Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the

Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the "Odyssey"

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by Marylin A. Katz

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Noted for her contradictory words and actions, Penelope has been a problematic character for critics of the Odyssey, many of whom turn to psychological explanations to account for her behavior. In a fresh approach to the problem, Marylin Katz links Penelope closely with the strategies that govern the overall design of the narrative. By examining its apparent

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Noted for her contradictory words and actions, Penelope has been a problematic character for critics of the Odyssey, many of whom turn to psychological explanations to account for her behavior. In a fresh approach to the problem, Marylin Katz links Penelope closely with the strategies that govern the overall design of the narrative. By examining its apparent inconsistencies and its deferral of truth and closure, she shows how Penelope represents the indeterminacy that is characteristic of the narrative as a whole. Katz argues that the controlling narrative device of the poem is the paradigm of Agamemnon's fateful return from the Trojan War, narrated in the opening lines of the Odyssey. This story operates not only as a point of reference for Odysseus' homecoming but also as an alternative plot, and the danger that Penelope will betray Odysseus as Clytemnestra did Agamemnon is kept alive throughout the first half of the poem. Once Odysseus reaches Ithaca, however, the paradigm of Helen's faithlessness substitutes for that of Clytemnestra. The narrative structure of the Odyssey is thus based upon an intratextual revision of its own paradigm, through which the surface meaning of Penelope's words and actions is undermined though never openly discredited.

Originally published in 1991.

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Penelope's Renown

Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey

By Marylin A. Katz


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06796-4



Toward the end of the Odyssey, in the second of the underworld scenes, the shades of the suitors slain by Odysseus and his son encounter those of the Trojan War heroes. Agamemnon is in the midst of explaining to Achilles how he came to be cheated of both his homecoming (nostos) and his renown (kleos), when the arrival of the suitors' shades interrupts his narrative. The suitor Amphimedon explains the suitors' collective fate, and includes an account of Penelope's weaving and the contest of the bow. Whereupon Agamemnon, overcome with admiration, addresses a congratulatory apostrophe to Odysseus, his living counterpart:


(O fortunate son of Laertes, Odysseus of many devices, indeed you got yourself a wife with great virtue. How noble were the thoughts of excellent Penelope, Icarius's daughter, and how well she remembered Odysseus, her wedded husband. And so the renown (kleos) of her virtue will not die, but the immortals will fashion a song for people upon the earth, a lovely one of mindful Penelope. Not like the daughter of Tyndareus, who devised evil deeds, killing her wedded lord, and she will be a hateful song among men; and she will make evil the reputation of female women, even for the one who acts well.)


Agamemnon appears to attribute kleos to Penelope here, and to base it upon her "noble thoughts" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), her "excellence" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and her constancy ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). As we shall see below, however, not only are the meaning and interpretation of the passage disputed, but what is more, the particulars of Agamemnon's comparison assign to Clytemnestra one of the principal features by which Penelope's kleos in the Odyssey is defined. For Clytemnestra indisputably "devised evil deeds" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and the etymology of one form of her name makes explicit her reputation for "deviousness": Klutai-mestre "connotes that she is renowned for what she devised," since mestre is derived from the same verb medomai that appears in 24.199 (Nagy 1974:260; cf. Nagy 1979:37–38). It is equally the case, however, that Penelope's kleos is associated with her metis, with a different but related capacity for devisings and artifice. She herself uses metis to describe the weaving trick in her discourse with the disguised Odysseus in Book 19.158, and when kleos is first attributed to Penelope in the poem, it is in connection with this device.

In the assembly in Book 2, Antinous attributes to Penelope the traditional feminine virtues: "to know the working of fine fabrics and [to have] noble thoughts" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 2.117). This same formulaic line characterizes, for example, the women of Phaeacia (7.111 = 2.117). But Antinous adds to this line the phrase "and crafty contrivances" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 2.118) at the beginning of the next one. He goes on to describe the weaving trick, and he concludes by explaining that Penelope's noemata ("scheming") distinguishes her from the traditional line of Greek heroines: "Of these [heroines], none was acquainted with noemata like Penelope" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), 2.121–22). As a result, he explains to Telemachus, Penelope "is fashioning great glory (kleos) for herself, but for you [she is bringing about] a great dearth of livelihood" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 2.125–26).

Penelope discusses her own kleos in Books 18 and 19, first when addressing the suitor Eurymachus in 18.25 Iff., and then when speaking with the disguised Odysseus in 19.124ff. She employs the same statement in both instances (18.251–56 = 19.124–29), and in both she repudiates the attribution of kleos to herself, asserting that when Odysseus went off to Troy, "the immortals destroyed my nobility and form and shape" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 18.251–52 = 19.124–25), and claiming that only upon his return "would my kleos be greater and so would it be better" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 18.255 = 19.128). Eurymachus does not use the term kleos when he addresses Penelope, but Odysseus had invoked it in connection with the famous simile of the basileus amumon ("excellent king," 19.107ff.).

