I completed my translation of the Odyssey, which is the first published version of Homer’s epic in English translated by a woman, readers have often assumed that I must sympathize above all with the story’s female characters.I am asked, in particular, about my interpretation of Penelope, Odysseus’ faithful wife.
It is not usually mentioned that he brings it up only when talking to an impressionable teen-age girl, Nausicaa, whom he avoids telling that he’s married, and whom he has a strong ulterior motive for buttering up, since his life depends on her help.
(We should know by now that powerful older men do not always tell young women the truth.) Moreover, the sentimentalized reading of Penelope erases some facts about her social position that the original poem makes very clear.
Whereas Odysseus has many choices, many identities, many places to go and people to be and to see, Penelope has only one choice, and it is defined exclusively by her marital status: she can wait for Odysseus, or marry someone else—and even this very limited choice is not open forever, since the abusive suitors can eventually force her hand.
In Mary Beard’s forthcoming pamphlet, “Women and Power,” she writes about a scene in the Odyssey that she calls Western literature’s “first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’ ”—Telemachus telling Penelope, in Book One, to be silent after she asks the poet performing in her palace to sing a different tune.
The silencing of female voices, and the dangers of female agency, are central problems in the poem.
Penelope’s strictly constrained position is presented in some ways as necessary, since élite wives who act more freely may do scary things—like the half-divine Helen, who abandons her husband for another man, or her sister Clytemnestra, who helps her lover murder her husband.In translating this passage, I wanted to bring out both the beauty and the precision of the imagery, and the horror—a common, relatable horror—of being a woman who experiences her attachment to her husband as the destruction of her self.I wanted the reader of my English to feel as I do in reading the Greek: for Penelope, and with her pain, rather than prettifying or trivializing her grief.After Odysseus slaughters her suitors, he tells Telemachus to kill the female slaves who have slept with them.Contemporary translators and commentators often present the massacre of these women as if it were quite ordinary, and entirely justified.The study guide Spark Notes describes these women as “disloyal women servants” who must be “executed,” while Cliffs Notes calls them “maidservants” who were “disloyal,” and claims that their murder has a “macabre beauty.” In the poem’s original language, Telemachus refers to them only with , the feminine article—“those female people who . They gasped, / feet twitching for a while, but not for long.”There is a vision of empowered femininity in the Odyssey, but it is conveyed not in in the mortal world but in that of the gods.The poem’s plot is, of course, engineered by the wonderfully gender-fluid goddess Athena, who protects and saves her favorite human from the Sirens, goddesses and female monsters who try to entrap him or transform him or hide him or devour him or swallow him up, with their dangerous feminine wiles.Athena repeatedly transforms herself into a bird of prey, whooshing up to the rooftops or surfing across the waves of the sea.The silenced slave girls are “like doves or thrushes,” caught in a hunter’s net.In Ithaca, Odysseus owns the house, the weapons, the wealth, the slaves, the farm, the orchard, and the seat in the council of men; Penelope does not even fully share the marriage bed, which her husband calls “my bed.” Penelope is, like her husband, highly intelligent; but her intelligence, evoked by her standard epithet, , “circumspect,” suggests caution and risk aversion.Her keen mind is not liberating; it keeps her stuck.