Feminism Essay

Throughout most of history, women have been expected to follow two stages of life. In the first stage of life, women are to be pure and wholesome; they are untainted virgins who meekly follow orders set by authority figures. In the second stage of life, women are seen as homemakers, expected to constantly and willingly cater to men’s and their families’ needs. If a woman strays from this norm, they are scorned and ostracized. In The Odyssey, Homer expands on the notion of what women are like, and explores the different types of women in society. The Odyssey categorizes women into three types: strong and respectable women, sly and cunning women, and loyal women. The portrayal of these types of women reflects the view of women during the time in which The Odyssey was written and sets the expectations of how women should act.

The first type is strong women who are capable, independent and respectable. An example of this type of woman is Athena, who is portrayed as smart and strategic in helping the protagonist Odysseus. Throughout his journey, she uses her unique powers to assist him in his most dire and vulnerable moments, making sure that he is eventually able to return home. However, she does not readily jump to his side at every obstacle he faces like a personal servant. Instead, Athena decides for herself when Odysseus will receive her help. The first time Odysseus asks for help in fending off the suitors in his house, Athena berates him and says, “‘You have surely lost / the fury and tenacious force that once / were yours when, for those nine long years, you fought / for white-armed Helen; in those wild assaults, / you killed so many[...] / Why is it, then, / that, with your house and goods again at hand, / you weep and wail?’” (Homer 22.226-34). Having seen Odysseus fight in the Battle of Troy, Athena knows of his wise strategies and extraordinary capabilities in battle. These qualities were what drew Athena to Odysseus in the first place. Thus, she expects him to live up to his reputation and fight properly, just as she has seen him do. She does not immediately nor fully give in to Odysseus’s requests, displaying a sign of authority and independence from men. Athena’s words are also a form of encouragement; she alleviates Odysseus’s doubts and assures him that he is capable of winning this battle.

However, Athena still helps Odysseus despite scorning him. Before the fight picks up again, Athena uses her powers to give Odysseus an advantage, “but she did not / give him the strength he’d need to win at once; / the goddess still was bent on trying out / the power to resist and to assault / of both Odysseus and his sturdy son. / Then she herself flew upward, taking on / the likeness of a swallow as she perched / upon a rafter in the murky hall” (22.240-47). Athena exercises self-control in how much strength she allows Odysseus to gain from her; in doing this she pushes him to fight for himself and be hailed as a mighty warrior, while also ensuring that he is not severely harmed in the process. Since Athena values strategy and hard work, she expects Odysseus to fight with these values in mind and thus does not give him too much of her assistance. However, she still watches over Odysseus and Telemachus from high above the battle as they fend off the suitors, which is reassurance that she will be there to protect them if the battle turns against them.

The second type is sly, cunning women who seduce and trick men. Homer paints Calypso as this type of woman. The reader’s first glimpse of Odysseus is on Calypso’s island, bemoaning his situation and wanting to leave, but Calypso wants to take Odysseus as her lover and has been keeping him on her island for a year, attempting to seduce him. Eventually, Calypso helps Odysseus leave her island and gifts him with clothes and supplies for his voyage. As Odysseus sails, Poseidon incites a storm on the seas, which wrecks Odysseus’s ship and almost drowns him. During this treacherous storm, Odysseus falls from the ship and “he could not surface quickly in the rage / of that great wave; his clothes—Calypso’s gifts— / were hampering and heavy[...] / Odysseus gripped a floating plank; as if / to ride astride a horse, he straddled it; / then he stripped off his clothes—Calypso’s gift— / and wrapped the shawl around his waist” (5.325-77). Much emphasis is placed on Calypso’s clothes being described as hindering Odysseus from being able to survive in the rough water. Only when Odysseus removes the clothes that Calypso has given him is he able to overcome the storm. This symbolizes the negative influence that Calypso has on him; while in Calypso’s company, Odysseus is unable to fulfill his ultimate goal to return home, and only when he leaves Calypso is he able to continue his journey. In addition, the way Homer interrupts the flow of the sentence to remind the reader that the clothes are gifts from Calypso is a jolting symbol of Calypso being a bothersome interruption in Odysseus’s journey. When viewed in the larger picture, this characterization of Calypso portrays society’s view of women like her at the time. Women who were more open with their sensuality were seen as sluts. They were considered obscene nuisances and obstacles to men’s wellbeing.

