The character of Penelope in Homer's Odyssey has served as an archetype of femininity proper. Her physical attributes, while comely by even the most demanding standards, are veiled. Her intellectual attributes are veiled too. She seems more often than not to wear a veil of tears (for her man) or a veil of silence (for her own wishes), or ineptitude (in her dealings with her son). She is certainly no Helen. She is not flaunting or whore-ish. She is not unconcerned with the needs of others, nor flippant about marital bonds, nor the loyalty of her heart. She does not steal the show, as Helen does time and again when she upstages her husband (who, by the way, may be a bumbler in the presence of his wife) in her attempts to control the situations in which she finds herself.
Penelope is no Helen. Penelope is the archetype of femininity proper in every western misogynist's dream. However, this archetype is nothing more than fantasy. Penelope's veil does not need to be understood as a sign of her absence, or her impotence, or her archetypal femininity. If it were, how could we explain that Penelope can accomplish against great odds staying married to Odysseus, awaiting his return, reigning over his kingdom in his absence, all the while protecting the well-being of her son? One could argue that Penelope was not responsible for the outcome of these events, but rather merely the recipient of the forces of the universe that existed in her life. If this is the case, namely that Penelope never acted as an agent in the shaping of her own destiny, then why does Homer even bother telling us anything about Penelope as he tells us about Odysseus? To this I would agree, countering only on the grounds...
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... the art of reflexive rhetoric acts only on impulse, or fails to act at all. While Penelope certainly has moments of all three (impulse, failure, and deliberate action), her impulse and failure only serve to dilate (not Subjugate) the sense of her freedom and power in her deliberate moments. Moreover, far from dehumanizing Penelope, (casting her away as absent/impotent/feminine), the wide range of her intellectual and emotional responses makes her a more human character than the constant and predictable Odysseus.
The purpose of this paper is not to uncover Penelope, stripping her of her veil, leaving her exposed and vulnerable to the cold stare of analysis. Rather, it is to cultivate an imagination that can look upon the veiled Penelope and respect that which is covered so alluringly: her reflexivity, her rhetoric, and the cunning of her feminine deliberation.
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