Professor of English & Humanities
“‘Who’s that Lady?’: Looking for Penelope”
One of the questions that is frequently asked about Reed is “why Hum 110?” Why does Reed continue to study the classics of Ancient Greece and Rome when so many other schools have abandoned the practice? One obvious answer is that a lot of the roots of western culture can be traced back to these works and that the sheer amount of material preserved in art, history, literature, and philosophy allows us to study these cultures in depth in ways we could not as easily do with other ancient cultures. And because of that, we study the Greeks and Romans to see what they thought and how they thought. While I have some interest in that, I am just as intrigued by the issue of the uses to which the Ancients have been and can be put. In other words, what can we learn from them that makes them continue to be interesting to read and look at? And so my talk today is not primarily on The Odyssey itself, but on the work of two twentieth century writers whose work has made extensive use of The Odyssey. And I want to examine both how they have made use of The Odyssey and what that tells us about the times we live in.
Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad are often thought of as a pair of matching bookends. From this perspective, The Iliad is the masculine celebration of war, and The Odyssey is the celebration of coming home from war and the domestic devotion of the dutiful wife Penelope who waits for twenty years for her husband to come home, all the while holding off the suitors who insult her son, slaughter her hogs, spill her wine, and dig that girl, even though she’s old enough to be their mother. Homer, however, tells us less than he knows. We know, as presumably Homer did, that women in Sparta were different from the women in most of Greece. Scholars of Sparta, like our own Ellen Millender, have made clear, for example, that Spartan women had received some education when they were girls. And a non-Spartan man who married a Spartan woman would not be expecting to get a typical “stand by your man” demure, retiring, know-your-place-and-stay-there type. If any proof of this is needed, I direct your attention to Penelope’s cousin, Helen, the original party girl. So the first question I want to pose for your consideration is does Homer, in fact, present Penelope as simply a “stand by your man” type of woman. The argument has often been made that despite her trickery of the suitors by unweaving by night the burial shroud of her father-in-law that she weaves by day, Penelope is one dimensional, the devoted wife. But there is another possibility. Odysseus has been gone twenty years and Penelope has had a rather unique existence as an independent woman of substantial wealth. She has no real reason, ten years after the Trojan War has ended, to believe that Odysseus is coming back. A question for you to consider is that when Penelope dupes the suitors with the shroud, is she doing this because she believes Odysseus is alive and is trying to preserve his legacy, or does she believe he is dead and is more trying to preserve her own status as an independent woman of wealth. Because after all, she has enjoyed this status for twenty years and would lose it all if she married one of the suitors. Another question to ask is how realistic is the image of the ever-faithful Penelope anyway? If your spouse were gone for twenty years, would you just sit around and wait? Twenty years is more than 7000 lonely nights, and it is a bit unreasonable for us to imagine the traditional image of Penelope as a real woman. Would a real woman wait that long? These are questions I invite you to discuss in your parent Hum conferences tomorrow. With this as a background, I want to look at the work of two contemporary women writers who have taken up the traditional one-dimensional view of Penelope and turned it upside down.
In 1965, poet Joanne Kyger published her first book, The Tapestry and the Web in which there were a number of poems based on The Odyssey. Prior to this publication, Kyger had lived in Japan with then husband, and Reed graduate, Gary Snyder while he studied Buddhism. But Kyger found that life too confining and left and returned to California. And so when she started writing seriously, she found herself at an interesting moment in history, where her interest in myth and her concern with the role of women in society coincided with a larger society-wide questioning of women’s role and place. And it is clear from the number of poems written on her that Kyger took Homer’s Penelope as a figure of the paradigmatic fifties stay-at-home wife and mother who needed to be transformed into a modern independent woman as Kyger had done for herself by her decision to leave Snyder in Japan and return alone to the United States. Additionally, by choosing to write about Penelope, Kyger as woman inserted herself into the male epic tradition, but did it in an untraditional way by not writing in epic form. Here is the totality of one of her Penelope poems. It is untitled:
Somewhere you can find reference to the fact that PAN was the
son of PENELOPE
Either as the result of a god
or as a result of ALL the suitors
who hung around while Odysseus was abroad (As Ever 9)
