In Penelope’s life and narrative, water takes on a special but ambiguous significance. Penelope is the daughter of a Naiad, or a Greek fresh water spirit, a fact that immediately links her to water. In addition, as a child, Penelope’s father Icarius nearly drowned her in the ocean before a flock of ducks brought her to shore. Throughout Penelope’s life, her near-death experience stays with her, giving her an intense fear of the sea. During Penelope’s trip to Ithaca, she feels sick the entire time, highlighting the strained relationship Penelope has to the ocean. This may represent Penelope’s troubled relationship with her mother, since later, in one of the Maids’ songs, the Maids refer to the fluid in a mother’s womb as an ocean. However, it is also water that serves as Penelope’s inspiration to weave Laertes’ shroud as a diversion tactic to avoid marrying one of the Suitors. Penelope thought of the weaving scheme after remembering her mother’s advice to “be like water” by staying patient and persistent. According to her mother, rather than using force, water finds ways around obstacles to get where it’s going. In short, water may represent Penelope’s connection to the female body and to her mother—relationships that are painful and strained for Penelope, but important nonetheless.
Water Quotes in The Penelopiad
Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.
Nine months he sailed the wine-red seas of his mother’s blood…
In his frail dark boat, the boat of himself,
Through the dangerous ocean of his vast mother he sailed
From the distant cave where the threads of men’s lives are spun,
Then measured, and then cut short
By the Three Fatal Sisters, intent on their gruesome handicrafts,
And the lives of women also are twisted into the strand…
‘Only twelve,’ she faltered. ‘The impertinent ones. The ones who’d been rude… They were notorious whores.’
‘The ones who’d been raped,’ I said. ‘The youngest. The most beautiful.’ My eyes and ears among the Suitors, I did not add. My helpers during the long nights of the shroud. My snow-white geese. My thrushes, my doves.