Penelope is fairly unusual for a character in nineteenth century American literature in that she is smart and bookish, and, more importantly, forthright and witty. She is portrayed in a realistically; she is not written as a single-faceted stock character such as the virginal maiden, or the fallen whore. Howells writes Penelope as his version of the new type of woman that was quickly emerging in the late 1800s. Women were quickly coming into their own— they were leaving lives of abject domestic servitude through marriage and were becoming better educated and more liberated. Penelope, as a character, represents the social change to women’s roles and their growing prominence.
The Romantic Hero, by definition, is one who both rejects and has been rejected by the established norms and conventions of their societies. Penelope embodies this definition because she does not submit to the demand of her socially-lacking family, and she avoids seeking out a love match; Penelope is more content to be on her own enjoying the great literature of the day. It is Tom’s progressive views which ultimately represent a shift in how women are perceived in the story. Tom does not...
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...l, because she chooses to live her life to herself, rather than for the socially-accepted masses.
Penelope was encouraged by her family to marry Tom as a way to further her position in society, though it ultimately leads to her leaving her family, and the society that the Lapham’s have aspired to become accepted by, to move to Mexico. One of Tom's sisters says, "As [Penelope’s] quite unformed, socially, there is a chance that she will form herself on the Spanish manner, if she stays there long enough, and that when she comes back she will have the charm of, not olives, perhaps, but tortillas, whatever they are: something strange and foreign, even if it's borrowed." (373) Even though Tom appears happy to be with Penelope, he cannot reconcile the differences between her family and his. Like the tortillas, Penelope becomes something strange, foreign, and borrowed.
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