As we know, ancient bards traveled around singing the epics; and while the broad outlines were always the same, the Trojans couldn’t ever win the Trojan War and Odysseus couldn’t not return home, lots of other details were up to the discretion of the individual bard. The story of Penelope’s faithlessness was not invented by Kyger as a contemporary twist. It is reported in both the modernist Robert Graves and in the ancient Cicero. And so what does it mean for Kyger to enter this discussion? Penelope’s lack of faithfulness to Odysseus on the one hand takes her down from the pedestal of pure womanhood she has been on and thus eliminates her as a certain kind of role model while simultaneously making her more human and real. Adventures and satisfaction and a fulfilling life are not just for men but for women too. And women aren’t going to be satisfied just sitting around waiting for their men to come home. Does it matter if Penelope had sex with all the suitors or with just one? I think it does. Transgressing the boundaries of acceptable female behavior with one man is one thing. Doing them all (and Kyger capitalizes the word “ALL”) is a much greater transgression, and would certainly move Penelope into the “slut” category, as Homer has Helen of Troy accuse herself of being. But in either case, there is no commentary or accusation on Kyger’s part. She simply reports that this story is out there. And then there is the possibility of Pan, as Penelope’s offspring, and then the father is not one of the suitors, but the combination of all of them or a god. Ancient literature is filled with stories of gods, Zeus in particular, producing offspring with mortal women. And in most of these cases it is rape that produces the child, not consensual sex. Note again, however, that Kyger makes no distinction. If Penelope willingly had sex with one or all of the suitors that would be one thing. If she were raped by a god that would be something far different and would obviously not be her fault. But again, Kyger makes no distinction and presents the two possibilities as equally likely and equally with (or without) fault. It is interesting to note that in other, non-Homeric versions of this myth, Odysseus either exiles Penelope because of her infidelity or kills her. And of course, there is a third possibility, that Penelope willingly had sex with a god, both Hermes and Apollo are mentioned as possibilities in ancient literature, with Pan as the result. Notice again the extremely neutral language Kyger uses. She doesn’t say Penelope had sex with or was raped by. She simply says “Either as the result of a god/ or as a result of ALL of the suitors.” “As the result” is about as neutral as one can get. I’m also caught by the capitalization of the word “ALL” in “ALL of the suitors.” The implication here seems to be that if she had had sex with one suitor a normal human child would have been the result. But in order for Pan to be the product there was either an encounter with a god or with “ALL of the suitors.” It took all of them together, all one hundred or so of them, to be able to produce what one god could.
And this gets us to Pan, half-man and half-goat, protector of shepherds, full of fertility, sower of panic in the enemy, and a player of tunes on his reed pipe. What better evidence that the gods blessed the union. And thus, merely by suggestion, Kyger has completely transformed Penelope from the relatively passive paragon of male privilege into a dynamic woman able and willing to make her own choices. After all, if it’s ok for Odysseus to have sex with Circe for however long, why isn’t it ok for Penelope to have sex with a god or the suitors? And in thus transforming the image of Penelope in a mere four lines, Joanne Kyger becomes a voice for women across time and across cultures, insisting that women’s needs are as important as those of men, and critiquing the structure of the epic that limits women’s voices and activities. On the other hand, I think it’s useful to also look at things from the opposite perspective. In this poem has Kyger boxed Penelope in as well? If, and I say if, Homer can be criticized for making Penelope the one dimensional faithful wife, has Kyger simply made her into a one dimensional sexual being?
Forty years after Kyger published The Tapestry and the Web, Canadian writer and should be Nobel Prize winner Margaret Atwood published The Penelopiad in 2005 an extended fictional meditation on Penelope and the twelve maids who were killed when Odysseus returned. The text looks at the events of The Odyssey from the perspective of the women who were left behind. Eighteen chapters are narrated by Penelope and eleven by the maids. Penelope’s chapters are narrated from Hades after her death and in terms of The Odyssey present mostly the standard picture of her fidelity. But at the same time that she presents the standard picture, she also challenges it and suggests its limitations. She notes in her first chapter, for example:
Hadn’t I been faithful? Hadn’t I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation – almost the compulsion – to do otherwise? And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn spinners. Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears – yes, yours! (2)
What’s interesting about this passage is that even though she is affirming the traditional image of herself as the faithful wife, she simultaneously revolts against this image and notes how it has limited women’s possibilities for the thousands of years since. She has morphed from the image of the perfect wife to that of a stick to beat other women with. Rather than a positive image for women, she has become an impossible image and an unnecessary burden for all women for all eternity. And so Atwood raises the question of how positive in fact this image is of Penelope as the ever faithful wife. Is it a positive image for women to emulate or a straight-jacket?
Atwood has Penelope’s mother give her the following advice on her wedding night “Water does not resist. Water flows…water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone…If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does” (43).
