The End (Part 3)


This is a series on Penelope, who rocks and everyone should know more about. The breakdown is based on my reading (in ancient Greek, thank you very much) of the Odyssey and with some help from Jenny Strauss Clay, Nancy Felson-Rubin, and Sheila Murnaghan. Read Goddess-Like Penelope (Part 1), Hera-Like Penelope,  Artemis-Like Penelope,  Aphrodite-Like Penelope, and Athena-Like Penelope below.


Penelope, by John Roddham Spencer-StanhopeThe end of the Odyssey is no surprise. The tale is not, contrary to what Felson-Rubin suggests, open-ended, leaving the audience on their edges of their seats to guess what will happen. Rather, as in the Iliad, we are pulled into the lives of the characters. We empathize. We feel Penelope‘s confusion in that laugh she forces through her teeth. But we do not fear what the end of the story will bring.

Felson-Rubin says, “the references to her possible inconstancy form a virtual leitmotif,” and I do not disagree. (Felson-Rubin, 164) But rather than argue that this inconstancy (ie, the possibility that she will abandon Odysseus and go off with one of the Suitors) pulls the audience into doubt, it seems clear to me that it serves the same end as the scene between Hector and Andromache in Book Six of the Iliad. Hector’s confident reassurance pulls at our hearts as does Andromache’s; we know the end will not bring them joy and we suffer through their hope. Similarly, our hearts go out to the humanity of Penelope. Unlike “god-like Odysseus,” who is so god-like, in fact, he not only gets to see what’s happening in the plot, but have a degree of control over it, Penelope can only think about what is going on. We feel distress at her distress. We sympathize with her brave attempt to continue down the correct path without evening knowing which god is steering her fate. Her uncertainty is the reality of all humankind, and it is only acknowledging her confusion and her perseverance that the Odyssey reaches its true depth.

Did you hear me people? Penelope isn’t just a side show, she is what makes it deep.

Her uncertainty draws us deeply into the story, but it does not cause us to question the outcome. I clearly remember my feelings when I read Penelope’s entreaty to Artemis to slay her and take her away from the unbearable pain of living without Odysseus. I was not afraid, any more than any ancient Greek would have been, that she would die at the hand of that “arrow-pouring” goddess. In fact, the cry reinforced the realization that it is not Artemis who has her hand in the mix, but Athena. She will not die, she cannot die, and there is no doubt of that to any with the least familiarity with the story (as most ancient Greeks certainly would have). There is, however, a contest, and a marriage is clearly in the works, so perhaps it would be harder to deny the certainty of how the story will end. To this point, I must argue the same line as those who suggest suspense: Penelope does not know what’s going on. She has constructed the contest in such a way that she continues to have options, and as far as she’s concerned both Aphrodite‘s Life and Artemis’ Death are alternatives. It cannot be stressed enough, though, that her uncertainty is not ours. Even if we don’t know Penelope’s inner thoughts, we are positive that Athena and Odysseus are prepared for the contest of the bow. So you see? The contest is another example of Penelope’s cunning, and another example of how it is Athena’s option – that of Survival – that is in store for Penelope.

In the end, Penelope is a mixture of all the goddesses and none of them, like all humans. She is exceptional in form and prudence, of lofty stature, accomplished in skill, and a participant in a most wonderful of marriages. Despite her exceptional nature, we do not see Penelope as a goddess, but as irrevocably and amazingly human. The presence of each goddess reminds us of who this wife of Odysseus truly, complexly, is and reiterates how, inevitably, the story will end. Her story gives us all hope that we, too, will reach our happy endings without ever really knowing which hand guides us.

Felson-Rubin, Nancy. “Penelope’s Perspective: Character from Plot.” Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretive Essays. Seth L. Schein, ed. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1996


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