This chapter returns to Penelope’s narrative as she describes her trip to Ithaca. Penelope spent most of the trip lying down or throwing up. She thinks she may have been averse to the sea because of her bad experience as a child. Odysseus rarely came down to see how Penelope was feeling, spending most of his time on deck. Penelope had developed a very positive opinion of Odysseus since their wedding and trusted his navigation capabilities.
Atwood expands Penelope’s complex relationship with water as she describes Penelope’s discomfort during her travels to Ithaca. Although Odysseus and Penelope’s relationship started out on such a high note, Atwood begins to show that Odysseus is not always as attentive as he first seemed.
When they finally arrived at Ithaca, a crowd of people was at the harbor to cheer for them and get a glimpse of Penelope. That night they feasted with the local aristocrats, Penelope wearing her finest clothes and accompanied by her maid, Actoris, who was a wedding present from her father. Actoris was not happy to be in Ithaca, since she did not want to leave her friends in Sparta. Because she was older (her father did not want to give Penelope any potential rival for Odysseus’s attention), Actoris died soon after arriving on the island, leaving Penelope totally alone.
In describing her relationship with Actoris, Penelope focuses on herself and seems generally unconcerned for her slave. The reader, meanwhile, may find the way that Actoris is treated disturbing. Actoris’s slave status means she has no choice in her move to Ithaca, which leaves her unhappy until she dies far from her friends. Atwood also highlights the role of female competition when she describes how Actoris was chosen for her older age (and therefore presumed unattractiveness).
Penelope cried often but tried not to let on to Odysseus how unhappy she was. Odysseus continued to be attentive to her needs, and she often caught him looking at her like she was “a puzzle.” Odysseus once told her a rumor that everyone had a way into their heart, and that when he was able to find them out, supposedly he would be able to master the Fates and control his destiny. While Odysseus found the idea appealing, he thought it was not actually possible, since not even the gods are as powerful as the Fates.
Odysseus’s interest in mastering the Fates through an ability to read people reflects a larger theme in Greek poetry and drama, in which characters often try to escape their fates and then suffer disastrous consequences because of their actions (or even find that their fates have been fulfilled by their actions).
Penelope asked Odysseus if he had found the hidden way into her heart, and Odysseus smiled and told her that she would have to be the one to tell him. Penelope then asked if he also had a door to his heart, and if she had found the key. Odysseus, though, did not answer, distracted by a strange ship that entered the harbor.
Penelope begins to receive hints that, although Odysseus clearly wants her to be in love with him, he may be deceiving her regarding his love for her. This is one such instance, as Odysseus fails to respond to Penelope’s inquiry about the key to his heart.
Penelope then goes on to further describe Ithaca, calling it “no paradise” and saying it had very bad weather, and was much shabbier than Sparta. However, the food was good and plenty, and over time Penelope began to adjust. She liked having Odysseus for a husband, as he was so well respected and his advice so often sought out.
Penelope’s difficulty adjusting to life in Ithaca shows how the new and increasing trend towards women moving in with their husbands may not be good for women, suggesting that progress for women is not inevitable and society can easily regress.
Odysseus’s mother and father still lived in the castle with them, though Penelope suggests that Anticleia would die later, while waiting for Odysseus to come home, and Laertes would leave the palace to become a farmer. Penelope describes her mother-in-law as a sour woman who did not approve of Penelope because of her youth.
Rather than being a friend and ally to her daughter-in-law, Anticleia criticizes Penelope and does not approve of her youth. This shows again how, throughout the novel, women tear each other down rather than support each other.
Odysseus’s former nurse, Eurycleia, gave Penelope even more trouble. She had been in the household for a long time and was so valued that Laertes “hadn’t even slept with her.” Other servants told Penelope that Laertes’ restraint was not out of respect for Eurycleia, but rather out of fear of Anticleia’s wrath. Eurycleia showed Penelope around and explained how things were done in Ithaca, and though Penelope thanked her, Eurycleia’s advice also embarrassed her. Eurycleia told her exactly how to conduct herself, which was lucky because Anticleia, who did not like her at all, was happy to let Penelope make a fool of herself.
Eurycleia’s pride in the fact that Laertes did not sleep with her is disturbing, because it suggests that sex, rather than being a mutually pleasurable, respectful experience, was a way for men to show who they did and did not value. The idea that sex devalues women is a dangerous double standard. Moreover, Eurycleia’s comment shows how sex was often not a choice for slave women, who were obligated to sleep with their masters if they showed interest.
Penelope avoided Anticleia and stayed with Eurycleia, who, although condescending, was friendly. She told Penelope all about the local nobility and professed to be an expert on Odysseus’s tastes, having nursed him since childhood. Because of this, Eurycleia was possessive of him, and only she was allowed to attend to him. Penelope would try to do some nice wifely task for Odysseus only to be told by Eurycleia that she had done it wrong.
Eurycleia’s instructions to Penelope, although intended to be helpful, are an example of how many women in Ancient Greece (at least as described by Atwood) criticized and restricted other women’s behaviors, creating a narrow definition of correct femininity that was based around caring for men. This puts enormous pressure on Penelope.
Still, Eurycleia was somewhat kind to her, and encouraging as Penelope was trying to get pregnant. She was the only person Penelope could talk to besides Odysseus, and gradually Penelope got used to her. When Telemachus was born, Eurycleia was a huge help, praying for her during childbirth and delivering the baby. Eurycleia was a self-proclaimed expert on babies, and would talk to them in baby speech. She took good care of Telemachus.
Eurycleia’s obsession with performing a perfectly feminine role, which Penelope describes when she discusses Eurycleia’s pedantic care for Odysseus, does not stop at caring for a husband. It also includes tending to babies and children, another stereotypically feminine role that Eurycleia embraces.
Odysseus was happy with Penelope when she gave birth to Telemachus, and he told her proudly that Helen had not yet given birth to a son. This made Penelope happy, but also made her wonder why Odysseus was thinking about Helen.
Odysseus’s compliment focuses on Penelope’s reproductive ability relative to Helen’s, reducing her (as does society in general) to her body’s capacity to have male children.