Later, when dealing with the suitors and contemplating simply closing the doors against them, Penelope remembers her mother’s words and tells herself to “Behave like water…Don’t try to oppose them. When they try to grasp you, slip through their fingers. Flow around them” (108). Penelope follows this advice. Among other things, she also takes credit for recognizing Odysseus as soon as he arrives home, even though he is dressed like a beggar; for making sure Euryclecia washes his feet so that she will discover his scar and thus recognize him, and for setting up the competition with the bow and axes because she knows that only Odysseus will be able to perform the feat. As she notes, “there was no coincidence. I set the whole thing up on purpose” (139). And nothing in Homer disproves her claims. Penelope has, now that she is dead, heard the rumors that she slept with the suitors and gave birth to Pan. Her response, “Who could believe such a monstrous tale? Some songs aren’t worth the breath expended on them” (144). Things get even more interesting, however, when Penelope talks about the twelve hanged maids. In The Odyssey, you will recall, Eurycleia singles them out for death because they have slept with the suitors and been generally disrespectful. Here, Penelope tells a very different story. According to her, the twelve maids were her closest confidants, they were specifically chosen by her to help undo the weaving of the shroud, and Penelope asked them to spy on the suitors to get information on what they were up to. In fact, she told them to do whatever was necessary to extract information, including if necessary, having sex with the suitors and appearing to be impudent. Unfortunately, Penelope failed to tell Eurycleia of this plan, and so Eurycleia singled them out for death to Odysseus. Penelope, locked in her room while the killing went on, had no opportunity to intervene, and thus feels guilty for their death. And now in Hades, Penelope constantly tries to seek them out, but they want nothing to do with her.
The most interesting part of the novel is the chapters written from the perspective of the maids; sometimes in prose, sometimes in poetry, once in the form of a mock trial of Odysseus, once in the form of an anthropology lecture, once in the form of a verse drama, and once in the form of a sea shanty in which they perform as members of Odysseus’s crew. The story the maids present does not corroborate Penelope’s story. Most significantly, the maids claim that Penelope is, in fact, guilty of being unfaithful to Odysseus. I quote from the chapter in the form of a verse drama with a maid portraying Penelope, who says:
And now, dear nurse, the fat is in the fire-
He’ll chop me up for tending my desire!
While he was pleasuring every nymph and beauty
Did he think I’d do nothing but my duty?
While every girl and goddess he was praising
Did he assume I’d dry up like a raisin? (149)
The maids are obviously not great poets. Later in the same section, Penelope tells Eurycleia to have the maids killed by Odysseus as a way to preserve the secret of her infidelity. In the section in the form of an anthropology lecture, the maids assert that their rape and hanging “represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians. The chief of them, notably Odysseus, would then claim kingship by marrying the High Priestess of our cult, namely Penelope” (165-166). In either case, the women, from their perspective, are not killed because of anything they’ve done, but rather because of what they know. The knowledge they possess is not knowledge that men want in the world or want them to have, and so the men destroy them. In Book 2 of The Odyssey, Antinous, one of the suitors, refers to Penelope as “the matchless queen of cunning” (II:95), and he doesn’t mean this as a compliment. However, “cunning” is a term often used in conjunction with Odysseus, and it is meant as a compliment. Gender roles are clearly established. Women are not supposed to behave like men. When women do the same things as men, they don’t get the same response, and so women have had to devise different strategies, and the water motif provides a perfect example. And by using the word “cunning” in connection with Penelope, Homer, in fact, suggests Penelope and Odysseus are equals.
And what can we conclude from this? Here are two texts written more than forty years apart, and yet they tell us similar things. One thing is that despite the passage of more than 2500 years, the work of Homer, and by extension, the work of all classical writers, still has something to say to us, not just about their times, but about ours, not just by what they say but also by what they leave out. Rereading Homer in light of Kyger and Atwood makes us realize that seeing Penelope simply as “faithful” leaves out the possibility that she acts in support of her own agency. Women submitted or they suffered serious consequences, including death. Because, in Homeric times, women had a definite place. The doors were not open to them. We’ve come a long way from the times when who women were, what they represented, and their capacities for knowledge were feared and repressed by men. But we still haven’t come far enough. In a world where there is a legitimate possibility of a woman becoming President of the United States, too many young women today choose to emulate Helen of Troy, the original party girl and become Lindsay, Paris, or Brittany. Here, the doors are open. However, in Homeric times, the answer to the question “Who’s that Lady?” generally provided only two possible answers: the submissive or the subversive, and to be subversive was to face silence or death. By re-imagining the image of Penelope, Kyger and Atwood show that the possibilities for women’s self-expression are infinitely greater than they used to be. In the same way that I asked earlier if Penelope was standing by her man or protecting her own interest, we could ask the same question of Hilary Clinton. During Monica-gate, did Hilary stand by her man out of loyalty to her marriage or did she do so out of her own political ambition, or both. Whatever the answer, the classics provide proof that certain eternal issues will always be before us and that one could do a lot worse than looking there for ways to help figure out the answers. Here as Antinuous says of Penelope in Book 24 it is possible to become “self-possessed” (XXIV:218). Owning one’s self is a necessary journey for both men and women. Welcome to Reed and welcome to the voyage to the next part of your life.