Penelope muses about whether prayer has any effect, picturing the gods mischievously deciding which prayers to answer by casting dice and destroying mortals’ lives willy-nilly. Penelope thinks that they pull a lot of pranks because they are bored. For twenty years, Penelope’s prayers went unanswered, but after her last prayer for Odysseus’s return, he showed up wearing beggar’s clothes in the courtyard.
Penelope’s description of the Greek gods playing dice together to randomly decide which prayers to answer contrasts with Christian ideas of an all powerful, all knowing, completely decisive God. Throughout the book, Penelope offers points of comparison between the two religions.
Odysseus’s rags were a disguise, since he wanted to figure out what was going on at the palace with the Suitors before announcing his arrival. If he had walked in and ordered them all out, Penelope thinks, he would be dead on the spot. Instead, he dressed like a beggar and counted on the fact that the Suitors were all too young to recognize him. Penelope, however, knew it was Odysseus as soon as she saw his barrel chest and short legs.
Odysseus’s costume of rags and his disguise as a beggar, a detail that is consistent in the Odyssey as well, comes across as uncomfortably ironic considering how Odysseus is later able to murder the Maids without punishment or consequence because of their lower class status.
Penelope did not tell Odysseus that she knew, however, because it would be dangerous and because she did not want to hurt his ego. Penelope could tell that Telemachus was in cahoots with Odysseus, because he was not a good liar, and later introduced Penelope to “the beggar” in a suspicious manner. Before that, though, Odysseus snuck around the palace in his beggar garb while the Suitors threw things and yelled at him.
Penelope’s choice not to tell Odysseus that she knows who he is for fear of hurting his ego suggests how frail the male ego can be, requiring women to lie to protect it. It also marks an important diversion from the Odyssey on Atwood’s part, giving Penelope more agency and credit in a subtle and believable way. This lie to protect Odysseus’s ego later results in larger problems, and prevents Penelope from protecting her Maids.
Penelope did not have time to tell the Maids Odysseus’s true identity, so they continued to unwittingly insult the family to the Suitors in front of him. Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks was especially harsh. Penelope decided to tell Odysseus that the women had been acting at her instruction when the time was right.
As Penelope states that she was unable to warn the Maids of Odysseus’s identity or Odysseus of her agreement with the Maids, it becomes clear how, although lying sometimes smoothes things over, it can also cause enormous problems.
When evening arrived, Penelope went to see “the beggar,” who claimed to have news about Odysseus and who assured Penelope that he would be home soon. Penelope cried and said that she did not think so, since it was not the first time she had heard that. Penelope described her longing for Odysseus to “the beggar,” knowing that Odysseus would believe her more if he thought that she thought she was saying it to a stranger.
Penelope clearly shows that she understands how to manipulate an audience when she decides to tell Odysseus how much she misses him while Odysseus still thinks she does not recognize him. As the conclusion of the book draws near, the lies from all the characters begin to add up and come into conflict.
Penelope then asked the beggar for advice, saying that she planned to take Odysseus’s bow and challenge the Suitors to a shooting competition, with herself as the prize, in order to bring the ordeal to an end. She asked him what he thought, and the beggar/Odysseus said that it was an excellent plan. According to the song, Odysseus’s arrival and Penelope’s decision to test the Suitors was a coincidence. However, her narrative corrects that story, making it clear that she was aware of what was happening all along, and that she knew the beggar was her husband.
Here, Penelope notes another occasion in which the original version of the Odyssey portrayed events incorrectly because they did not have Penelope’s perspective. The original version of the story assumes that Penelope was an ignorant, innocent bystander of most of the action, and that assumption, by failing to recognize Penelope’s agency, gets the truth wrong. At the same time, though, this change suggests that Penelope’s show of faithfulness in front of the disguised Odysseus might have been just a show.
After telling the beggar about the test, Penelope recounted to him a dream that she had had in which an eagle with a crooked beak killed all of her beloved geese, causing her to weep. Odysseus interpreted the dream for her, saying that the geese must be the Suitors, and that one would kill the others. He ignored the eagle’s crooked beak and the fact that Penelope loved the geese and grieved their deaths. Penelope states that Odysseus was wrong about the dream, and that while he was the eagle, the geese were her twelve Maids.
Penelope’s dream and Odysseus’s misinterpretation of it suggests that, when readers encounter texts without considering the female perspective, they can end up arriving at incorrect or incomplete conclusions. The eagle’s crooked beak, meanwhile, seems to suggest that, while Odysseus is considered to be a war hero of Greek mythology, he is also a corrupt figure.
Penelope says that in the songs, they often say that Penelope ordered her Maids to wash Odysseus’s feet and that he refused because he did not want to be ridiculed by them. Then Penelope told Eurycleia to wash his feet, and she did so, not suspecting that it was Odysseus. When she saw Odysseus’s scar on his thigh, Eurycleia yelled for joy and knocked over the water basin. Some people say that Penelope did not notice this, but in reality she had turned her back to them to hide her laughter.
Penelope continues on with her version of the events that occurred after Odysseus’s return to Ithaca. Again Penelope sets the record straight (and makes Odysseus seem far less impressive and heroic) by clarifying that she had to hide her laughter at his accidentally revealed disguise.