Despite his long absence, Penelope stayed faithful to him.  In fact, her faithfulness to Odysseus is one of her character’s strengths.  In the words of Odysseus: “Heaven has endowed you with a heart more unyielding than woman ever yet had. No other woman could bear to keep away from her husband when he had come back to her after twenty years of absence, and after having gone through so much” (Homer).  Her loyalty was never in vain, though, as Odysseus reciprocated this faithfulness despite the distance.  In Book 5, he tells Calypso: “Do not be angry with me about this. I am quite aware that my wife Penelope is nothing like so tall or so beautiful as yourself. She is only a woman, whereas you are an immortal. Nevertheless, I want to get home, and can think of nothing else.” (Homer).

            Penelope waited and waited for news about Odysseus, as she does not know whether her husband had died or not.  However, he was not her only concern.  Due to his lengthy absence, suitors from all over Ithaca came to her home, eager to take the throne of Odysseus.  It is her accommodation of suitors that leave several readers baffled.  Why did she entertain suitors if she still awaited for Odysseus’ return? This part of the story exhibits her hesitation in dealing with the suitors, which is again the result of her faithfulness to Odysseus.  Two decades is a long time but she still considers the possibility that he may come back.  As a result, when she was faced by the sudden appearance of unwelcome suitors, she welcomes them but refuses to make a decision.  She delays choosing a suitor as she is still undecided to whether remarry or not.  While Odysseus was gone, it was Penelope’s task to guard the household, but she has failed to do so.  Indeed, Penelope shows her weakness when she fails to drive the suitors away, or when she cannot prevent them from taking advantage of her household.

            At this point, the character of Penelope seems static.  This is because she exerts no effort in searching for her missing husband, nor does she do anything to dismiss the suitors bothering her home.  However, her intelligence proves that she is indeed a dynamic character.  In the words of Antinous 2: “…She gives herself on the score of the accomplishments Minerva has taught her, and because she is so clever. We never yet heard of such a woman; we know all about Tyro, Alcmena, Mycene, and the famous women of old, but they were nothing to your mother, any one of them” (Homer). Yes, she did entertain the suitors, but she imposed a condition: she will pick one of the suitors and marry him after she has done making the shroud of Laertes.  Penelope declares: “Sweet hearts…Ulysses is indeed dead, still do not press me to marry again immediately, wait- for I would not have skill in needlework perish unrecorded- till I have completed a pall for the hero Laertes, to be in readiness against the time when death shall take him” (Homer).  The weaving of the shroud is proof of her intelligence and cunning.  While she did weave the shroud during the day, she had to undo the weave at night.  Penelope had actually no desire to finish the shroud; it was an act merely to delay her decision to remarry.  In this sense, her character is dynamic.  She may not be able to look for Odysseus, but at Ithaca she can keep the throne from him, at least for the meantime.  The weaving of the shroud served as a move to delay her from deciding who will be Ithaca’s next king.  She simply gave herself more time to think.  However, it was apparent that she never wanted to remarry, as she was still hopeful that Odysseus would return.  Moreover, she could not choose a suitor, as all her suitors were men of dubious character.  Penelope says: “When men are courting a woman who they think will be a good wife to them and who is of noble birth, and when they are each trying to win her for himself, they usually bring oxen and sheep to feast the friends of the lady, and they make her magnificent presents, instead of eating up other people’s property without paying for it” (Homer).  Lastly, another tactic she pulled for her suitors was her decision to marry whoever could bend the bow of Odysseus.

            Penelope once again revealed her strength of character when Odysseus returned to Ithaca.  In the beginning, she was doubtful of the news of her husband’s return.  Nonetheless, after Odysseus proved himself by sharing the details of their bed which only the two of them know, she was finally convinced.  She tells her husband: “Now, however, that you have convinced me by showing that you know all about our bed…hard of belief though I have been I can mistrust no longer” (Homer).  Her doubt was only satisfied by details of their bed, as she needed evidence that he was indeed her husband.  It was proof that she is a woman of principle, as she cannot simply be swayed by hearsay.

            In the end, Penelope is a major, dynamic character that has great influence over Odysseus and the story in general.  Like other characters, she has her own share of weaknesses.  However, it is her strengths that truly make her memorable.

Works Cited

Homer. “The Odyssey.” The Internet Classics Archive. 2000. 1 March 2008 <http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.html>.

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