On the first occasion when the lines appear, Penelope's remarks are specifically attuned to Eurymachus's compliment, which attributes to her the combination of qualities that traditionally distinguish female excellence in the heroic world: "... Since you surpass [other] women in form and shape and sound mind within" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 18.248–49; 18.249 = 11.337, of Odysseus). We can compare, for example, the characterization of the daughters of Pandareus in the Odyssey: "And Hera gave to them, beyond all women, form and understanding, and chaste Artemis endowed them with stature and Athena taught them the knowledge of renowned handiwork" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 20.70–72).

In the second instance, in her conversation with the disguised Odysseus, Penelope goes on to describe the weaving trick, and so she provides an advertisement, as it were, of her kleos, at the very moment when she appears to repudiate it. Thus, even when she herself addresses it, Penelope's kleos comprises both constancy and cleverness. It includes both the beauty, probity, and skill that make her an exemplar of her sex, and the cleverness otherwise associated with the "evil doings" of women like Clytemnestra.

Traditionally, however, including in the ancient tradition, the understanding of Penelope's kleos is characteristically restricted to what we might call the simple or denotative meaning, to the level, that is, at which it is identical with her capacity for endurance and her faithfulness to Odysseus. Aristophanes, for example, refers to Penelope as a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("woman of discretion," "chaste woman"), an exception among womankind (Thesmo. 546–50). And the Latin elegiac poets of the first century B.C. canonized a Penelope who was the ideal of Roman chastity (e.g., pia Penelope, who together with fida Evadne is contrasted to the present-day genus infidum nuptarum in Propertius 3.13.24, and is adduced against the examples of faithless wives in Ovid, Ars Amatoria 3.15ff.). In Cavafy's poem "Ithaka," the specificity of Penelope's endurance is generalized into the figuration of the hero's goal as static, fixed, and purely referential:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She hasn't anything else to give.

Critics, too, are inclined to underplay the complexity of Penelope's kleos in the Odyssey, and either to align themselves with Agamemnon in restricting it to her constancy, or to assimilate her craftiness to it. Beye, for example, says of Penelope; "Like the marriage bed rooted to the earth, she is the all encompassing stability at the end of man's adventuresome travels outside the home" (1974:98). A. T. Edwards explains, "Penelope's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] will be that she remained faithful to her husband in the face of the suitors, and through her [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] put them off until he returned" (1985:81); and Russo likewise, in characterizing Penelope as "renowned throughout Greece for her loyalty and cleverness," identifies this as her kleos (1982:9). Penelope's kleos in this system of meaning, then, is identical with her constancy, and it is equivalent to her identity with herself, as it were, which functions as a stable and unchanging reference point for the adventures of Odysseus.

But Penelope's kleos, properly speaking, must include everything reported about her in the Odyssey. I allude here to the etymology of kleos, according to which the word means "that which is heard," with specific reference to the poetic tradition (Nagy 1974:244–55). From this point of view Penelope is a far more ambiguous figure than tradition allows. This ambiguity appears especially in Books 18 and 19, where questions arise concerning the conscious (and unconscious) intentions behind Penelope's words and actions. These have generated an extensive debate in the scholarly literature. As the example of Antinous's speech in the assembly shows, however, this ambiguity is present in the text from a very early point.

In the study that follows, I focus on this double aspect of Penelope's renown, and in particular upon the implications of a metis that entails the appearance of her yielding to the suitors' importunities while in actuality remaining faithful to Odysseus. For although on the denotative level of meaning Penelope's kleos is identical with her faithfulness, I argue that Penelope's kleos understood connotatively and from within an explicitly interpretive framework is itself a problematic concept, and that it is also one in which some of the poem's central narrative features are inscribed. I argue that there is a slippage between these two levels of meaning in the Odyssey, a disparity whereby the second, more inclusive understanding of Penelope's kleos destabilizes the narrower and simpler meaning, although without ever displacing it.

Indeterminacy and Narrative Construction

I begin in Chapter Two by discussing the Odyssean revision of Iliadic kleos, and by examining the relation of this redefinition to the juxtaposition in the text of Penelope's kleos and Clytemnestra's renown. I argue that the House of Atreus story, in which Clytemnestra's kleos is embodied, is the governing paradigm for the development of the plot of the Odyssey as a whole and that the poem, from this point of view, can be read as the construction of an alternative to it. In my view, then, the Odyssey is configured as a text, not only against the Iliad, and in an intertextual relationship with it, but intratextually with reference to traditions about the Trojan War (and in particular, the stories of Helen and Clytemnestra) that the narrative itself constructs.

