Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, stands as one of ancient literature’s most prominent female characters. As the steward of Ithaca, Penelope dominates those portions of “The Odyssey” not focused on Odysseus’ adventures. Penelope provides a rare example of a strong mortal woman in Greek literature, as ancient writers usually presented females as victims or antagonists. Penelope thus serves to embody Ancient Greek feminine ideals, though her complexity can reveal negative traits if considered carefully.
Loyalty and Faith
With almost half of “The Odyssey” set in Ithaca, the reader is treated to abundant examples of Penelope’s unswerving loyalty to her husband and faith in his return. The extremity of Penelope’s loyalty almost beggars belief, considering that Odysseus’ absence extends to twenty years. Penelope’s loyalty to the customs of her culture can be seen in her refusal to kick the suitors out, as hospitality requires her to host the intruders despite the drain on her resources. Penelope’s final act of loyalty occurs in Book 18, when she reveals her intention to follow Odysseus’ instructions to remarry, against her own wishes, once Telemachus comes of age.
Chastity and Virtue
Penelope maintains her chastity for the entire span of Odysseus’ absence, despite the presence of lustful suitors in her own home. Rather than entice them with her appearance, Penelope avoids the suitors through a self-imposed exile in her chambers. In Book 20, Penelope states that she would rather die than submit to the suitors’ advances. In Book 23, Penelope emphasizes her constancy when she describes her marital bed as unobserved by any mortal other than her husband. In Books 11 and 24, the shade of King Agamemnon draws attention to Penelope’s virtue through comparisons to Clytemnestra, his treacherous wife.
Intelligence and Cunning
Throughout “The Odyssey,” the narrator consistently refers to Odysseus’ faithful wife as “wise Penelope,” a tribute to the cunning and intelligence that defines her character. The patronage of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, serves to emphasize Penelope's trait of intelligence. The most notable example of Penelope’s cunning comes from her efforts to delay the suitors without causing resentment. Penelope never outright refuses to remarry, and promises to make her decision once she finishes a burial shroud for Odysseus’ father, Laertes. She then delays this eventuality every evening when she undoes the day's work. Furthermore, in Book 17, Penelope manipulates the suitors into furnishing gifts to compensate for their destruction of Ithaca’s wealth.
As a masterpiece of characterization, Penelope presents some less savory traits that make her believable as a complex individual. Readers see glimpses of an impulsiveness that clashes with her heroic patience. For example, various characters mislead Penelope about Odysseus’ identity, as if afraid she would ruin the element of surprise in his confrontation with the suitors. In Book 17, Telemachus sneezes to distract his mother from recognizing Odysseus, and Athena also intervenes to distract Penelope when Odysseus disrobes to bathe. Penelope’s refusal to reject the suitors could also be interpreted as indecisiveness, a passive stance that allows the suitors to spoil her husband’s lands and disrespect his memory.