Odysseus the Overrated

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In the lecture today, I really enjoyed hearing about the feminist view of the Odyssey, and thought it brought an interesting new perspective to a novel I’ve been dragging my feet through since Grade 11. I wanted to add on to that by discussing the double standard in terms of adultery. Even though I don’t know anything about the philosophies of feminism or feminist literary criticism, I was frustrated every time the subject of adultery was raised. Penelope, with her husband gone, is stuck in her house with twenty men constantly courting her, and stays faithful to Odysseus. He, for all she knew, could’ve been dead for years. Her faith in him is admirable and completely undeserved. Odysseus, on the other hand, takes his time touring around the seas and the island women near them. While Penelope is doing everything she can to not get remarried (note: also of annoyance is the fact that she can’t just not marry), Odysseus experiences the exhausting trial of being seduced by every mildly unattached woman between Troy and Ithaca. Though he might protest that they “never won the heart inside [him]” (Homer 187), that excuse would not work for Penelope had she gotten bored and taken one of the suitors to bed. Odysseus even gets upset while Demodocus is singing about adultery, not because he feels guilty, but because he is concerned about Penelope’s faithfulness. The fact that he should be lucky if Penelope is still unmarried when he returns, or the realization that he has committed far worse offences to their marriage don’t cross his mind.

I’m going to change topics a little bit and talk about Odysseus and Penelope as characters. Odysseus is pompous. And annoying. In the lecture, it was said that he was the “second smartest person” in the poem. I find that a little optimistic. Remember that his “clever disguise” when he returned to Ithaca failed to fool a dog or an aging woman. He is self centered and mildly wily, which is apparently all it takes to impress Athena. Without her (unexplainable) support of him, he would have long perished. This makes it interesting that he mentions little supernatural help when he spends four books (four long books) talking about his adventures. Although this was discussed in the lecture, I’d like to also explore the extent to which he told the truth in the story.

In contrast, Penelope is very much self reliant. She raises a child while fending off suitors, without the help of her husband, or a deity. It’s worth noting that both Athena and Hera have a lot in common with Penelope. Her commitment to her marriage (amongst her husbands infidelities) is reminiscent of Hera’s dedication to the more promiscuous Zeus. Penelope’s cunning in keeping the suitors at bay (weaving the shroud, making the suitors send her gifts, the test of stringing Odysseus’ bow) and her outwitting Odysseus should have impressed Athena. Certainly they should have impressed her more than when Odysseus tried to convince her he was from Crete. When Athena does send Penelope a phantom of her sister to reassure her, we can be sure that this is motivated by her affection for Odysseus, not sympathy for Penelope.

In the end, Odysseus isn’t that bad. Just, he’s not as good as he, Athena, or the poem as a whole make him out to be. And Penelope is better, and more intelligent. And so are Telemachus and Eumaeus and Eurycleia and Philoetius and most characters. And Argos as well.