Not only does Homer display society’s views of lustful women, but he also demonstrates society’s views of feminists during that time. When Hermes sends a message from Zeus ordering Calypso to release Odysseus from her captivity and allow him to return home, Calypso complains about the unfair treatment of goddesses and says, “‘You gods are cruel and more jealous than / all others: if a goddess beds a man / and wants him—openly—as her dear husband, / then you begrudge her that[...] / So now, you gods resent my having chosen / a mortal’” (5.117-31). Calypso points out that while male gods have the ability to court many women—both mortal and immortal—without disapproval from others, goddesses are punished severely for taking lovers in the same fashion. In the big picture, she calls attention to males’ contradictory standards of what males and females can do in society. Since Calypso is portrayed as an obstacle for Odysseus to overcome, this characterization reflects society’s view of feminists during the time in which Homer wrote The Odyssey. Just as Calypso was preventing Odysseus from progressing in his journey, feminists were seen as nuisances who did not know their place and were “stepping out of line",” thus preventing men and society from advancing. They were often more outspoken about topics like sex and unfair expectations for women, which is how Calypso is characterized, but also the exact opposite of how the ideal woman was supposed to act. By painting her as a negative influence on Odysseus, the hero of the story, Homer sets Calypso as an example of how women ought not to act and sends a warning that they should not strive to be like Calypso.

The third type is loyal women who are knowledgeable, but are devoted to men, especially their husbands. Homer displays this type of woman in Penelope. Throughout the story, as she waits year after year for Odysseus to return, she never gives up on him or takes on one of the many suitors; she is confident that Odysseus will return eventually. After Odysseus returns to fight off the suitors, Penelope goes downstairs to reunite with him. Yet she does not immediately run to him; instead she decides to test him to make sure that it is indeed Odysseus. When Odysseus asks to rest, Penelope asks Eurycleia to “‘prepare the sturdy bedstead for him now / outside the solid bridal room that he / himself constructed; carry out the bed, / and over it throw cloaks, bright blankets, fleece’” (23.177-208). The bed in question was built from the tree that their house is built around; thus it cannot be moved from its position. When Penelope asks for the bed to be moved, she is testing whether Odysseus can recall this unique nature of the bed. The fact that she performs this test shows that she considers the possibility of deception and that Odysseus may not necessarily be who he says he is. Homer paints Penelope as a woman who thinks before she acts. In doing this, Homer reflects society’s expectations for women to be devoted to their husbands, but not necessarily be mindlessly tied to such male figures.

Once Odysseus explains that the bed cannot be moved, it is confirmed to Penelope that he is indeed Odysseus. Only then does she embrace him and reveal that it was a test. Penelope assures Odysseus that “‘no mortal’s ever seen / that bed except for you and me and one / lone servant, Actor’s child, the girl my father / had given me when I first journeyed here / to Ithaca—the maid who kept the doors / of our stout bridal chamber; and with this, / my heart, which was so stubborn, is convinced’” (23.222-28). In affirming this, Penelope proves that she has not had intimate relations with anyone else during Odysseus’s absence. The fact that the only other person who has seen the bed besides Penelope and Odysseus is a servant who specifically guards the intimate bridal chamber emphasizes the sanctity of their space. Throughout those long years of Odysseus’s absence, Penelope made sure to keep the purity of their bed. With this detail, Homer paints Penelope as an example of what women should be like. While she is undyingly loyal to her husband, Penelope understands where caution and care should come before her loyalty. She does not overly worship Odysseus in such a fashion as a lap dog would; rather, she uses her wit in order to confirm his identity and keep the sanctity of their intimate bed. Similarly, women were expected to never display intimacy with anyone other than their husband. In addition, women who were overwhelmingly tied to their husband were seen as frivolous and naïve.

Through the categorization of three types of women and the characterization of the kinds of women that fit into these groups, Homer displays what is considered to be possible for a woman to achieve in society at the time, and lays out the expectations for how women should act. Athena, who fits into the strong woman category, is portrayed as someone who is capable, independent and worthy of utmost respect, just as men are. However, Athena is a god. By making the strong woman a god, Homer sends the message that the only way women can be seen as being on the same level as men is if they are a god. Essentially, Homer tells the ordinary female audience that they will never be worthy of being respected in the exact way that men are respected, and that this category of woman is unattainable for them.

Regarding the expectations for women, Homer sets the norms with the other two types of women: sly women and loyal women. Calypso, an example of a sly woman, is portrayed as a woman full of uncontrollable lust and a hindrance to Odysseus’s journey. By showing her in a negative light, Homer discourages women in society from being like Calypso. On the other hand, the example of a loyal woman that Homer offers is Penelope. Unlike Calypso, Penelope has pure intentions and only wants the best for Odysseus. She is meticulous and never loses faith in her husband. Not only is she dedicated to him, but she can also make informed decisions. Because Penelope is portrayed in a positive view, Homer encourages women to follow her example and be faithful, knowledgeable companions to their husbands.

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