In and the loom, and keep the women,

    In his epic The Odyssey, Homer recounts the stories of the Greek hero Odysseus’s tortuous homecoming. Living in male-dominated ancient Greece, the poet narrates the story mostly through a masculine lens, as many of the tales are told from Odysseus’s and his son Telemachus’ point of view. However, women also play a significant role in this androcentric epic. As one of the major reasons for Odysseus’s homecoming, Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, is one of the essential female figures. Having been waiting for Odysseus’s return for twenty years, Penelope is widely regarded as the epitome of faithfulness and patience, but at the same time conventionally interpreted as a passive character. While Penelope as a female is supposed to be subordinate to male in the patriarchal civilization of Ithaca, her wisdom to use tactics and her capability of independent thinking provides new representations of female subjectivity which emphasizes autonomy, shedding light on qualified feminism.     In order to discuss the role of female, it is necessary first to identify that Ithaca is a highly patriarchal society. In Book II, Antinous, one of the suitors, urged Telemachus to send Penelope back to her father and let him decide her remarriage. Male privilege is fully exposed in his speech, “Direct her to marry whomever her father picks, whoever pleases her.” (Book 2, Line 125-126) The verb “direct” means to give someone an order or an authoritative instruction. Consequently, it implies control over the one being directed. By using such a strong verb, the poet highlights that, from Antinous’s perspective, Telemachus’s gender renders him superior to his mother, authorizing him the right to command Penelope. The sequence of Antinous mentioning “whomever her father picks” before “whoever pleases her” also underscores female’s lack of self-determination. Through a typical male’s lens, Penelope as an adult woman cannot decide on her marriage independently; instead of choosing whom she likes, she has to listen to her father’s opinion primarily.     In places where male dominates, female becomes the subordinate gender. Rather than an influential figure as her title entails, Penelope illustrates how women’s social role is confined, and their power is denied. In Book I, disheartened by a song about Troy, Penelope breaks it off and pours out her longing for Odysseus. Instead of relieving his mother, Telemachus orders her to go back to her chamber,  “So, mother, / go back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks, / the distaff and the loom, and keep the women, /working hard as well. As for giving orders, /men will see to that, but I most of all: / I hold the reins of power in this house.” (Book 1, Line 409-414).  This stanza characterizes how Telemachus rejects Penelope’s order and denies her influence, exemplifying that women are expected to relinquish their power to men. Being the hostess of the house, Penelope appears to possess limited authority, for she is only in charge of other women in the house. Except for further substantiating male’s dominant position, this stanza also reveals a stereotypical gender expectation that women are supposed to stay in their rooms, and their duty is limited to housework such as weaving.    Following the order of her son, Penelope does go back to her chamber. Nevertheless, her return to the loom does not symbolize simple submission to the social norm. Instead, she demonstrates her refusal to succumb the stereotypical gender expectations and strives for autonomy in a gender-based fashion. As a woman, she is physically weak to fight against the suitors directly, but her wisdom empowers her to thwart the suitors and ward them off. Penelope’s tactic is firstly revealed from a male’s point of view when Antinous blames her for “cunning.” (Book 2, Line 95) While promising to commit remarriage once she finished weaving the shroud for Laertes, Penelope weaves the finespun by day but secretly unweaves it by night so that the work will never be done. By doing so, Penelope deceives all the suitors, delaying her remarriage for three years. Exposed by a male character, Penelope’s strategy displays a profound irony. Weaving, a highly gender-based task, are assigned to do in this male-dominated society. Telemachus is repeatedly asking her mother to go back to the distaff and loom; weaving becomes an activity that symbolizes men taking control over women. This limitation of women’s role is supposed to deny the female’s power and influence in the society; however in this case, by weaving to deceive the men, this limitation fails to restrain women from expressing their thoughts; instead, Penelope showing her reluctance to remarry. While women like Penelope are asked continuously by male characters to go back to the distaff and loom, Penelope builds up an active female figure who strives for her gender autonomy.    Being physically weak, Penelope uses her intelligence to deceive men and to exert her influence and strive for autonomy. To achieve independence, one also requires the ability to think independently to prevent from being misled. In Book 19, Penelope recounts her dream of an eagle killing twenty geese which she kept in her house. The eagle in the dream gives a symbolic interpretation: the geese are the suitors, and the eagle is Odysseus who is about to return and punish the suitors. Penelope asks the Cretan, as whom Odysseus disguises himself, to interpret it, and he implies that her dream can only be explained in this way. This symbolic interpretation is one which Penelope would genuinely welcome. She rejects it and compares the dreams to two gates, one “fraught with truth” while one “bearing no fruit,” to reveal the unreliability of messages in dreams. She uses him as a touchstone of his wishes not so she may follow them, but so she may resist them.     Even though Homer in his epic frequently uses positive adjectives such as wise and discreet to praise the character of Penelope, we should notice that this feminism is limited.    


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