The Portrayal of Women in Homer's Odyssey
In the first section of Odyssey, mortal women are presented to us as controlled by the stereotypes and expectations of the culture of the day, and it is only within that context that we can consider the examples Homer provides of women to be admired or despised. He provides us with clear contrasts, between Penelope and Eurycleia on the one hand, and Helen and Clytemnaestra on the other.
In Penelope’s case, it is made clear that her freedom of action is strictly controlled. Antinous feels free to advise Telemachus that as Odysseus is assumed dead, it is expected that Helen will choose another husband, or her father should do so for her. Telemachus does not challenge the logic of this, merely attacks the suitors’ behaviour and questions whether Odysseus is dead. And so Penelope is reduced to using the passive and ‘feminine’ defences of keeping the suitors waiting for a decision, and resorting to the subterfuge of weaving and unweaving her loom daily.
We also witness Penelope being ‘put in her place’ by Telemachus when she comes down from her room and asks that the Minstrel Phemius cease singing of the Trojan Wars, which have such painful connotations for her. She should go to her room, and leave the men to men’s business. She is left to reflect, in her grief, on the developing wisdom of her son.
In these examples, Homer is intending to win our admiration for Penelope. Her loyalty to Odyssey and the slim chance that that he may still be alive are taken to a heroic level, which defy the apparent convention of the day that a woman should not be without a husband. Her cunning in keeping the suitors at bay are also to be admired, and have a parallel in the cunning of Odysseus himself, as Odysseus is also often praised for his resourcefulness in overcoming obstacles.
In Eurycleia, the Nurse of Telemachus, we have another example of loyalty held up to us as admirable. While Eurycleia is a servant, therefore of the lowest status, and there purely to meet the needs of the child Telemachus,...