The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter v

On the Question Whether or No Penelope is Being Whitewashed.

It is known that scandalous versions of Penelope’s conduct were current among the ancients; indeed they seem to have prevailed before the completion of the Epic cycle, for in the Telegony, which is believed to have come next in chronological order after the “Odyssey,” we find that when Ulysses had killed the suitors he did not go on living with Penelope, but settled in Thesprotia, and married Callidice, the queen of the country. He must, therefore, have divorced Penelope, and he could hardly have done this if he accepted the Odyssean version of her conduct. According to the author of the Telegony, Penelope and Telemachus go on living in Ithaca, where eventually Ulysses returns and is killed by Telegonus, a son who had been born to him by Circe. For further reference to ancient, though a good deal later, scandalous versions, see Smith’s Dictionary under “Penelope.”

Let us see what the “Odyssey” asks us to believe, or rather, swallow. We are told that more than a hundred young men fall violently in love, at the same time, with a supposed widow, who before the close of their suit can hardly have been under forty, and who had a grown up son — pestering her for several years with addresses that they know are most distasteful to her. They are so madly in love with her that they cannot think of proposing to any one else (ii. 205-207) till she has made her choice. When she has done this they will go; till then, they will pay her out for her cruel treatment of them by eating her son Telemachus out of house and home. This therefore, they proceed to do, and Penelope, who is a model both wife and mother, suffers agonies of grief, partly because of the death of her husband, and partly because she cannot get the suitors out of the house.

One would have thought all she had to do was to bolt the doors as soon as the suitors had left for the night, and refuse to open them in the morning; for the suitors never sleep in the same house with Penelope. They sleep at various places in the town, in the middle of which Ulysses’ house evidently stands, and if they were meek enough to let themselves be turned out, they would be meek enough to let themselves be kept out, if those inside showed anything of a firm front. Not one of them ever sees Penelope alone; when she comes into their presence she is attended by two respectable female servants who stand on either side of her, and she holds a screen or veil modestly before her face — true, she was forty, but neither she nor the poetess seem to bear this in mind, so we may take it as certain that it was modesty and nothing else that made her hold up the veil. The suitors were not men of scrupulous delicacy, and in spite of their devotion to Penelope lived on terms of improper intimacy with her women servants — none of whom appear to have been dismissed instantly on detection. It is a little strange that not one of those suitors who came from a long distance should have insisted on being found in bed as well as board, and so much care is taken that not one breath of scandal should attach to Penelope, that we infer a sense on the writer’s part that it was necessary to put this care well in evidence. I cannot think, for example, that Penelope would have been represented as nearly so incredulous about the return of Ulysses in Book xxiii., if she had been nearly as virtuous as the writer tries to make her out. The amount of caution with which she is credited is to some extent a gauge of the thickness of the coat of whitewash which the writer considers necessary. In all Penelope’s devotion to her husband there is an ever present sense that the lady doth protest too much.

Still stranger, however, is the fact that these ardent passionate lovers never quarrel among themselves for the possession of their middle-aged paragon. The survival of the fittest does not seem to have had any place in their system. They show no signs of jealousy, but jog along cheek by jowl as a very happy family, aiming spears at a mark, playing draughts, flaying goats and singeing pigs in the yard, drinking an untold quantity of wine, and generally holding high feast. They insist that Penelope should marry somebody, but who the happy somebody is to be is a matter of no importance. * No one seems to think it essential that she shall marry himself in particular. Not one of them ever finds out that his case is hopeless and takes his leave; and thus matters drift on year after year — during all which time Penelope is not getting any younger — the suitor’s dying of love for Penelope, and Penelope dying only to be rid of them.

Granted that the suitors are not less in love with the good cheer they enjoy at Telemachus’s expense, than they are with his mother; but this mixture of perfect lover and perfect sponger is so impossible that no one could have recourse to it unless aware that he (or she) was in extreme difficulty. If men are in love they will not sponge; if they sponge they are not in love; we may have it either way but not both; when, therefore, the writer of the “Odyssey” not only attributes such impossible conduct to the suitors, but asks us also to believe that a clever woman could not keep at any rate some few of her hundred lovers out of the house, although their presence had been for many years in a high degree distasteful to her, we may know that we are being hoodwinked as far as the writer can hoodwink us, and shall be very inclinable to believe that the suitors were not so black, nor Penelope so white, as we are being given to understand.

As for her being overawed by the suitors, she talks very plainly to them at times, as for example in xviii. 274-280, and again in xix. 322 where she speaks as though she were perfectly able to get rid of any suitor who was obnoxious to her.

Over and above this we may infer that the writer who can tell such a story with a grave face cannot have even the faintest conception of the way in which a man feels towards a woman he is in love with, nor yet much (so far as I may venture to form an opinion) of what women commonly feel towards the man of their choice; I conclude, therefore, that she was still very young, and unmarried. At any rate the story told above cannot have been written by Homer; if it is by a man at all it must be by some prehistoric Fra Angelico, who had known less in his youth, or forgotten more in his old age, than the writer of the “Iliad” is at all likely to have done. If he had still known enough to be able to write the “Odyssey,” he would have remembered more than the writer of the “Odyssey” shows any signs of having ever known.

