Penelope as Moral Agent

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In her essay "Penelope as Moral Agent," Helene Foley attempts to discuss Penelope, a major character in Homer's the Odyssey, in terms of Classical Athenian portrayals of women and, as her title suggests, in terms of what she calls a "moral agent." In her introductory paragraph she lays out guidelines as set down by Aristotle and his contemporaries that constitute a moral agent: the character must make an ethical and moral decision "on which the actions turns…without critical knowledge of the circumstances" (Foley 93). To this end, Foley ultimately decides that Penelope meets these standards and adds that her social, familial and personal responsibilities play integral roles in making that decision. Foley's examples and her in-depth analysis of the Odyssey all support her thesis as I have interpreted it to be. There are, however, problems in her comparison of the Odyssey and outside texts (especially that of Carol Gilligan), inconsistencies in citations and style, and examples that either have little or nothing to do with her thesis..

The largest problem with this essay that I could find is the ignorance of a few facts that could possibly be construed as being in opposition to her findings. Since I am not familiar with and have not read any of the outside texts to which Foley refers (Aristotle's Oedipus Tyrannos, Poetics, Politics, and Ethics, the Hippocratic medical texts, and the feminist theory of Carol Gilligan), I can only assume that her interpretations of these texts are correct. In any case, she uses Aristotle and Hippocrates in order to develop a historical framework against which she can judge Homer's fictitious character Penelope. This method would have led to a good argument if she had included in her analysis an explanation of what constitutes a "Classical" writer and had specified whether or not Homer was included in that group. Direct connections she makes between the Odyssey and the outside texts are nominal. She neglects to explain why she would compare Penelope to Aristotle's ideas on the woman's role in society, or in what respect the biological findings of Hippocrates could have possibly have influenced or been influenced by Homer's epic. The only hint the reader is exposed to is when, on page 94 she asks, "To what degree does the world of the Odyssey prefigure popular Classical Athenian assumptions about women as moral agents?" The keyword here is "prefigure" and it indicates to me that Homer wrote before the classical writers that Foley uses as her basis of understanding the term moral agent. That the reader must figure that out based on one word out of a twenty page essay instead of being exposed to at least a small discussion of the chronology of when the authors and philosophers in question lived and wrote also detracts from the essay as a whole. Because Foley is trying to establish a framework based on historical and cultural ideas, that framework must be imbedded in a sufficient understanding of history itself in order to validate its meaning. In addition, I cannot but be aware of the fact that there is little direct comparison between Homer's epic poem and the outside works Foley uses, and especially by Aristotle. In fact, whenever she does make a direct comparison is when she discounts the relevance of the outside source. One of the few times the philosophies of Aristotle and Homer are referred to in the same sentence is when she says, "A closer look at Aristotle's assumptions about women as moral agents, however, makes clear that one cannot generalize so easily from Oedipus to Penelope" (Foley 93). Additionally, on page 99, she resists using the term kurios or guardianship (one she used to determine Classical Athenian opinion about women's roles in decision-making) because the passages "raise serious doubt about the exact parameters involved in male guardianship of a wife in the Odyssey." Another (and more constructive) example of when the philosophy of Aristotle and the depiction by Homer of women and their roles and responsibilities in society is on page 108 in the last sentence of her essay: Insofar as tragic choices of the kind identified and praised by Aristotle are symptomatic of a social world in which obligations to promote civic welfare have acquired a greater ideological interest and resonance, it is not surprising that the Odyssey's most nearly tragic choice is made by a character whose social role is defined so pointedly in terms of responsibilities. Also, on page 101, there is a direct comparison between Aristotle's Oikonomika and Politics and Greek tradition with Penelope as the "paradigm of a virtuous wife" that explains the relevance a bit better. There is, however, no consistent, ongoing assessment of how the two interact specifically in terms of her decision-making process throughout the essay. I would have assumed given that the entire introductory paragraph is dedicated to the discussion of outside interpretations of females and their roles in decision-making, that Penelope would be periodically judged in those terms. Returning to my earlier point, I would also expect that the issues that Foley mentions as parameters set down by Aristotle would be applicable to her thesis and not contradictory as they are in her discussions on pages ninety-three and ninety-four. Using outside texts is certainly useful in gaining insights into any text that one is analyzing. However, Foley's usage seems, at times, to be a bit contrived and simply demonstration of the extent of her knowledge in the subject. The first indication is that she sometimes neglects to fully explain the significance of a given reference. For example, the second full paragraph on page ninety-four is almost completely about Aristotle and his presentation of what he calls "tragic characters." Then, the last sentence brings in "Euripides' philosophical Melanippe." Only in the footnote does Foley explain the story behind this character and the relevance to her thesis is vague. Apparently, this example is used in order to demonstrate Aristotle's digressions from one true concept of how a woman should think and act. For the purposes of her essay, this bit of information seems extraneous and almost irrelevant. Especially considering Foley's half-page presentation and interpretation of Carol Gilligan's feminist theory, it seems as though she is simply trying to fill up space. In the first place, a modern feminist theorist would have little or no bearing on classical interpretations of gender roles influencing decision-making because of the inherent differences in cultures and historical contexts in which each author is writing. More than likely, Gilligan did not have Penelope in mind when she came to her own conclusions on how men differ from women in making decisions. Foley says it herself that "Gilligan's distinctions...are not applicable in any simple sense to the Odyssey" because of "the formulaic nature of oral epic (Foley 107)." In other words, the inherent structure of an epic poem necessitates using recurring language in describing thought processes in decision-making because of the need to retain syllable count, etc. Her point here is somewhat redundant because she is simply restating what she writes on page ninety-five: On the surface at least, the Odyssey's women are [sic] endowed with the same moral capacities [sic] as men...The same formulas are used to describe the way [men and women] reason about questions of strategy or moral dilemmas. The thumos (heart) of both sexes can be deliberate, be divided, and then decide in a rational fashion that one alternative is better than another. In other words, because Homer uses the same vocabulary to describe the thought processes of both m en and women, Gilligan's assertion that women operate with "competing responsibilites" in mind, whereas men operate under the "morality of rights" (Foley 107) cannot be related to the Odyssey or her thesis. My problem with Foley's inclusion of Gilligan's work is that while bringing in outside texts furthers understanding of the work in question, this case was not only inapplicable, but it restated her point made earlier in a round-about sort of way. Why include an example of a modern theory that proves a point by not being at all applicable? Trivial as they may be, stylistic inconsistencies can also detract from the persuasiveness of the essay. While her inclusion of the original Greek words is insightful, useful, and demonstrative of her proficiency in research and understanding, Foley presents the translation in such a way to make it difficult for the reader. For instance, she sometimes uses the Greek word in the sentence and puts the English word in parentheses, but sometimes does the opposite. Also, occasionally she assumes the reader remembers what the word means and at other times, she repeats the meaning. Granted, these are minute details, but her unawareness of small things like this makes one wonder what else she may have missed. This brings me to my last point. A main facet of Foley's interpretation of Penelope's "nearly tragic" decision (whether or not to offer up Odysseus' bow in a contest to determine who she would marry out of the group of suitors) is the question of her perceived fidelity to Odysseus in doing so. This is important because, as Foley argues, "both to remarry and not to remarry are potentially acts of infidelity to Odysseus" (Foley 102). In her essay, the question of fidelity is judged according to a variety of interested parties, namely according to Odysseus, Telemachos, Penelope, and society at large. In succeeding paragraphs I discuss each party's perceptions of the situation, but I would like to mention here that this question of fidelity is further complicated by Penelope's opinion about whether or not Odysseus is alive or not. Although in her essay Foley treats it as a given that she believes him to be dead and ultimately rejects hope in favor of practicality, I would argue that it is much more debatable than she admits. Late in Book XVIII, the reader learns that Odysseus himself has sanctioned Penelope's remarriage (upon the maturation of Telemachos) in the case that he should die in the battle at Troy (Homer 18.257-270). Then, when he comes to his own palace, he holds off in revealing himself to Penelope because he wants to test her. What this means is not explicitly explained. But because this comment comes after his discussion with Penelope and she makes it clear to him that he is never coming home and she is therefore obligated to follow his wishes in remarrying, I would interpret this to mean that to Odysseus, fidelity entails considering the suitors' proposal. Foley writes, "Odysseus' parting instructions to Penelope…place the choice to remarry in Penelope's hands" (Foley 99). On this point I would disagree: in his statement in which he tells her that she "marry whatever man [she pleases]" (Homer 18.270), Odysseus' tone, as conveyed by Penelope, seems to indicate that she would be doing a disservice to herself, her son, and Odysseus by remaining a single widow. Therefore, her choice to remarry is considerably reinforced (and, in fact, severely influenced) by her sense of obligation to Odysseus and his parting words. When it comes to who should make the decision and whether or not his mother is acting in the interest of the household, Telemachos is not at all consistent in his opinion. In Book IV, his hope (encouraged by Pallas Athene) takes him on an extensive journey in order to find out the demise of his father and in the meantime he has faith that his mother will continue to resist the suitors. In this case, he is obviously leaving the decision in the hands of his mother. As to whether or not remarriage would