The Pandareids and Pandora: Defining Penelope's Subjectivity in the Odyssey

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Early in Book 20 of the Odyssey, on the eve of the bow contest for her hand in marriage, Penelope wakes from sleep, cries until she is sated, and then prays to Artemis for death. She asks Artemis either to shoot her with an arrow at once or to send a storm wind that will snatch her up and cast her into the streams of Oceanus, just as the storm winds carried off the daughters of Pandareus (20.61–66). Penelope then elaborates on the Pandareids' story, describing how, after the gods killed their parents, a quartet of Olympian goddesses reared these orphaned sisters, gave them all the qualities of desirable womanhood, and then sought to arrange their marriages until Harpies snatched the maidens away and made them servants of the Erinyes (20.67–78). After offering this brief narrative as a paradigm, Penelope renews her earlier prayer, explaining that she would rather disappear or die than please a man inferior to Odysseus.

Penelope's prayer to replicate the Pandareids' demise has received only sparing critical attention, but represents, as I will argue, an important avenue for interpreting Penelope's character and narrative role in the Odyssey. Since the 1980s, feminist scholars have been debating to what degree Penelope is presented as an autonomous and actantial subject. Does she shrewdly influence the epic's plot to her own ends, or is she helplessly subordinated to male interests and constrained by patriarchal structures in an androcentric narrative? If she indeed has a hand in directing the plot, why does the (male) poet accord her this agency? Central to any answer are the corollary and long-disputed questions of what Penelope is thinking and what she desires, and also the degree to which this interiority is (and is intended by the poet to be) coherent or knowable. When does she recognize Odysseus, how does she feel about his return, does she really hate the suitors, and can any of this be determined?



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