The changing role of women in literature from the late 8th century B. C. to the 4th century A. D. is evident in that women become even more subservient in later works. This is portrayed in the works The Odyssey by Homer and Sakuntala by Kalidasa. Women are treated more like slaves in Sakuntala, while they are seen more like equals in The Odyssey. However, in Sakuntala, women are given more responsibilities, suggesting that people of the time viewed women capable of doing more things and perhaps more intelligent, instead of being seen as ornamental, as in The Odyssey.
The Odyssey was written in a time when men played the dominant role. In ancient Greece, women occupied a subservient position. Society was organized and directed by men, and all of the most important positions in society were held by men. Women were valued, but they participated in the affairs of the world only when they had the permission or open approval of the men who directed their lives. The literature of this time illustrates these social conventions. No reader of The Odyssey can help having vivid memories of the poem’s outstanding female characters.
There are many women in The Odyssey and all of them contribute in meaningful ways to the development of the action. In addition, the poet treats them seriously and with respect, as if there were no difference between his attitude toward them and his feelings toward the men. Among the memorable women in the poem are included: Nausica, the innocent young girl; Arete, the wise queen and mother; Kirke and Kalypso, the mysterious temptresses; Penelope, the model of devotion and fidelity; Helen, the respectable middle-class matron; and others, like Eurykleia and Melantho, who have much smaller roles, but equally well defined personalities.
Finally, there is Athena, the goddess, who more than any other of these women, is intelligent, sophisticated, and independent, just like the way modern society has come to see women. The influential feminine roles in The Odyssey also have important effects upon the whole poem. It is in The Odyssey that such ideas as love, family loyalty, and devotion, and other such important ethical attitudes, are illustrated. It is the presence of these unconscious moral lessons that makes The Odyssey so unique to its genre.
In a way, The Odyssey is not just the tale of the wanderings of Odysseus. The poet has made it, also, into a sort of catalogue of women, in which he examines women of all kinds and from all walks of life. These feminine portraits are almost always objective and fair; Homer never made judgments, and each of these women has a certain appeal. It is interesting, however, that the woman who is most worthy of respect and affection is not a mortal. Homer seems to comment that no human being could develop herself in this way.
His admiration for Athena is made even more evident by the fact that she, and not Penelope or another woman, is the heroine of the poem and the sole companion and confidante of Odysseus. It is only in our modern world that women have been given the opportunity to fully utilize their talent and ability, in order to become equal and contributing members of society, like Athena seems to be. In Sakuntala women are portrayed to play more of a subservient role than they were in The Odyssey.
Even though the women in The Odyssey are looked upon merely as someone to cook and clean and bear the children, they play major roles in the poem. In Sakuntala the women play no major roles in the poem, at least not anything like the women played in The Odyssey. Sakuntala herself plays a very demeaning role being forced to do all the chores, the gathering of food, and the manual labor around the house. This is much different than in The Odyssey where the man was the one who did most of the chores, brought home the food, and most of the manual labor about the house.
In ancient Greek times, women were seen as more delicate and placed figurative pedestals. They were expected to take care of the house, but this only included making sure everything ran smoothly, and delegating chores and responsibilities. They were not actually expected to do the manual labor themselves. Some of the important women in Sakuntala include: Sakuntala, the lover of nature and the prospective heroine of the play; Anasuya and Priyamvada, aides of Sakuntala and women you help in her chores; and Mother Gautami the first hand maiden of father Kanva and caregiver of Sakuntala.
Even though they are seen as more subservient and have to perform more of the meaningless tasks they are still valued and loved. This is seen through the love that Dusyanta feels for Sakuntala and also in the despair he shows when he realizes he has turned her away. The changing role of women in literature can be seen by reading and comparing Homer’s The Odyssey and Kalidasa’s Sakuntala. The women in both works are highly valued the men close to them but not as much in society. Women can actually be seen as regressing instead of progressing in that they are made to seem more subservient in the later work.