Penelope and the Art of Memory in the Odyssey


“Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are,” writes the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard.[1] Athena might well have agreed:  at Odyssey 15.20-23 she criticizes the wife who forgets her former husband as soon as she leaves the physical site of their marriage.   The wife’s memories are contingent upon her new marriage and her new house.  In the words of Athena,  “she no longer remembers her dear dead husband, nor her children from her first marriage.”

In this paper, I examine Penelope’s claim (at Odyssey 19.577-81=21.75-79) that she will remember the house of Odysseus, in the light of Athena’s description of female memory.  Penelope’s decision to hold the bow contest (before which she speaks these lines) has often been read as a sign of her wavering marital fidelity.  But Penelope’s language, I argue, confirms her as committed to Odysseus in spite of her explicit intentions to re-marry.  In particular, when stating that she will remember the house of Odysseus, she uses a reduplicated form of the future infinitive (memnêsesthai) which suggests that her remembering will be continuous and omni-temporal (as opposed to discrete acts of recollection).  In contradistinction to Athena’s negative exemplum, Penelope represents herself as the wife who will always remember her previous husband.  Penelope suggests that, although physically removed from the material locus of her marriage, she will have strength of mind to keep her husband’s house (and his identity) continually present in her memory.  To this extent then, she figures herself as a living monument to Odysseus.

Penelope’s memory earns special mention from Agamemnon in the underworld when he praises Odysseus for having married such an excellent wife (24.192-98).  Taken together, these three commentaries on female memory (by Athena, Penelope, and Agamemnon) provide insight into the epic construction of marriage—the role of the good wife is to remember both husband and house—while suggesting that the activity of remembering itself is worthy of epic kleos.

[1]   Bachelard, G. (trans. Maria Jolas), The Poetics of Space, p.9.

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