Through Penelope's Eyes: From Atwood to Homer

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Homer’s Odyssey presents ideal individuals: Odysseus as the archetypal leader of men and of family, Telemachus as the perfect son seeking to emulate his father, and Penelope as the model wife: often confined to the women’s quarters, a tireless weaver seeking to protect her husband's oikos, and faithful regardless of doubts about his long absence. Both the storyline and characters of the epic have had a long literary life, echoing the sensibilities of various historical and cultural moments; most notable is the development of Penelope through the ages. In this paper, I will evaluate the character of Penelope in Ovid’s Heroides, Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, and Margaret Atwood’s novella, The Penelopiad, three works highly reflective of their particular historical settings. For each representation, I will point out the similarities and differences between Homer’s Penelope and the later adaptations, and utilize their respective historical contexts in order to elucidate the alterations—or lack thereof—to the original character. Some of the recurrent traits in the image of Penelope are her inconsolable grief, her purposeful weaving, and her unwavering loyalty-- this last one being granted a stifling focus. In the 20th century, feminist scholars began to reclaim a character central to the story of Odysseus and to a great extent silenced by his story. Made visible in Atwood’s work, Penelope emerges as a three-dimensional character as she presents her version of the story and reveals how limited our visions of her were. Atwood complicates the traditional aspects of Penelope by justifying actions and questioning outcomes. Our concepts of the “ideal Greek woman” and her relationships within the oikos are altered in order to expose the reality beneath Penelope’s weeping and weaving.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFeminism and Classics, VII
StatePublished - May 21 2016


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