Penelope, again resuming her first-person narrative, describes how she became used to life in Ithaca, despite all the challenges and her lack of authority. Odysseus, meanwhile, was in complete charge of the kingdom, with only minor interference from Laertes.
Penelope’s lack of authority contrasts with Odysseus’s fully acknowledged rule of the kingdom, drawing attention to how their genders affect the amount of power society allows them.
Penelope found family dinners especially stressful because of the tense family dynamic. Occasionally Penelope would try to speak to Anticleia and Anticleia would respond without looking at her. Eventually Penelope stopped trying, and spent her time instead caring for Telemachus. Eurycleia, though, would only rarely let Penelope be in charge of him, instead taking Telemachus out of Penelope’s arms, telling her she was too young to care for him, and commanding her to go have fun.
As she does at several points throughout the novel, Atwood draws attention to female relationships that could have been sources of comfort and community for Penelope, but instead were tense and stressful. Here Atwood displays Anticleia’s coldness and Eurycleia’s controlling, critical nature and inability to let Penelope make choices.
Penelope, however, didn’t have much to do to have fun. Sometimes she would go for a walk, but she was not allowed to go by herself for the sake of her reputation. This made Penelope feel like “a prize horse on parade,” since people would stare at her. Penelope had no friends to go with her, so she stopped going for walks as frequently.
Like she did when describing the competition for her hand in marriage, Penelope again compares herself to a horse when she is on her accompanied walks, highlighting how her treatment as a woman makes her feel objectified and dehumanized.
Sometimes, while Penelope was spinning yarn, she would sit in the courtyard and listen to the maids laughing together as they did chores. Or she would sit in the women’s quarters and weave with the slaves who were working there. Penelope enjoyed the weaving.
Fiber crafts provide Penelope with her only experiences of female community throughout the text. Still, her higher status sets her apart from other women, whose laughter she hears but cannot join in.
Penelope also spent a lot of time in the room she shared with Odysseus. The room had a special bed in it, and one of the posts of the bed was made out of an olive tree whose roots were still in the ground below it, so no one could move the bed. The truth about this bedpost was a secret, and only Odysseus, Actoris, and Penelope knew. Odysseus told Penelope that if anyone else found out about the post he would know that she was cheating on him and would kill her. Though he said this jokingly, it made Penelope genuinely afraid.
While Odysseus has, until this point in the novel, been caring towards Penelope and seemed to be less overtly misogynistic than other Ancient Greek men, Odysseus’s supposedly lighthearted mention of the way he would kill Penelope if she cheated on him reveals his underlying capacity for violence, specifically violence against women. This also foreshadows his later murder of the Maids.
In the bed, Penelope and Odysseus enjoyed their time together, either having sex or talking. Odysseus told Penelope many stories about himself and about various heroes of Greek mythology. One of these stories was about how Theseus and Peirithous had abducted Helen when she was not yet twelve, intending for one of them to marry her when she was old enough. According to the story, Theseus did not rape Helen because she was still a child, and eventually she was rescued by her brothers, inciting a war with Athens.
Odysseus and Penelope continue to build their relationship through storytelling, showing how stories can create intimacy and understanding between people. The story of Helen’s abduction by Theseus and Peirithous, meanwhile, shows kidnapping to be yet another source of terror for girls and women in Ancient Greece at the hands of men.
Penelope had already heard this story from Helen herself, who told Penelope that Theseus and Peirithous were so in awe of her beauty that they fainted every time they looked at her. Helen took pride in all the men who had died for her in the Athenian War. Penelope thinks that Helen was so often praised for her beauty that it made her narcissistic and a little crazy. Penelope wonders whether if Helen were less vain, she and many others would have been spared a lot of suffering. Helen’s ambition, however, made her want to stand out.
Disturbingly, Helen’s perception of her abduction as a twelve year old focuses not on how scary the event was, or on how possibly violent it could have been (including the possibility of rape), but rather on how it showed her ability to attract male attention. Helen’s perspective of this event shows how badly she has been affected by the fact that women are only valued for their beauty in Ancient Greece.
When Telemachus was one year old, according to Penelope, “disaster struck” because of Helen. A captain from Sparta arrived in the harbor and Odysseus invited him to dinner. During his visit, the captain informed them that Helen had run away with a handsome prince of Troy, Paris. The pair fell in love behind Menelaus’s back during a nine-day feast given by Menelaus in honor of Paris. Menelaus did not notice, and when he went away to a funeral, Helen and Paris sailed back to Troy on Paris’s ship, along with lots of treasure. Menelaus was furious and, with his brother Agamemnon, demanded Helen’s return, but nothing came of it.
The captain’s news shows how stories sometimes create or are accompanied by very real consequences, as the information he relays means the beginning of the Trojan War. Meanwhile, Helen’s elopement with Paris shows the potential consequences of a marriage system that lacks choice and that is based on transaction and money rather than love. Helen exemplifies real agency and personal choice when she runs away, and she is later blamed for it.
As Odysseus listened to the story, he stayed quiet. That night, however, Odysseus told Penelope that he was upset because he and many other men had sworn a sacred oath to defend Menelaus’s rights to Helen, meaning that he and the other men would have to go to Troy and fight to get Helen back. Odysseus predicted that it would be a tough war. Penelope asked if Odysseus must go, upset by the idea of being at Ithaca without him and without any other friends or people to talk to.
This section, which describes the rationale behind the Trojan War, shows the potentially disastrous consequences of a society in which women are viewed as property and certain men are entitled to them. In Ancient Greek society, this dynamic led to a full-blown war, the destruction of an entire city, and the deaths of thousands.
Odysseus insisted that he must, but when the time came he did try to get out of it. When Menelaus showed up at Ithaca with Agamemnon, Odysseus pretended to have gone crazy, putting on peasant’s clothes and ploughing a field. Penelope went with Menelaus and his company to the fields to show him Odysseus and his madness, carrying Telemachus with her.
Odysseus shows the extent of his deceptive, cunning nature in this instance. This story of Odysseus pretending to be insane is also recounted in the Odyssey. As she does throughout the book, Atwood gives an account of the same events as the “original,” but through Penelope’s perspective.
Palamedes, however, found Odysseus out. Palamedes put the infant Telemachus in front of the ox and donkey that were pulling the plough, and Odysseus turned the animals away to keep his son from being run over. After that, Odysseus had to go. The other men told Odysseus that an oracle had predicted they could not win without him, and that made Odysseus a little less hesitant.
When the men tell Odysseus that an oracle foretold his importance in the war, the story sways Odysseus and makes the fact that he must go to war easier to accept. This is yet another example of the potential power of stories to influence people, even master storytellers themselves. It also shows Odysseus’s pride and desire for fame and glory.