In Homer’s poem, The Odyssey, the protagonist’s mother is faced with a serious problem. Penelope, the mother of Telemachus, was left at home with her son when her husband, Odysseus, went off to fight in war. The war is long over and the two await the potential homecoming of Odysseus, whose whereabouts are unknown. The lack of a father figure in the oikos, or home, causes a group of suitors to come and try and win over Penelope’s hand in marriage. Penelope, however, refuses to marry until she knows for sure that her husband is dead.
Hearing the news from another does not give Penelope enough evidence in her mind, so she disregards all news as rumors. Even when Athena tells Telemachus that Odysseus is alive, what is different about this news from anyone else’s news? The suitors eat and drink as much as they please out of Odysseus’ home, and all the while court Penelope. It is customary for women of the time to be at the home of their father if they wish to marry. Suitors would then come to the home with gifts for the father. The father would then give his daughter’s hand in marriage to a suitor.
In Penelope’s case, she is not at home with her father, so she would have to leave her home to be courted properly. Antinous advises Telemachus at a city meeting to “Send your mother away with orders to marry whichever man her father likes best”(2:123-124). Telemachus responds by saying that he will not send his mother away as it could lead to even more problems. The suitors, however, in Telemachus’ eyes, fear going to Penelope’s father’s home and would rather enjoy all the pleasures they receive at Odysseus’ house.
With Penelope staying in her own home, it poses the problem of whom, then, if anyone, has the power to marry her away. Odysseus left his good friend Mentor in charge of his home, but Mentor seems to not have done his job by allowing the suitors to come freely. Next possibility is Telemachus. Telemachus, enraged at the suitors begins to finally make efforts to rid his home of the men. Telemachus meets with Pallas Athena, who is disguised as a friend of Odysseus, and she tells Telemachus “It is up to you to find a way to drive them out of your home”(1:288-289).
Driving the suitors out of his home proves difficult for Telemachus, as he has not exactly established himself as the man of the house. Telemachus realizes that he must man up when Athena also tells him that he is “acting like a child” and has “outgrown that now”(1:314). Telemachus takes the advice and when Penelope confronts a singer because he is singing about the war and the journey home, Telemachus tells her she cannot tell the singer what to do because Telemachus is “the master of this house”(1:379).
This sudden sense of manliness startles Penelope but she complies. With Telemachus only just becoming what a man should be, the idea of him marrying her off seems unfit for the suitors and townspeople. As Telemachus finds his sense of maturity, he acts out more and more against the suitors. At a public meeting he takes his father’s seat and then addresses the public by saying if Odysseus is found dead, he will have a proper ceremony and “celebrate the funeral (his) father deserves. Then I’ll marry off my mother”(2:243-244).
The initiative Telemachus makes to become the head of his home are impressive to say the least, but lack the results he wants. The last, and most important person in Penelope’s possible courtship is Penelope herself. Penelope claims she is “already sorrowful, constantly grieving for my husband, remembering him, a man renowned in Argos and throughout all Hellas”(1:362-364). In this state of constant grieving, she is exposed by Antinous, one of the suitors, to be prolonging any sort of marriage as long as she can.
Antinous is able to reveal this because each day Penelope works on a loom and she claims, when finished, she will be able to once again marry. In fact, Penelope each night unweaves the loom and was doing so for three full years until Antinous caught on and caught her in the act one night. Antinous claims Penelope is a woman “Who knows more tricks than any woman alive”(2:96) and is always “toying” with the affections of the suitors, leading them on only to not marry.
Antinous says it is Penelope’s fault the suitors stay and slowly eat and drink away Telemachus’ inheritance. Until Penelope is able to stop grieving her possibly lost husband and go on with her life, her problem with the suitors will not subside. Penelope has put herself in an even tougher situation due to the absence of Odysseus. With each person having a different perspective and set of idea of what Penelope should do, she has a very hard decision to make without the full knowledge of her husbands death or not.