The Role of Penelope in The Odyssey
The character of Penelope in Homer's Odyssey reflects the faithful wife who waits twenty years for the arrival of her husband. Only a strong woman could sustain the stress, anxiety and confusion resulting from the chaos of a palace with a missing king whose fate is unknown. Her responsibilities and commitments toward the man she loves are particularly difficult to keep, under the strain of the situation. Although she does not actively pursue an effort to find him, her participation in the success of Odysseus' homecoming can be seen in her efforts to defend and protect the heritage, reputation and the House of Odysseus in his absence. As Odysseus withstands his trial, Penelope withstands her trials against temptations to give in to the many anxious suitors, to give up on her faith and respect for her religion, her husband and even her self. Penelope's strength in keeping the highest standards in her function as a wife, woman and mother contributes to the success of Odysseus' homecoming by keeping the home and family for him to come back to.
Through many examples Homer indicates to us the standards of those times. Major examples about what is valued in a wife are encapsulated in book 6 (about Nausikaa). Homer uses this short story to present a standard from which we can evaluate Penelope's performance. In making a comparison we see that Penelope never stood idle and helpless. She continued to perform the duties expected of her, while her husband was missing.
Athena guides Nausikaa with a list of how to prepare herself for marriage. Of major importance is the upkeep of the household as well as good personal hygiene (starting as line 25), and as a young woman must try to please her parents. In all the instances Penelope scores perfectly. Penelope is always bathing, protects her beauty, and she respects her parents.
Also in book 6 we have a reinforcement of the standard functions of the woman and the man. Nausikaa's mother is with her female attendants, weaving clothes. Nausikaa's father is shown on his way to the council with other male officials (line 50). This same distinction of roles is often referred to in the whole poem. Telemachos often tells his mother, as in book 1 line 356, to go back to her distaff, while he was to attend political councils:
"Go therefore back in the house and take up your own work, the loom and distaff, and see to it that your handmates ply their work also; but the men must see a discussion, all men, but I most of all."
Penelope as usual performs this duty of the household faithfully.
All those duties however are a part of a larger goal, the goal keeping a good name for oneself in the eyes of others and the eyes of gods. We see finally in the Nausikaas short episode, the most important factor a woman must realize. Nausikaa directs Odysseus to the city but recommends that he goes by himself to avoid the scandal that might arise if she were seen...