Penelope continues her narrative following Odysseus’s departure. He was away in Troy while she stayed in Ithaca. Time passed and Telemachus grew older. Over the years they got news of the Trojan war from minstrel’s songs about the war heroes. Penelope only cared, though, about news of Odysseus. Penelope relished when his name appeared in songs, describing him negotiating, giving advice, etc. At one point, a song described Odysseus being bathed by Helen, and Penelope did not like that part.
Penelope’s description of listening to stories sung about the Trojan War shows how during Penelope’s time, stories were not only entertainment, but also a means of relaying news. Penelope’s competition with Helen comes up again and leaves the reader wondering about Odysseus’s fidelity.
At last the songs described Odysseus coming up with the strategy of building a wooden horse to invade the city, and eventually they received reports that Troy had fallen, creating mass chaos. Finally, the ships set sail for home. After that, there was no news.
Penelope, like readers of the original myths, learns of Odysseus’s famous Trojan Horse trick secondhand and through stories. The oracle, it seems, was right, and Odysseus was necessary for the Greek victory.
Every day Penelope would climb up to the top floor of the palace to look for Odysseus’s ships, but there was no sign of them. Other vessels carried rumors of what had happened to Odysseus: that he had lost his memory, that he had fought a Cyclops, that cannibals ate his men. Some rumors said that Odysseus had fallen in love with a goddess on a magical island, while others said he was at a brothel.
The minstrels sang these rumors, embellishing them freely. In front of Penelope, they only sang the best versions, in which Odysseus came across as clever and good, only unable to come home because the gods or the Fates were against him. In return for these complimentary but obviously untrue songs, Penelope gave the singers gifts.
When the minstrels sing the most praiseworthy stories for Penelope, Atwood shows how narratives may be altered or constructed differently depending on one’s audience. Penelope’s payment for these altered stories shows her desire to only believe the best about Odysseus.
Anticleia died during Odysseus’s absence, blaming Penelope for everything. Eurycleia and Laertes aged. Laertes turned toward a farming life, and Penelope thinks that he had gone a little insane. This left Penelope to manage Odysseus’s estates herself, a task for which she was woefully unprepared. Penelope’s mother, who had not spent much time in the palace, never showed Penelope how to manage an estate on her own. Penelope’s mother did not often punish slaves, but would sometimes kill one for no reason. She also did not like to spin or weave, unlike Penelope, or to take account of food stores, preferring swimming.
As Penelope struggles to manage Odysseus’s estate on her own, she emphasizes the absence of female role models in her life. Her own mother’s lack of interest in palace affairs makes Penelope’s role much more difficult, since she was not able to learn from her. Through this problem, Atwood suggests the importance of women mentoring and teaching skills to other women, especially in fields normally dominated by men.
As a result of this, Penelope had to learn everything on her own. Penelope learned to make inventories and how to instruct the spinners and weavers to make clothes for the slaves. She learned how to manage the personal issues that came up among slaves, ensuring that male slaves would not sleep with female slaves without permission. This could be tough because they sometimes fell in love and got jealous, so Penelope would have to sell them. If a child was born from these affairs, Penelope would raise it herself. Among the slave children she raised was Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks.
Penelope’s descriptions of how slaves were not allowed to have romantic relationships with each other seems especially cruel considering the fact that female slaves also had no choice in sleeping with nobles who desired them. Meanwhile, as Penelope describes the abilities she developed, it is evident from her tone that Penelope views her self-sufficiency with pride, although she does not explicitly say it.
Through trading for supplies, Penelope developed a reputation as a smart bargainer. She oversaw farms and became an expert at animal husbandry. Her goal was to build up Odysseus’s estate for when Odysseus returned, so he would be proud of her, tell her “you’re worth a thousand Helens,” and hold her in his arms.
Despite her busy schedule, Penelope felt extremely alone. She cried herself to sleep and prayed to the gods for her husband. Eurycleia tried to sooth her with drinks and baths. While she comforted her, Eurycleia would recite sayings to discourage Penelope from crying, much to Penelope’s annoyance. During the day, Penelope kept up a cheerful appearance for Telemachus’s sake, telling him stories of Odysseus and insisting that everything would be wonderful when he came home.
Following her descriptions of her work, which seem so full of self-satisfaction and independence, Penelope not only frames her achievements in terms of pleasing Odysseus, but she then goes on to describe herself sobbing because she missed him. It seems possible that Penelope is exaggerating how sad she was at Odysseus’s absence—but if not, her narrative also highlights the real pain she experienced, something that is barely mentioned in the Odyssey, which mostly focuses on Odysseus’s adventures.
Progressively, outsider interest in Penelope increased, and foreign ships began appearing in the harbor. People asked Penelope if she would consider remarriage if Odysseus had, in fact, died. Penelope ignored these questions, and news—or rather, rumors—of Odysseus continued to arrive. These stories claimed that Odysseus had been to the underworld, had sailed past Sirens and listened to their song, etc. Others claimed that these stories were only exaggerations. Penelope did not know what to believe, and thought people may have made up the stories to torment her. Still, she continued to listen, until the stories stopped coming altogether.
Penelope continues to receive stories about Odysseus’s whereabouts, which vary from tales of Odysseus sleeping with prostitutes and bar fighting to rumors of heroic and supernatural deeds. In addition to showing how myth might grow out of banal events, Atwood also suggests an alternative version of Odysseus’s journey through these rumors, one in which Odysseus is not a heroic captain, but a burnt out veteran unable to face his life at home.