A man, if he had taken it into his head (as the late Lord Tennyson might very conceivably have done) to represent Penelope as virtuous in spite of current scandalous stories to the contrary — a man, would not have made the suitors a band of lovers at all. He would have seen at once that this was out of the question, and would have made them mere marauders, who overawed Penelope by their threats, and were only held in check by her mother wit and by, say, some three or four covert allies among the suitors themselves. Do what he might he could not make the permanent daily presence of the suitors plausible, but it would be possible; whereas the combination of perfect sponger and perfect lover which is offered us by the writer of the “Odyssey” is grotesquely impossible, nor do I imagine that she would have asked us to accept it, but for her desire to exalt her sex by showing how a clever woman can bring any number of men to her feet, hoodwink them, spoil them, and in the end destroy them. This, however, is surely a woman’s theme rather than a man’s — at least I know of no male writer who has attempted anything like it.

We have now seen the story as told from Penelope’s point of view; let us proceed to hear it from that of the suitors. We find this at the beginning of Book ii., and I will give Antinous’s speech at fuller length than I have done in my abridgement. After saying that Penelope had for years been encouraging every single suitor by sending him flattering messages (in which, by the way, Minerva fully corroborates him in Book xiii. 379-381) he continues:

“And then there was that other trick she played us. She set up a great tambour frame in her room, and began to work on an

enormous piece of fine needlework. ‘Sweethearts,’ said she, Ulysses is indeed dead, still, do not press me to marry again immediately; wait — for I would not have my skill in needlework perish unrecorded — till I have completed a pall for the hero Laertes, to be ready against the time when death shall take him. He is very rich, and the women of the place will talk if he is laid out without a pall.’

“This was what she said, and we assented; whereon we could see her, working on her great web all day, but at night she would unpick the stitches again by torchlight. She fooled us in this way for three years and we never found her out, but as time wore on and she was now in her fourth year, one of her maids, who knew what she was doing, told us, and we caught her in the act of undoing her work; so she had to finish it, whether she would or no.

“The suitors, therefore, make you this answer, that both you and the Achæans may understand: ‘Send your mother away, and bid her marry the man of her own and her father’s choice,’ for I do not know what will happen if she goes on plaguing us much longer with the airs she gives herself on the score of the accomplishments Minerva has taught her, and because she is so clever. We never yet heard of such a woman. We know all about Tyro, Alcmena, Mycene, and the famous women of old, but they were nothing to your mother any one of them. It was not fair of her to treat us in that way, and as long as she continues in the mind with which heaven has now endowed her, so long shall we go on eating up your estate; and I do not see why she should change, for it is she who gets the honour and glory, and it is you, not she, who lose all this substance. We however, will not go about our business, nor anywhere else, till she has made her choice and married some one or other of us” (ii. 93-128).

Roughly, then, the authoress’s version is that Penelope is an injured innocent, and the suitors’, that she is an artful heartless flirt who prefers having a hundred admirers rather than one husband. Which comes nearest, not to the truth — for we may be sure the suitors could have said a great deal more than the writer chooses to say they said — but to the original story which she was sophisticating, and retelling in a way that was more to her liking? The reader will have noted that on this occasion the suitors seem to have been in the house after nightfall.

We cannot forget that when Telemachus first told Minerva about the suitors, he admitted that his mother had not point blank said that she would not marry again. “She does not,” he says, “refuse the hateful marriage, nor yet does she bring matters to an end” (i. 249, 250). Apparently not; but if not, why not? Not to refuse at once is to court courtship, and if she had not meant to court it she seems to have been adept enough in the art of hoodwinking men to have found some means of “bringing the matter to an end.”

Sending pretty little messages to her admirers was not exactly the way to get rid of them. Did she ever try snubbing? Nothing of the kind is placed on record. Did she ever say, “Well, Antinous, whoever else I may marry, you may make your mind easy that it will not be you.” Then there was boring — did she ever try that? Did she ever read them any of her grandfather’s letters? Did she sing them her own songs, or play them music of her own composition? I have always found these courses successful when I wanted to get rid of people. There are indeed signs that something had been done in this direction, for the suitors say that they cannot stand her high art nonsense and æsthetic rhodomontade any longer, but it is more likely she had been trying to attract than to repel. Did she set them by the ears by repeating with embellishments what they had said to her about one another? Did she ask Antinous or Eurymachus to sit to her for her web — give them a good stiff pose, make them stick to it, and talk to them all the time? Did she find errands for them to run, and then scold them, and say she did not want them? or make them do commissions for her and forget to pay them, or keep on sending them back to the shop to change things, and they had given ever so much too much money and she wished she had gone and done it herself? Did she insist on their attending family worship? In a word, did she do a single one of the thousand things so astute a matron would have been at no loss to hit upon if she had been in earnest about not wishing to be courted? With one touch of common sense the whole fabric crumbles into dust.

