Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Penelope as (M)Other: Telemachus’s Coming of Age in The Odyssey

The Odyssey—familiar to most of us although likely read by few—is widely known as an epic love story: Odysseus beats the odds of multiple sea storms, encounters with murderous gods and monsters, and even death itself to reunite with his ever-faithful Penelope. Our cultural memory of this text is curious given that, in keeping with what we know about the historical treatment of women in Homer’s Greece, the story consistently portrays women as mere possessions to be traded among men, symbolic of bonds between upper-class households. Pierre Brulѐ writes of marriage during the period:

Matrimonial transactions set in motion a ‘transhumance’ of wealth—the flocks brought by the suitor, the ‘dazzling gifts’ of the future husband, garments and jewelry (theoretically for the bride, but as she will live with her husband, these riches are merely for ostentation, hardly have they come out of the coffers than they are put back in them), the ‘dazzling gifts’ of the father, which form the true ‘payback’ of the transaction. They legitimize the marriage and the children-to-come, and are the basis of the alliance between the ‘houses.’ (68)

In The Odyssey, much of the action of the plot is actually spurred by the intricacies of this system of exchange between men. Odysseus and Penelope’s son, Telemachus, is fearful that his mother will soon settle on a suitor, which would result in Telemachus’s inheritance transferring to the possession of a step-father and later probably half-brothers. Penelope is allowed to make a decision regarding her fate instead of a male caretaker only because of her very unusual circumstances: she is assumed to be widowed and has no male children of a legal age. Nearing the age of rightful ownership over his mother in the absence of her husband, Telemachus is convinced by the goddess Athene (who reminds him that mothers are apt to forget about sons of a previous marriage when they bear sons for a new husband) to put Penelope in her place, to usurp her tenuous claim to decision rights over her future and to bring his father back in order to ensure a return to the rightful patriarchal order of the household. In this way, The Odyssey is less a love story than a French Feminist nightmare, a bildungsroman in which Telemachus comes of age by learning to recognize Penelope as (m)other.

This claim is demonstrated perhaps most persuasively in the text’s continual upholding of a matricidal model of manhood. Indeed, less than seven pages into the more than 250-page text, we are introduced to perhaps the single most important contextual frame of this story: the widespread celebration of Orestes’s killing of his mother and her lover, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, in revenge for the murder of his father, Agamemnon. Athene—a motherless goddess, borne of Zeus alone, we must remember—scolds Telemachus for his apparently tardy development of manhood, saying, “You are too old to plead infancy any longer; have you not heard how people are singing Orestes’ praises for having killed his father’s murderer, Aegisthus? You are a fine, smart-looking fellow; show your mettle, then, and make yourself a name in story” (7). Athene here references the story of Orestes’s matricide in the larger context of suggesting that Telemachus kill off his mother’s suitors, who are leaching off of the (now dwindling) wealth of his household. The goddess insinuates, then, that in both Orestes’s and Telemachus’s cases, murder is justified in order to protect the rightful assets of the young sons of politically powerful war heroes. Whether the victims are mothers or lecherous men in pursuit of Odysseus’s wife and fortunes is of little consequence. In fact, Athene does not even mention Clytemnestra by name, which, again, points to her interpretation of Orestes’s matricide as less important than his reclaiming of his father’s property.

In this way, Orestes is celebrated throughout the text as hero despite his killing of his own mother. In a later scene, though, the issue of matricide is finally addressed more directly. Nestor explains to Telemachus Clytemnestra’s complicity with Aegisthus’s treachery against Agamemnon, which led to her murder at the hands of her son, “At first [Clytemnestra] would have nothing to do with the scheme, for she was of good natural disposition; moreover, there was a bard with her, to whom Agamemnon had given strict orders on setting out for Troy, that he was to keep guard over his wife; but when heaven had counseled her destruction, Aegisthus carried this bard off to a desert island . . .—after which she went willingly enough to the house of Aegisthus” (25). This version of the Clytemnestra/Aegisthus myth is telling in several ways. First of all, it entirely omits the event that many versions of the story suggest led to Clytemnestra’s eventual alliance with her husband’s enemy, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their adolescent daughter, Ighigenia, to the gods in exchange for the guarantee of success in the Trojan War. Indeed, Clytemnestra joined with Aegisthus an angry mother seeking revenge for her daughter’s brutal murder. Also, Nestor portrays Clytemnestra as a mindless being—in keeping with the perception of women as little more than chattel during this period, according to Brulѐ (75)—in need of shepherding by a male bard in Agamemnon’s absence and easily led astray after the bard’s abandonment. Given her object status as well as her inclination—if not held in check by patriarchal forces—toward animalistic behavior, then, it is little wonder that Telemachus is able to learn to perceive his initial obedience to the (m)other as an impediment to his achievement of male subjectivity.

