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What is Penelope's role in the Odyssey?
Penelope's role in the Odyssey is two-fold; firstly she is the point to which the plot is always working and secondly she is developed as the worthy wife for Odyssey, just as Telemachus is his worthy son in books two to four and Athene is his equivalent among the gods. All the main characters of Odysseus' family (including Athene in terms of closeness and maternal care shown towards him) reflect qualities of the hero himself and this helps create a sense of understanding as to why he will risk everything to return to them and in particular turn down immortality to be with Penelope, his perfect partner. The oikos is an incredibly important theme in the Odyssey and Penelope's characterisation as a worthy wife is an integral part of this. "Odysseus alone was prevented from returning to the home and wife he yearned for." This is one of the opening lines of the Odyssey and sets out immediately the motivation for the plot and foreshadows where the ending will come; Penelope is his ultimate goal, it is for her that he strives and endures endlessly on the high seas, against monsters and eventually in the long isolation of Calypso's island. It was even proposed by some ancient critics that the Odyssey ended at book twenty three line 296 with the line, "And blissfully they lay down on their own familiar bed." Some modern critics agree but this seems altogether unlikely, nevertheless the point still stands that Odysseus' goal in reaching home was not the slaughter of the suitors but the re-union with his wife which occurs after this in book twenty three. When Penelope finally realises that her husband is home, bursts into tears and runs into his arms it is one of the most touching and heartfelt moments in the whole Homeric corpus; much more enjoyable than the powerful emotions of death in the Iliad. It serves as a release for protagonists and reader, it was for this moment that both Odysseus and Penelope have suffered for twenty long years and it was towards this embrace that the plot has constantly been striving. The simile used when they finally embrace is a good example of this point. "Her words stirred a great longing for tears in Odysseus' heart, and he wept as he held his dear and loyal wife in his arms. It was like the moment when the blissful land is seen by struggling sailors, whose fine ship Poseidon has battered with wind and wave and smashed on the high seas...It was bliss like that for Penelope to see her husband again." The simile of ship-wrecked sailors reaching land is a very apt one and in many ways is a condensed version of Odysseus' entire journey, but what is most interesting is the fact that it is Penelope's point of view that is focalised here. It is her that is the end goal of her husband's journey and it is right that Homer gives the simile and thereby full recognition of that fact. It also takes into account the level of her suffering as well and equates it to that of Odysseus who actually is a shipwrecked sailor returning home therefore in one simile Homer neatly expresses the two functions of Penelope. It would also be fair to say that the Odyssey takes it starting point from Penelope also, which is, of course, an essential part of why she is effective as an end point for the plot; books two to four give us an acute sense of the dangers and pressures Odysseus will face when he gets
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