constitute infidelity, his opinion seems to hinge on what he finds on his journey. When he learns that his father is alive and well and staying in the palace in the guise of a beggar, Telemachos then decidedly takes a back seat in decision-making in the household, perhaps because he feels trumped by Odysseus' authority. His actions are limited to encouraging his mother to remarry on the condition that she felt that Odysseus was dead. Only in secret does he divulge to the serving woman Eurykleia that he feels his mother to be incapable of making an informed and practical decision: "That is the way my mother is, though she is sensible./ Impulsively she favors the wrong man, the worse one/ among mortals, and lets the better man go, unfavored" (Homer 20.134-135). Although public opinion around the situation is not revealed much at all in the Odyssey, it is generally assumed that the rest of society expects Penelope to remain the devoted wife until she hears that Odysseus is either alive or cannot return to Ithaka (Homer 16.75 and 23.149-151). In relation to Penelope's impending decision, the force of public opinion upon that choice should not be undermined in the least, even though Homer neglected that portion textually. Conversely, while the opinion of the suitors does not account for much in Penelope's eyes, but I want to include their rationale precisely because of it's prominent presence in the poem. According to the suitors, it is Penelope's parents should make the decision, not her. Furthermore, the question of fidelity to Odysseus is a moot point since they believe him to be dead and therefore his authorization of Penelope's remarriage should be of foremost concern. These expectations of Penelope in her decision-making aside, it is important to realize what Penelope has been told and/or believes to be true. This is a fact that I felt was ignored in Foley's essay. She does mention this fact on page 101 when she says that "critics have argued that because Penelope has received repeated signs that Odysseus' return is imminent, her decision to remarry is both ill-timed and an inadvertent betrayal of her husband" (Foley 101). However she refutes this view by saying that this point comes as a result of a focus on "the narrative context in which her choice is made" (Foley 101). Personally, I cannot see the value in this argument. The validity of Penelope's verbal admissions, in my opinion, cannot be ignored. I would argue that Penelope is much more intelligent and aware than most critics give her credit for. Also, there is evidence outside of that narrative context which, according to Foley, is invalid in determining her state of mind surrounding the incident. To be sure, Penelope does deny believing Eurykleia when she tells her of the slaughter of the suitors at Odysseus' hands, and only will refer to their slayer as "the man who killed them" (Homer 23.84). This fact, however, is overshadowed by the following narration that she inwardly was "pondering/ much, whether to keep away and question her dear husband,/ or to go up to him and kiss his head, taking his hands" (Homer 23.85-87). It is my contention that simply because Penelope reveals one thing in her conversations with others, it is not necessarily what she is truly thinking. Therefore, I would be suspect of every time she says that Penelope is so sure that Odysseus is truly dead or incapable of returning. If this were true, it would mean that she is undeserving of the reverence given her by Agammemnon in Hades and later Greek tradition. It would also be in opposition to Foley's assertion that "Even when she has reliable evidence from Eurykleia…Penelope refuses to recognize her husband until she has tested his knowledge of the ir bed" (Foley 102). To this, I would not discard the option that Penelope can be just as cunning and devious as Odysseus is in his guise as a beggar. Although she inwardly admits that the man awaiting her is truly Odysseus, she outwardly demonstrates suspicion because of her cleverness in avoiding trickery by a false Odysseus (Homer 23.215-216). Because of this fear she craftily gets her husband to tell her characteristics of their bed that only he would know. She does this by telling the servant to move it outside her own chamber for him to sleep on, knowing full well, however, that the bed is so heavy that "it would be difficult/ for even a very expert one, unless a god, coming/ to help in person, were easily to change its position" (Homer 23.184-186). Here Penelope once again demonstrates her wit in getting what she wants. I would also contradict Foley when she says that Penelope puts her fate into male hands but does so in a way that ensures him to be like her former husband (Foley 104). To that, I say that she is ensuring the winner to be her husband or none other. It cannot be ignored that the text indicates that only Odysseus would ever be able to accomplish the task Penelope sets before the suitors. Even Eumaios, a suitor, admits, "I do not think/ that this well-positioned bow can ever be strung so easily./ There is no man among the lot of us who is such a one/ as Odysseus used to be" (Homer 21.91-94). Surely, the wife of the godlike Odysseus would realize that such a feat is impossible (as it eventually proves itself to be) and would act accordingly. Although Homer never formally recognizes it in the text, I interpret this scene to be yet another web woven by the ingenious Penelope. In conclusion, Helene Foley's essay serves to call attention to the complexities that arise from outside expectations (those of Odysseus, Telemachos and the public) involved in her decision, but neglects to mention what she believes to be true about Odysseus' whereabouts. It is this former aspect of her thought process in making the decision to present the bow to the suitors as a more pressing concern to Penelope and ultimately makes her decision for her.