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  • The Pandareids and Pandora:Defining Penelope's Subjectivity in the Odyssey
  • Rachel H. Lesser (bio)

I. Interpreting Penelope

Early in Book 20 of the Odyssey, on the eve of the bow contest for her hand in marriage, Penelope wakes from sleep, cries until she is sated, and then prays to Artemis for death. She asks Artemis either to shoot her with an arrow at once or to send a storm wind that will snatch her up and cast her into the streams of Oceanus, just as the storm winds carried off the daughters of Pandareus (20.61–66). Penelope then elaborates on the Pandareids' story, describing how, after the gods killed their parents, a quartet of Olympian goddesses reared these orphaned sisters, gave them all the qualities of desirable womanhood, and then sought to arrange their marriages until Harpies snatched the maidens away and made them servants of the Erinyes (20.67–78). After offering this brief narrative as a paradigm, Penelope renews her earlier prayer, explaining that she would rather disappear or die than please a man inferior to Odysseus.

Penelope's prayer to replicate the Pandareids' demise has received only sparing critical attention,1 but represents, as I will argue, an important avenue for interpreting Penelope's character and narrative role in the Odyssey. Since the 1980s, feminist scholars have been debating to what degree Penelope is presented as an autonomous and actantial subject.2 Does she shrewdly influence the epic's plot to her own ends, or is she helplessly subordinated to male interests and constrained by patriarchal structures in an androcentric narrative? If she indeed has a hand in directing the plot, why does the (male) poet accord her this agency?3 Central to any answer are the corollary and long-disputed questions of what Penelope is thinking and what she desires, and also the degree to which this interiority is (and is intended by the poet to be) coherent or knowable. When does she recognize Odysseus, how does she feel about his return, does she really hate the suitors, and can any of this be determined? [End Page 101]

Penelope's invocation of the Pandareids offers a crucial opening into these questions regarding her subjectivity in three ways. First, the poet presents Penelope's prayer as a solitary outpouring in the privacy of her own room, directed at a goddess and with no acknowledged mortal listener or interlocuter. Thus her prayer seems like a genuine expression of her state of mind, offering the audience a view of what she is 'really' thinking and feeling.4 By contrast, when Penelope is addressing other people or even conversing privately in a public space, where anyone might listen, scholars who emphasize her craftiness and capacity for deception have called into question the veracity of her statements.5 Here, however, there is neither a suggestion that she is deliberately obfuscating her discourse nor an obvious rationale for doing so, although it is possible that the maidservants who accompanied her upstairs (19.600–603) are in the same room or within earshot.6

Second, the Pandareids are uniquely special to Penelope. This is the second time in the poem that Penelope has mentioned Pandareus's offspring in relation to herself: in Book 19, she had told the disguised Odysseus that she is like Pandareus's daughter Aëdon, the nightingale, in her distressed nocturnal lamentation (19.515–524). Although Aëdon's story seems distinct from that of her sisters in Book 20,7 Penelope repeatedly chooses the Pandareids as her mythical alter-egos. In fact, they are the only extra-Odyssean women with whom Penelope explicitly identifies herself and they are the only mythical exempla that she invokes (McDonald 1997, 3–4). Moreover, the Pandareids appear nowhere else in the Odyssey except in the words of Penelope. Odysseus recounts meeting other mythical heroines in the Underworld (11.225–330), and the suitor Antinous compares Penelope favorably to Tyro, Alcmene, and Mycene (2.116–122), but neither mentions the Pandareids. The daughters of Pandareus are privileged paradigms who belong exclusively to Penelope and her discourse, and thus have particular significance for the interpretation of her character.

The third reason the...