The story of Agamemnon's nostos ("return") is represented in the poem as a fixed element in the tradition, and this endows it with a certain prestige. In Book 1, Phemius is singing the "sad song" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1.340–41) of the "wretched homecoming" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1.326–27) of the Greek heroes, and this story is given further shape in Book 3 as the history of Agamemnon's return (3.132ff.), and its culmination in a "wretched death" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 3.194; cf. 24.96) brought about by the woman who "preeminently cherished bitter wretchedness in her mind" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 11.432). Furthermore, this story intersects with the plot of Odyssey itself, since its kleos is not just a reference point in the past, like the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] that Achilles sings in Iliad 9.189, or a hope for the future, like Hector's expectations regarding his own death (Iliad 22.304–5). Rather, the kleos of this story is being sung, and is thus entering the tradition, as the Odyssey is going on. And as I try to demonstrate in Chapter Two, there is a strong sense developed in the Odyssey that its narrative is drawn toward this tradition, and that its plot is ever veering in that direction.

I discuss the particulars of Penelope's marital status in Chapter Two, and I argue that the situation in which Penelope finds herself is a state of sociological indeterminacy constituted within the poem that is analogous to what we might call the geographical uncertainty associated with Odysseus (cf. Suerbaum 1968:176) and to the chronological indeterminacy of Telemachus's status. For the Odyssey as a narrative is premised explicitly on the uncertainty of Odysseus's whereabouts, and implicidy on the question of Telemachus's coming of age. These two open questions in turn combine to open the question of Penelope's status.

The plot of the Odyssey, then, is organized as a narrative complement to the state of radical indeterminacy around which its mise-en-scène is formulated. For Penelope, as Telemachus says early in the poem, "neither refuses the hateful marriage nor does she bring matters to a teleuten [to an end]" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1.249–50 [= 16.126–27; cf. 24.126]). Likewise, the telos of the plot, the point toward which its action is aiming, is endowed with indeterminacy from the beginning by the incorporation into the narrative of the House of Atreus story as a "master plot." In this respect, the indeterminacy of the poem is not represented as a state of directionlessness, as an absence of aim, but as an alternate plot toward which the action of the narrative is drawn.

This particular way of configuring indeterminacy is tied to the trope of disguise, and thus provides the mechanism for converting the problem of Odysseus's nostos into one of identity. For in order that Odysseus's return not replicate the established story of nostos, it must be disguised as something else, and I argue in Chapter Three that in the middle section of the poem the question of Odysseus's return is redefined as one of xenia ("hospitality"). Thus, the paradigm of the violation of xenia associated with the beginning of the Trojan War displaces the motif of the violation of nostos represented by the House of Atreus story, and the question of Penelope's fidelity is reformulated against the model represented by Helen. A reference to Helen and Clytemnestra together appears only once in the Odyssey, at approximately the midpoint of the poem (11.438–39), and this is correlated, in my view, with the shift in narrative direction.

At this point, then, the perspective of the poem is shifted from the outside world to the inside one, and from the end of the Trojan War to its beginning. By the same token, Odysseus's interaction with Telemachus in the middle section of the poem is played out as a conflation of the "truth" of nostos with the fiction of xenia. Unwilling at first to assume the role of xeinodokos ("host"), and then hesitant to accept his claim of paternity, Telemachus does finally recognize Odysseus as his father. This anagnorismos ("recognition") effects the first stage of Odysseus's nostos, but immediately thereafter Telemachus and Odysseus conspire to disguise the plot of nostos as a scenario of xenia.

Disguise in the Odyssey is characterized especially by its close relation to "truth," and by the quality that it thus acquires of being something like a second-order representation of reality. This is preeminently so in the case of Odysseus's lying-tales, in which Odysseus's fictional self-representation represents a "true" characterization of who he is (Erbse 1972:154–57; Walcot 1977; Block 1985; Pucci 1987:98–109); and in Book 19 the account he gives to Penelope is characterized specifically as "fiction similar to truth" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 19.203; see Pucci 1987:98 n. 1). Likewise, in disguising himself as a beggar, Odysseus exposes himself to sufferings and indignities that he had experienced as Odysseus, and that are part of his heroic character as Odysseus polutlas and as the man "who suffered much grief in his heart" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1.4, 13.90; compare the reference to "my suffering," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in the instructions to Telemachus at 16.275). Disguised as a stranger, a xeinos, on Ithaca, Odysseus replicates the role he had played as Odysseus on Scheria and elsewhere.

If, then, the Odyssey as a whole, as Pucci has said, "displays semblances as momentary ways of disguising an immutable self" (Pucci 1987:82), then it is also true that the poem develops a close relation between "semblance" and "being." Thus, both Telemachus and Penelope are conscripted in the second half of the poem into roles that resemble disguises, and I argue in Chapter Five that these roles bear a specific and complex relation to the notion of "truth."


Excerpted from Penelope's Renown by Marylin A. Katz. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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