Penelope resumes her first-person narrative, but deviates from her chronological account of the past to mention a recent run-in in the fields of asphodel with Antinous, one of her suitors after Odysseus’s disappearance. Penelope says that usually Antinous struts about and shows off, but that as soon as he saw her he assumed the appearance of his own corpse, with an arrow in his neck. According to Penelope, Antinous was the first Suitor that Odysseus shot when he returned to Ithaca, and Antinous turned into a corpse to show Penelope his contempt for her. Penelope, though, only thinks he is a pest.
Penelope’s deviation from her first-person narrative reminds the reader that she is telling her story retrospectively (and after thousands of years), so her perspective may be less reliable than a first-person narrative told in the present. Meanwhile, her meeting with Antinous, who now hates Penelope and blames his death on her, shows how Penelope has shouldered the blame for many of Odysseus’s direct actions.
In the underworld encounter, Penelope greets Antinous and asks him to take the arrow out of his neck. Antinous responds that it is the arrow of his love for Penelope, and that the archer was Cupid. He says he wears it in remembrance of his love for Penelope. Penelope chides him, telling him that, now that they are dead, he does not have to keep pretending to have loved her. Antinous calls her merciless in both life and death, but makes the arrow disappear.
Antinous’s sarcastic comments about his love for Penelope seem intended to make Penelope feel bad about the fact that Antinous and the rest of the Suitors did not love her. Because women were primarily valued for their beauty and ability to attract men, Antinous tries to insult Penelope by highlighting her inability to do so.
Penelope thanks him and then says that, now that they are friends, he can tell her why the Suitors risked their lives through their behavior towards her and Odysseus, despite warnings from Prophets and from Zeus. She remarks that she was hardly a divine beauty and, at thirty-five years old, she had gotten “fat around the middle,” while the Suitors were all still young. Yet still, they all told Penelope that they longed to sleep with and have children with her, even though she was almost past childbearing age.
Penelope’s self-deprecating comments about her plainness, her age, her weight, and the fact that she was approaching menopause when the Suitors started courting her suggests that Penelope cannot imagine a romantic relationship in which men are looking for qualities in women outside of their looks and their ability to bear (male) children.
Antinous, using a nasty tone, responds that Penelope probably could have still had one or two “brats,” and Penelope asks again about his real motive. Antinous tells her that the Suitors wanted her treasure and her kingdom, since widows are supposed to be lusty and she would probably die eventually anyway, leaving them rich and able to choose from any number of princesses. Antinous calls Penelope “not…much to look at” but says that she was always smart.
Antinous’s response confirms Penelope’s assumptions about what the Suitors were looking for when they courted her. When he tells Penelope that they were only hoping to gain her wealth through a marriage, Antinous shows yet another instance in which marriage is used to traffic women for money.
Although Penelope had thought that she would prefer straightforward answers, she does not. Still, she thanks Antinous for his “frankness” and tells him that he can put the arrow back, since she feels a surge of joy each time she sees it in his neck.
Penelope’s preference for flattering lies rather than the truth sheds light on her willingness to believe the noble but fantastic version of Odysseus’s journey home.
According to Penelope, the Suitors did not show up directly after Odysseus left. For the first ten years of Odysseus’s absence, they knew he was alive because he was at war in Troy. The Suitors arrived slowly as it began to seem less and less likely that Odysseus was coming back, gradually growing in number by showing up and declaring themselves guests. Because Penelope lacked the manpower to drive them out, they would feast on Ithaca’s livestock and order around the maids as if they were in their own homes.
Penelope’s hard work at managing the estate and building up the family’s wealth is dashed when the Suitors begin arriving to mooch off of the abundance of food, showing an example of how patriarchy works by unifying men to undermine a woman’s authority. The men do not listen when Penelope tells them to leave, showing their lack of respect for her as a legitimate ruler.
The Suitors said that they would continue to feast off of Odysseus’s estate until Penelope chose one of them as her new husband. They would occasionally make speeches about Penelope’s beauty and intelligence, and though Penelope enjoyed the praise, she saw the whole thing as a ridiculous spectacle. Sometimes she would go to the feasts to watch them make fools of themselves, and she admits to daydreaming about which one she would most want to go to bed with.
Penelope’s need for male attention shows in her desire for the Suitors’ compliments. Penelope’s admittance that she daydreamed about sleeping with the Suitors is important because it contradicts a later statement that Penelope makes to Odysseus when he returns, throwing her entire narrative into doubt.
After the feast, Penelope’s Maids would tell Penelope the nasty things the Suitors had said behind her back, calling her an “old bitch,” comparing her unfavorably to Helen, and imagining killing Telemachus. The Suitors also had all agreed that whoever would marry Penelope would share her dowry with the others. Penelope wondered whether the Maids were making this up to spite her, as they seemed to enjoy when she started to cry.
The fact that the Suitors’ compliments turn out to be hollow suggests how, in a system of intense gender inequality, what seems to be a compliment may in fact only be a way of reinforcing the oppressive gender system. Again, the Suitors work together to undermine Penelope.
Penelope’s tears meant that the Maids could cry too and console her, which Penelope thinks was a “relief to their nerves.” Eurycleia seemed to especially like this gossip, because she was trying to ensure that Penelope would remain faithful to Odysseus.
The Suitors’ nasty comments at least allow the Maids and Penelope to forge intimate relationships as they support each other in the face of the men’s cruelty.
Penelope could do nothing to stop the Suitors, since they did not respond to her pleas or her threats. Telemachus was too young to defend his mother, and there were too many of them anyway. All the men on the island loyal to Odysseus had gone with him to Troy. Since Penelope did not want a full-blown fight, she did not try to bar them from the palace. Instead, she remembered her mother’s advice to “behave like water” and “flow around them”—she pretended to encourage the Suitors, but insisted that she must know that Odysseus was dead before choosing one of them.
The Suitors clearly do not respect Penelope as an equal like they would if she were a man, since they do not listen when she asks them to leave and threatens them. Instead, Penelope takes her mother’s advice to get what she wants by behaving in a way that is indirect and nonthreatening (and so also more traditionally feminine). Penelope must play into her gender role to thwart the Suitors.