The way that marriage was looked at by ancient Greece was that you were to honor your spouse. The words "Until death do us part" are a good comparison to how important they thought marriage was. Throughout the Odyssey Penelope’s will and honor towards her husband is tested to the limit. It is thought by almost all that Odysseus is without doubt dead, and that he will not be returning from his battles at Troy. However, deep down inside of Penelope she believes that he will still return to her. Although others tell her that he is gone forever, she somehow knows that it is not true. Meanwhile all of the suitors are trying their hardest to marry her. Even though Penelope is very stubborn to the suitors they will not back down. I find it amazing that 10 years after her loving husband has been gone, Penelope stays devoted to Odysseus.

Throughout the poem there is a conflict with the suitors. Whether it is with Penelope, Telemachus, or even Odysseus, the suitors are strongly pushing for what they want. They will not leave the halls that still belong to Odysseus, and will not listen to Telemachus when he tells them to leave. They are feasting with their fine foods, and drinking their wine. The suitors basically let it be known that they will not go home until Penelope chooses to marry one of them. This is a very difficult position for a single woman to be in during this time period. Males had most of the power and wealth in Ancient Greece. One might think that it would be easy for these rude suitors to crack Penelope’s stubbornness towards them. However, her sanctity of marriage is so very strong. She does everything in her power to hold off and delay the suitors until her true love returns to Ithaca. When we look at classic happy endings in love stories it always turns out for the best. The Odyssey is a perfect example of a picture perfect ending. All of the negative characters fail in trying to court the lady, and her true love comes back for her in the end.

Penelope and the
(Penelope ignores the importunities of her suitors. J.W. Waterhouse: Penelope and the Suitors, courtesy of Carol Gerten-Jackson)

In ancient Greece, and even some cultures today, marriage is the most important commitment a person can make. It is giving yourself to another, and getting them in return. You are supposed to stick with your spouse through everything, even when times are most difficult. We have obviously seen a huge change in the way most look at marriage in this day and age. There is not as serious a commitment because we see married couples getting divorced all the time. On the other hand Penelope showed how much she cared for Odysseus, and how much she truly loved him. Even with a number of other suitors doing all they could to take her hand in marriage, she would not give in. Even though the Odyssey is not a love poem, Penelope shows why one can call it a happy ending. If she had not kept her bond to Odysseus then he would not have his lovely wife to come home to after all his heroics.

(There's a good general overview of marriage in ancient Greek literature which thoughtfully discusses marriage in other texts, not only the Odyssey; for a less, uh, warm and fuzzy look at marriage among the ancient Greeks, you can check an interpretation of Sappho's poetry, which rather unconventionally suggests that marriage was not the joyous event that we usually assume.)

<<--back to part 3 -- -- -- --forward to links>>