Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Women of the Odyssey, part one

In Homer's The Iliad, the stories of men's exploits in battle almost entirely eclipse the possibility of women as significant characters.  Don't get me wrong: female characters are essential to the momentum of the plot and to the development of the male characters.  Without Helen, we might not have a Trojan War at all.  We empathize with Hector the Trojan partly because we see the pain of Andromache.  We understand Achilles's growth partly because we know about his relationship with Briseis.  But the women's presence in the story is to help us understand the men, not to explore female perspectives or understandings.

OdysseyThe Odyssey, on the other hand, puts women in very different kinds of roles.  First we have Athena, goddess of wisdom, a female god who sees herself as the parallel to Odysseus.  She is the divinity who mirrors his sense of trickery and cleverness.  As Athena says to him (in the Lombardo translation), "You wily bastard, you cunning. elusive, habitual liar!" Her words are not a criticism, as we see as she continues: "Here we are, the two shrewdest minds in the universe, you far and away the best man on earth in plotting strategies," acknowledges Athena, "and I famed among gods for my clever schemes.... Now I've come here, ready to weave a plan with you."  She loves the mortal Odysseus because of his similarity to her.  She assists him because he is her reflection.  For the reader, Odysseus and his adventures become a kind of stand-in for a female god's adventures--or perhaps a reader will see it the opposite way.  This narrative trick might expand the ability of a female audience member to identify with a male character--a cross-gender identification that many modern readers hesitate to do.

Penelope, too, is a mirror image of Odysseus.  Although she is faithful when he is not--over and over, both literally and theoretically--Penelope is just as capable of trickery and deceit as her husband.  Almost as well known as Odysseus's trick of the Trojan Horse is Penelope's trick of weaving a funeral shroud.  Her cleverness extends through other examples as well, such as her offer of an unavailable bed to the man who claims to be her husband--an offer only Odysseus will recognize as a false one.

How Penelope makes sense of Odysseus's long absence and eventual return is in direct contrast to the story of Clytemnestra--a story I'll be discussing more when I get to the Greek dramatists coming up soon.  But Homer refers enough to the story.  While Agamemnon is away at war, his wife Clytemnestra takes a lover.  She then murders her husband when he eventually returns from the battlefields of Troy.  "Will Odysseus face the same homecoming?" Homer asks us to consider.  The answer is no--perhaps because Penelope is MORE wily than Clytemnestra rather than less, MORE able to hold off alternatives.  Ironically, it is her dishonesty--her ability to be dissembling--that allows her to maintain her devotion to her husband.

What a fascinating portrayal Homer gives us!  The idea that lying allows faithfulness is one I suspect we'll see again and again as we go through the canon.  (Right now I'm thinking about Shakespeare and his comedies from Twelfth Night to As You Like It.)

I want to be impressed with Homer's literary playfulness, this pre-feminist exploration of alternatives, perhaps this proto-feminist analysis of choices.  But I am not happy.  Instead I find myself wishing that Penelope and Athena would abandon this jerk Odysseus instead of seeing themselves reflected in him.  I wish they would connect themselves to what we moderns mean by "hero": a character who changes and grows as the story progresses, a full human being who is self critical rather than just arrogant, a man who gets somewhere on his own personal odyssey.

Next time: a picture of some of Homer's other major female characters, including Circe, Calypso, and Nausicaa.

1 comment:

  1. Of course Clytemnestra also has that whole "vowing bloody revenge for her husband's murder of their daughter" issue going on, so she's not really trying too hard on the fidelity thing. I often wonder what Clytemnestra & Aegisthus's everyday conversation is like - do they have any subjects in common besides all-consuming hatred for Agamemnon? Do they hang out in bed together fantasizing about how they're going to murder him when he finally gets home from Troy? For TEN YEARS? One wonders.

    I know what you're saying about frustration with the female commitment to Odysseus. On the other hand, it's not like any of Penelope's suitors are exactly more admirable than her husband...

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