Indeed, before leaving to attempt to retrieve his father, Telemachus signals his newfound manhood by relieving his mother of her duties as interim head-of-household. After she criticizes the musical choices of the household bard, Telemachus instructs Penelope, “Go then, within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for speech is a man’s matter, and mine above all others—for it is I who am master here” (8). Telemachus, thus, silences Penelope’s expression of opinions regarding the public space of the household and banishes her to manage the more inconsequential women’s sphere of spinning and weaving. In a later scene, after he has reunited with Odysseus and secretly plotted with his father to defeat Penelope’s suitors, Telemachus takes yet another opportunity to assert his mastery over his mother. Not knowing that Odysseus has returned in the disguise of a beggar, Penelope has reluctantly agreed to let him participate in the bow stringing contest to win her hand in marriage. Telemachus again orders her into the house, saying, “This bow is a man’s matter, and mine above all others, for it is I who am master here” (231). In both of these instances, Telemachus asserts his own subjectivity by way of reinforcing his mother’s objectivity as a woman in his charge.

Telemachus goes on to demonstrate that he is equal in strength and bravery to father, as the outnumbered pair proceed to massacre Penelope’s suitors after Odysseus successfully strings his own bow and reveals himself to the other men. In the final scenes, then, Telemachus reaches a point of full identification with Odysseus; no longer a child under his mother’s care, he asserts his manhood by fighting side-by-side with his warrior father. When Penelope hesitates in her acceptance of Odysseus’s return, Telemachus again shows his allegiance to his father over his mother: “Mother—but you are so hard that I cannot call you such a name—why do you keep away from my father in this way? . . . No other woman could bear to keep away from her husband . . . but your heart always was as hard as a stone” (246). Here, Telemachus constructs his mother—a woman who, as the story reminds us repeatedly, has mourned the absence of her husband for 20 long years—as an other, insensitive and inhuman in her resistance to his father, the model that Telemachus must approximate in order to attain subjectivity as a man.

Probably recited for decades or even centuries before being written down, The Odyssey was transcribed, translated, and circulated in the Ancient World like no other story except for Homer’s other epic, The Illiad. The two were memorized and taught almost as sacred texts in Ancient Greece and Rome. Amazingly, they continue to enjoy reputations as literary greats. The ageless popularity of The Odyssey speaks, I think, to the power of a patriarchal social structure that positions women as others, obviously established in full force by Homer’s time and surviving even into today.

Works Cited

Brule, Pierre. Women of Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2003.

Homer. The Odyssey. Ed. Harry Shefter. Trans. Samuel Butler. New York: Washington Square P, 1969.


  1. Hello: One of your former postings, in reference to a course syllabus, mentions a LeRoi Jones poem "20-century Fox." I'm a teacher in Wash, DC, trying to google this poem without success. I've also tried the possible titles "20th Century Fox" and "Twentieth Century Fox," but still nothing comes up. Is it possible the title is slightly different. I also looked in some Baraka anthologies, but still can't find this poem.

    Thanks for any assistance you could provide. Don Simmons, WDC

  2. Hi, Don,

    I will check on that this weekend and get back to you by Monday. Have to dig it up . . .

    Thanks for reading!


  3. You will find the Baraka poem, "20th-Century Fox," on page 87 in Amiri Baraka's _Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/Leroy Jones_, published by William Morrow and Company, Inc. in 1979. Hope that helps!