Penelope Voyages: Women and Travel in the British Literary Tradition

By Karen R. Lawrence | Go to book overview

Preface

Historically, the discourse of absence is carried on by the Woman: Woman is sedentary, Man hunts, journeys; Woman is faithful (she waits), man is fickle (he sails away, he cruises). It is Woman who gives shape to absence, elaborates its fiction, for she has time to do so; she weaves and she sings; the Spinning Songs express both immobility (by the hum of the Wheel) and absence (far away, rhythms of travel, sea surges, cavalcades). It follows that in any man who utters the other's absence something feminine is declared: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized. ( Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, 13-14)

Travel need not be seen in the context of love, as a leaving or an abandonment. In this fragment from A Lover's Discourse, however, Ro land Barthes reinforces one of the most enduring narratives of the gendering of travel, a narrative that conflates travel and absence in the experience of Penelope, who is left behind. But then in writing "fragments," Barthes already instructs the reader to alter and play with the topoi of the discourse: "What we have been able to say below about waiting, anxiety, memory is no more than a modest supplement offered to the reader to be made free with, to be added to, subtracted from, and passed on to others" (5). And yet, as Barthes also knows, the "modest" supplement is such common currency that to alter it strategically, in the passing on, is no modest task.

For it is a Western cultural truism that Penelope waits while Odysseus voyages. Although Odysseus's story is cast in relation to the woman at home who waits, it is, as well as a "love story," an adven-

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