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Essay One for Dead End Class #34B

November 2, 2007

 

The Odyssey, and other epic poems in general, are often criticized for being sexist or even misogynist. It is said they depict a “male world” and that women characters play only minor roles in their stories. And in large part, all of that is true, but to stop there is too easy and too simple. Upon closer reading, the Odyssey reveals itself to have a more complex and subtle attitude towards women, though it still falls far short of modern standards of equality.

Women appear in the Odyssey as one of two things: an obstacle or a goal. In this, it is true that the poem succumbs to the sexist world that created it. With only one significant exception, women do not act of their own accord, but rather react to needs of Odysseus’ plotline by serving one of these two basic functions.

His wife, Penelope, is clearly a goal. She is what drives him onward towards home, even when the promise of a comfortable life elsewhere tempts him away from his travels time and again. She does absolutely nothing in the story but give Odysseus this motivation. Sure, there is a subplot about her putting off the advances of her many suitors, but this is only to raise the stakes of Odysseus’ struggle by inducing a time constraint- sooner or later, her willpower may run out, so it is all the more critical that he hurries home. And even in this meager role Penelope is treated condescendingly, portrayed as flighty and nervous with her only redeeming qualities being her undying devotion to her lost husband and the cunning she uses to protect that loyalty. In an equal relationship between literary characters, each helps define the other. In this case, Penelope is completely defined by her husband, while from Odysseus’ perspective his wife is little more than a plot device.

As to the other main role that women fill out in the Odyssey, an obstacle, there are many examples. Nausicaa, princess of the Phaeacians, is infatuated with Odysseus, and provides him with advice and aide, but he must be careful not to offend her, thereby incurring the wrath of her parents. Her mother, Arete is intelligent and astute, but that’s only to make her a bigger challenge when Odysseus appeals to her for assistance. In both cases it can be argued that the women are only there to help flesh out the world that Odysseus must travel through, and they don’t seem to do anything but that.

Circe and Calypso provide two much more potent examples of the woman-as-obstacle template. Circe turns Odysseus’ entire crew into pigs after they land on her island, and is about to do the same to him when he receives divine assistance and is able to resist her spells. She is clearly an opponent who must be conquered, so he sleeps with her for a year and then leaves without a backwards glance. The Greeks were many things; subtle in their poetry was not one of them.

This trick was so fun the writers did it twice, the second time (chronologically) in the form of Calypso, who introduces a very interesting wrinkle into this pattern of goal-obstacle-rinse-repeat. She captures Odysseus, falls in love with him, and then keeps him as a kind of lover/pet for seven years. Finally, the male gods of Olympus become fed up with her detaining him and demand that she release him so he may return home. This prompts Calypso to give a monologue which might be considered one of the earliest examples of sex-positive feminism. “Hard-hearted/you are, you gods! You unrivaled lords of jealousy-/scandalized when goddesses sleep with mortals,/openly, even when one has mad the man her husband. (Book 5, 130-33)” She does not directly mention it, but most of the male gods, and Zeus in particular, are notorious for having sex with mortal women at every opportunity. This is a privilege they do not extend to female gods, and any man unlucky enough to bed a goddess soon finds himself dead (134-42). In essence, they get to fuck anyone they want, but as soon as she keeps a boy toy around they act like it’s the end of the freaking world. Calypso bitterly upbraids them for their hypocrisy, but in the end relents in the face of Zeus’ unassailable power and authority.

And yet despite this startlingly progressive passage, Calypso still does not transcend the role of obstacle. Odysseus is not happy during his seven years with her, despite having all the pleasures of a goddess’ lifestyle made available to him. He pines for Penelope and for his homeland of Ithaca. When the gods force his release he accepts it immediately and demands that Calypso swear a vow never to harm or hinder him again. It may be significant that he himself doesn’t win his freedom; it’s given to him by the gods. Perhaps this is a message that uppity women are offensive to the gods. Or maybe it says that women’s liberation is a force so powerful only the gods can stop it. Unfortunately for both angles of interpretation, it doesn’t really matter because the greatest force for women’s equality in the whole poem is in the end little more than yet another trail to endure and problem to overcome.

And this brings us to the biggest problem for my goal/obstacle dichotomy: Athena. She is neither an obstacle nor a goal, but rather a steadfast friend and mentor to Odysseus, because she’s awesome like that. She helps him out of shipwrecks, she helps him pull off a good impression of a one man army, she is generally there to pull his ass out of the fire whenever he really needs it. And all of that for no other apparent reason than she is fond of his quick wit and courage. Athena acts on her own initiative, to an extent even greater than many of the male characters in the poem. Odysseus himself spends a large segment of the epic (the “wonderland” episodes) passively floating along from one incident to the next. Though Athena appears much less frequently than he does, when she is around she is never passive.

But while she clearly subverts the idea of women as reactors or set dressing in some very substantial ways, she cannot undo it entirely. She is but one character who flits in and out of the narrative intermittently. The pattern holds very strongly for every other woman in the entire poem. Athena’s subversion of the dichotomy is also weakened by her divinity- Circe and Calypso are both supernatural beings, but Athena is a major god of the Greek pantheon; she is distanced from the workings of other, lesser women. It seems quite probable that she is only allowed to be so dynamic because she is a god first and a woman second.

So how does it all add up? Most of the women are plot devices. Penelope is just a finish line (and in some extending telling of the tale she later morphs into yet another obstacle keeping Odysseus from a quiet life at home). The royal women of the Phaeacians are no more than tricky problems of tact and diplomacy. Circe is a psychotic dominatrix, and Calypso, for all her sex-positive zeal, just wants a man in her life. Is the Odyssey a misogynist tale of masculine glorification? Well YES! Of course it is! But not without a few qualifications. *cough*Athina*cough*

 

This is unfortunately not the final version I will be turning in. I suppose I should go back and remove the few remaining pieces of interesting prose before I turn it in. Wouldn’t want to get marked down for being entertaining.

Actually, you know what? No. Fuck it. If they don’t like it, they can step in front of a bus.

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