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On Penelope’s Grief

In Act IV, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s King Richard II, King Richard II states, “my grief lies all within; / And these external manners of laments / Are merely shadows to the unseen grief / That swells with silence in the tortured soul; / There lies the substance.” In these lines, he explains that his sorrow is so great that any external signs of grieving could not properly reflect it. Conversely, in Homer’s The Odyssey, Penelope’s sorrow for her absent husband and threatened son is also great, but her “external manners of laments,” such as her verbalization of her grief, her need for sleep directly after weeping, and physical locations in her home where she weeps, reflect her inner sorrow quite well. By associating Penelope’s grief with concrete details such as word choice, habitual sleep, and the physical world, Homer helps communicate the extent of her grief to the reader.

Penelope has an articulate way of expressing her grief. When she is first introduced in the epic, Penelope asks a bard to stop singing about the terrible journeys of the Achaians on their way home from Troy because it distresses her (1.336-344). Her words reflect those of deep sorrow. She speaks of an ‘affliction of the heart,’ as if her grief were an illness that strikes her very core (1.341). In Book IV, when Telemachos has left Ithaca without her knowledge, she comments on how she has already had to bear losing her husband, and if she had known her son was leaving, he either would have had to stay, or leave her “dead in the halls” (4.734). Her preference for death over separation from him exemplifies just how strongly she cares for him.

However, Homer extends Penelope’s grief beyond the spoken word to that of the physical world through her tears. She is described as being “all in tears” before she even begins to speak (1.336). Taken literally, her body would have been completely composed of tears – every atom of her being would be one of sorrow. This description of her tears makes the reader more aware of her longing for her husband from the very beginning of the epic.

This image of Penelope being composed of water is continued in other passages. In Book IV, she cries at the thought of losing of her son to an ambush of the suitors. Her “eyes filled with tears” (4.705) and a “cloud of heart-wasting sorrow was on her” (4.716) upon hearing this news. Not only does water spring from her eyes, but a cloud of moisture settles over her and wastes her away; her sorrow consumes her. In Book XIX, as Penelope cries over the stories the disguised Odysseus is telling her about her husband, her body is described as melting like the snow on top of a mountain (19.204-209). This image of snow melting and flooding the rivers hints towards the thaw after winter. Winter here is a choice image since it is often associated with isolation and expectance. Penelope melting like the thaw suggests she is in the process of being released from her twenty years of isolation, away from her husband. With the thaw of winter comes the rebirth of spring, encompassing love and lovemaking, and so with the end of Penelope’s isolation begins the renewal of her life as it was before Odysseus left. It is through her tears that she is liberated. However, one would think that this rebirth is premature. She has not been formally reunited with her husband yet, as she does not know the beggar is he. The release foreshadows her true reunion with her husband, and her weeping at a small story about one place he may have been in the past twenty years indicates how desperate she is for this reunion.

After she finishes her conversation with the beggar Odysseus, she continues up to her room and weeps for Odysseus until she falls asleep, though by Book XIX, falling asleep directly after weeping has become a habit of hers. She establishes this pattern in Book I and repeats it in Book IV. Sleep is a repose from her constant weeping – a time when she can ignore her misfortune and free herself from the tormenting absence of her husband. If we maintain the concept of Odysseus’s absence being like unto winter, Penelope’s constant need for sleep can be viewed as a sort of hibernation, in which sleeping is a way for her to pass the time while she waits for her husband’s return. Also, her sleep is often accompanied by a reference to Athene, who “casts sweet slumber over her eyelids” (1.364). Penelope’s eyes weary themselves during the day from weeping, so Athene focusing on resting and soothing Penelope’s eyelids serves to maximize her recuperation during sleep. Penelope herself articulates this connection between sleep, repose, and eyes, and confirms the significance of the three in lines 83-87 of Book XX: “Yet the evil is endurable, when one cries through the days, with heart constantly troubled, yet still is taken by sleep in nights; for sleep is the oblivion of all things, both good and evil, when it has shrouded the eyelids.”

Penelope also makes a habit of retreating to her bedchamber to weep before falling asleep. In Book XIX, she states her bed “is made a sorrowful thing now, always disordered with tears I have wept” (19.595-596). The bed itself can be viewed as the root of the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope, so it is the location which Odysseus’s absence would be most acutely felt. However, she feels it is the most appropriate place to grieve for him. She identifies with him the most there, and perhaps takes solace in the memories the bed holds since it is the site of lovemaking and of the sharing of intimate moments.

One other key location in the house that Penelope lingers at is a pillar in the hall where the suitors congregate. She stands there in Book I when she asks the bard to stop singing, in Book XVIII when she suggests the suitors try to please her with presents, and in Book XXI at the start of the contest of the bow. In each of these passages, the pillar is described as having “supported the roof with its joinery” (1.333). Before the war, Odysseus was the one who supported his home, and so Penelope’s gravitation towards that pillar suggests her longing for such a support as that of her husband, specifically when she is in the presence of the suitors. Without Odysseus, she is not strong enough to address them.

During the moments of their reunion in Book XXIII, Homer creates a shift in the physical world by changing the bed and the pillar from places of longing to places of reunion. Odysseus’s association with the pillar is confirmed here. When she first sees him, he is seated next to it (23.90), representing the return of support to her household. The bed shifts from being both Penelope’s place of grief and place of respite to the object that directly reunites Penelope and Odysseus when she suggests the servants move it into the hallway (23.179). It is through this test that she knows her husband is in fact the man in front of her.

Homer also changes Penelope’s typical character during their reunion – she initially does not cry. In fact, she refrains from speech altogether, addressing Telemachos, “My child, the heart that is in me is full of wonderment, and I cannot find anything to say to him” (23.105-106). Penelope, who thus far has been full of tears and full of speech, has reached a critical moment. By changing Penelope’s persona and by halting her actions, Homer seems to suspends time to allow the reader to realize what a substantial moment this is for her.

When Penelope does return to her tears however, they are of a drastically different kind than the weeping she has previously maintained. They are tears of joy and of homecoming. Even though she never left Ithaca, her reunion with Odysseus is described as the end of a perilous sea voyage: “And as when the land appears to welcome men who are swimming after Poseidon has smashed their strong-built ships on the open water… so welcome was her husband to her” (23.233-239). In these lines, Homer compares Penelope’s wait with her husband’s labors at sea. Through this comparison, Homer changes her story from simply that of a wife waiting for her husband to that of an adventurer and a survivor.

Penelope’s final tears are momentous, for they project the opposite character of the Penelope that we as the reader have grown accustomed to. For the better portion of the epic, she is consistently described as weeping in her bed and gravitating towards the pillar in longing for the presence and support of her husband, taking solace in sleep, and crying as if she herself was composed of water. By poetically describing Penelope in her sorrow and by connecting her grief to carefully selected objects and locations, Homer clarifies her grief to the reader: Penelope weeps for the state of her family – for her threatened son, but mostly for her absent husband – and for her own looming fear, that she must live forever without Odysseus.

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