Epic and Epoch: Essays on the Interpretation and History of a Genre

By Steven M. Oberhelman; Van Kelly et al. | Go to book overview
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Reading Penelope

Sheila Mumaghan

One consequence of the recent infusion of newer critical approaches into the study of classical literature has been a boom in studies devoted to the figure of Penelope in the Odyssey.1 While certain problems concerning Penelope's portrayal have always been part of the agenda for Homeric scholarship, the emergence of feminist criticism and an intensified concern with the act of interpretation have focused more and more attention on a female character who occupies a surprisingly central role in the largely male dominated genre of heroic epic and whose presentation is marked by contradictions and uncertainties that demand interpretive intervention. The question of how to read the character of Penelope has become a focal point for a series of larger issues: In what ways is a female character who comes to us mediated through the poetry of a distant and patriarchal era to be seen as representative of female experience? How should we account for textual mysteries such as those surrounding Penelope, and how can we incorporate them into our understanding of the work?

Both older and newer discussions of Penelope have tended to crystallize around the question of her intentions during the period of time that Odysseus is in their house in disguise, in other words during the stretch of narrative that runs from book 17 to book 21. In that time, Penelope takes several key actions that further Odysseus' interests, in particular, eliciting gifts from her suitors in book 18 and

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