Telemachus in his rejoinder to the suitors does not deny single one of their facts. He does not deny that his mother had been in the habit of sending them encouraging messages, nor does he attempt to explain her conduct about the web. This, then, being admitted, and it being also transparent that Penelope had used no due diligence in sending her lovers to the right about, can we avoid suspecting that there is a screw loose somewhere, and that a story of very different character is being manipulated to meet the exigencies of the writer? And shall we go very far wrong if we conclude that according to the original version, Penelope picked out her web, not so much in order to delay a hateful marriage, as to prolong a very agreeable courtship?

It was no doubt because Laertes saw what was going on that he went to live in the country and left off coming into the town (i. 189, 190), and Penelope probably chose the particular form her work assumed in order to ensure that he should not come near her. Why could she not set about making a pall for somebody else? Was Laertes likely to continue calling, when every time he did so he knew that Euryclea would only tell him her mistress was upstairs working at his pall, but she would be down directly? Do let the reader try and think it out a little for himself.

As for Laertes being so badly off as Anticlea says he was in Book xi., there is not one grain of truth in that story. The writer had to make him out poor in order to explain his not having interfered to protect Penelope, but Penelope’s excuse for making her web was that he was a man of large property. It is the same with the suitors. When it is desired to explain Telemachus’s not having tried in some way to recover from them, they are so poor that it would be a waste of money to sue them; when, on the other hand, the writer wants Penelope to air her woman’s wit by getting presents out of them (xviii. 274-280), just before Ulysses kills them, they have any amount of money. One day more, and she would have been too late. The writer knew that very well, but she was not going to let Penelope lose her presents. She evidently looks upon man as fair game, which male writers are much less apt to do. Of course the first present she receives is a new dress.

Returning to Laertes, he must have had money, or how could Ulysses be so rich? Where did Ulysses’ money come from? He could hardly have made much before he went to Troy, and he does not appear to have sent anything home thence. Nothing has been heard from him, and in Book x., * he appears to be bringing back his share of plunder with him — in which case it was lost in the shipwreck off the coast of the Thrinacian island. He seems to have had a dowry of some kind with Penelope, for Telemachus say that if he sends his mother away he shall have to refund it to his grandfather Icarius, and urges this fact as one of the reasons for not sending her (ii. 132, 133); the greater part, however, of Ulysses’ enormous wealth must have come to him from Laertes, who we may be sure kept more for himself than he gave to his son. What, then, had become of all this money — for Laertes seems to have been a man of very frugal habits? The answer is that it was still in Laertes’ hands, and the reason for his never coming to town now was partly, no doubt, the pall; partly the scandalous life which his daughter was leading; but mainly the writer’s inability to explain his non-interference unless she got him out of the way.

The account, again, which Ulysses’ mother gives him in Hades (xi. 180, &c.) of what is going on in Ithaca shows a sense that there is something to conceal. She says not one word about the suitors. All she says is that Telemachus has to see a good deal of company, which is only reasonable seeing that he is a magistrate and is asked out everywhere himself (xi. 185-187). Nothing can be more coldly euphemistic, nor show a fuller sense that there was a good deal more going on than the speaker chose to say. If Anticlea had believed her daughter-in-law to be innocent, she would have laid the whole situation before Ulysses.

It may be maintained that the suitors were not yet come to Ithaca in force, for the visit to Hades occurs early in the wanderings of Ulysses, and before his seven years’ sojourn with Calypso, so that Anticlea may really have known nothing about the suitors; but the writer has forgotten this, and has represented Telemachus as already arrived at man’s estate. In truth, at this point Telemachus was at the utmost only twelve or thirteen years old, and a children’s party was all the entertainment he need either receive or give. The writer has made a slip in her chronology, for throughout the poem Telemachus is represented as only just arriving at man’s estate in the twentieth year of Ulysses’ absence. It is evident that in describing the interview with Anticlea the writer has in her mind the state of things existing just before Ulysses’ return, when the suitors were in full riot. This, indeed, appears still more plainly lower down, when Agamemnon, also in Hades, says that Telemachus was a baby in arms when the Trojan war broke out, and that he must now be grown up (xi. 448, 449).

The silence therefore of Ulysses’ mother is wilful so far as the writer is concerned. She must have conceived of Anticlea as knowing all about the suitors perfectly well — for she did not die till Telemachus was, by her own account, old enough to be a magistrate. The explanation I believe to be, that at the time Book xi. was written, the writer had as yet no intention of adding Books i.-iv., and from line 187 of Book xiii. to Book xxiv. but proposed to ignore the current scandalous stories about Penelope, and to say as little as possible about her. I will deal with this more fully when I come to the genesis and development of the poem, but may as well say at once that the difficulty above pointed out will have to remain unexplained except as a slip in chronology on the part of a young writer who was piecing new work on to old. Any one but the writer herself would have seen it and avoided it; indeed it is quite possible that she came to see it, and did not think it worth her while to be at the trouble of altering it. If this is so I, for one, shall think none the worse of her.

127:* “Od.” ii. 127-128 and 203-207.

132:* “Od.” x. 40, this passage is not given in my abridgement.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31