As the pressure on Penelope to choose a suitor increased, she spent whole days in her room in the women’s quarters, crying and wondering what to do. Telemachus was starting to blame his mother for letting his inheritance be eaten away. Penelope thought of packing up and going back to Sparta, but she was afraid of going to sea again. Telemachus thought this would be a good idea at first, but reconsidered when he realized that he would lose the part of his inheritance that was Penelope’s dowry.
Telemachus views his mother like other men have always viewed her—as a means of gaining money or status. While Telemachus does not want to gain money from his mother through marriage, he still stands to inherit her dowry. Clearly it is the money that Penelope represents that Telemachus values, since he is happy to send her away until he realizes that the money would go with her.
Meanwhile, if Penelope married one of the Suitors, the man would then be able to order Telemachus about. Penelope imagines that the best solution for Telemachus would have been if she had died accidentally (but Telemachus could not kill her himself, or the mythological Furies would drive him mad). Penelope asserts that a mother’s life is sacred, and states that she did not appreciate her son’s attitude towards her.
Penelope’s relationship with her son is not especially good. Possibly this is because of Eurycleia’s interference, making it so Telemachus and Penelope could not bond when Telemachus was a child—but it’s also surely a result of him being raised in a society that values women only for beauty. Penelope worries that, to Telemachus, her life is expendable.
Penelope reminded the Suitors that an oracle foretold Odysseus’s return, but the Suitors countered that prophecies are always ambiguous. Finally, in public, Penelope had to agree that Odysseus was dead. However, Penelope never saw his ghost in a dream, causing her to think he might still be alive.
Penelope’s belief that if Odysseus were dead she would see his ghost in a dream shows how faithfully Penelope believed in the Ancient Greek religion and concept of the afterlife.
Penelope finally came up with a scheme to postpone her decision. She set up a piece of weaving on her loom and said she was weaving a shroud for Laertes and she would not select a Suitor until she finished her work. Laertes did not like this idea, thinking it would prompt a Suitor to kill him to speed things up, and so he avoided the palace from then on. Since Penelope’s work was so pious, no one opposed it. All day she worked on the shroud, but then at night she would undo all her work so that she never came closer to finishing.
Penelope’s weaving scheme shows how she puts her mother’s advice into practice by taking a seemingly harmless women’s craft and using it to deceive the men around her. Penelope’s scheme also further links storytelling, which is often described as a kind of weaving or spinning, to deceit, since her weaving scheme is an elaborate ruse to trick the Suitors and postpone her decision.
Penelope chose twelve Maids that she had raised since they were children to help her with this task. Penelope enjoyed hearing their young voices laughing and singing, and she trusted them immensely. They helped her for three years to undo her weaving at night. One of the maids, Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks, would bring in snacks to eat while they worked, and they would tell stories together by the torchlight. Penelope thinks that they were almost like sisters rather than servants and a mistress.
Penelope’s description of her relationship with the Maids and the nights they spend together secretly shows how Penelope has finally found a female community in her Maids. Meanwhile, these friendships disrupt the class structure of Ithaca, as the Maids become more like sisters to Penelope than servants (at least in her view).
Ultimately, Penelope states, one of these Maids betrayed her secret unweaving of the shroud. She thinks it was an accident, and isn’t sure which one did it. In the afterlife the women all shun Penelope, so she cannot ask about it. Penelope thinks that the betrayal was her own fault, since she told the women to spy on the Suitors while keeping them company. Only Penelope and the maids, and not Eurycleia, knew the Maids’ instructions, which Penelope states was a mistake.
Though Penelope and the Maids have successfully created their own female community together, the nights they spent together end when a Maid betrays Penelope’s secret to a Suitor, perhaps a romantic partner. In such unequal societies, romantic relationships between men and women can threaten female community.
Because she told them to spend time with the Suitors, several of the Maids were raped and others fell in love with the Suitors. Penelope notes that it was not unusual for guests at a palace to sleep with maids, and that providing the guests with women to sleep with was considered hospitable. However, it was thievery for a guest to sleep with a maid without the master of the house’s permission. But without Odysseus present, the Suitors had sex with and raped the Maids without thinking twice.
The reader may find Penelope’s description of the condoned protocol for raping slaves disturbing. The system of slavery in Ancient Greece meant that women slave’s bodies did not belong to them, but to their master. This shows how women of low social status can be especially susceptible to gendered violence.
Penelope comforted the Maids after their encounters, since many of them felt guilty, and the ones who were raped needed to be cared for. Eurycleia would bathe the girls and rub them with olive oil at Penelope’s request, although she grumbled about it and told Penelope she was spoiling them.
Although Penelope comforts the slaves after their rapes, she sees no particular issue with the slave system that allows it to happen. Her own high status limits her willingness to protect her maids.
Meanwhile, Penelope continued to tell the Maids to pretend to be in love with the Suitors so that the Suitors would confide in them and the Maids could tell Penelope their plans. Penelope also told them to say nasty things about herself, Telemachus, and Odysseus, to keep the Suitors from suspecting their loyalties. Several of the girls did fall in love with the Suitors in earnest, but Penelope forgave them for this, since they were so young. Anyway, even with their romantic feelings, they still reported to Penelope.
Not only does Penelope not challenge the slave system that allows the Maids to be raped without consequence, but she also continues to send the Maids out to spend time with the Suitors, putting them in harm’s way. Even the Maids who fall in love with the Suitors continue to report to Penelope, however, showing how their bond of friendship transcends even their romances.
In retrospect, Penelope sees her strategy as ill considered, but notes that she was running out of time and had to be crafty. When they did eventually find out the trick that Penelope had played with the shroud, the Suitors broke into Penelope’s room and caught her undoing the weaving.
The Suitors breaking into Penelope’s room constitutes a kind of intrusion that metaphorically represents the many violations, physical and otherwise, that women face in Ancient Greek society.
Penelope was forced, after the Suitors’ intrusion, to promise to finish the shroud. She states that the shroud became a story very quickly, and that modern people use the term “Penelope’s web” to describe unfinished tasks. Penelope rejects the term “web,” however, because rather than trying to ensnare men, she was trying to free herself.
The term “web” makes it seem like Penelope was trying to ensnare men when she was in fact trying to escape them. This expresses Penelope’s sense of being trapped by men in her feminine role, and also shows how changing a single word in a story can have important repercussions.