Penelope: Then and Now
In the Odyssey written by Homer, Odysseus is away from his home Ithaca, his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus for 17 years. In Homer’s poem, Penelope was portrayed as the loyal and devoted wife patiently awaiting the return of her husband and cunningly wards off suitors that pursue her hand in marriage and Odysseus’ land. In the poem Penelope’s Song written by Louise Gluck, Penelope is portrayed somewhat differently. This essay will analyze the portrayal of the same character in the two works.
In Gluck’s poem, Penelope does not represent the perfect wife that is portrayed in Homer’s epic poem. In the Odyssey, Homer does not go into detail of Penelope’s feelings toward Odysseus during his long absence; the reader does not know what emotions she may be experiencing. Gluck, on the other hand, gives Penelope an emotional voice as evidenced by the following lines:
You must shake the boughs of the tree
To get his attention,
But carefully, carefully, lest
His beautiful face be marred
By too many falling needles.
In Gluck’s poem, Penelope is feeling hurt for the extended time Odysseus has abandoned her. In the passage above, it would seem she is fantasizing, perhaps just a little, about falling needles hurting her husband as retribution for her pain. In this way we can see from Penelope’s perspective and connect with her pain. This is a very different trait than the one in the Odyssey where Penelope is portrayed as a stoic character. In addition, Gluck’s version of Penelope also appears to be confessional, as if she her true feelings are finally being expressed after being pent up for some time.
In Homer’s poem, Penelope is the embodiment of the loyal and devoted wife. She endures the long absence of her Odysseus and remains faithful to him even without knowing whether he is alive or dead. Gluck’s rendition, on the other hand, hints of Penelope’s infidelity: You have not been completely / Perfect either; with your troublesome body / You have done things you shouldn’t / Discuss in poems. Conspicuously, Gluck does not specifying what Penelope has done during Odysseus’ travels but we can safely presume she has bedded one (or more) of the suitors albeit it may not be public knowledge. Perhaps Penelope suspects or assumes Odysseus may have done the same...