The title of Dorothy Parker’s poem “Penelope” alludes to the famously virtuous and loyal wife of Odysseus, the great hero of Homer’s ancient epic poem The Odyssey. Odysseus is away from his home, his wife, and his son for twenty years. He spends the first ten of those years trying, along with other Greeks, to attack and destroy the city of Troy. Finally the Greeks (thanks to Odysseus) invent the Trojan Horse and use it to trick the Trojans into allowing the Greeks to smuggle soldiers into the city. Troy is then decimated.
Attempting to sail home, Odysseus and his men encounter numerous delays and undergo many adventures. Finally, they make it back to Ithaka, where, with his son Telemachus, Odysseus slays the numerous suitors who have been pestering Penelope to marry one of them.
While Odysseus was away, Penelope had spent much of her time weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law. She tells the suitors that when she finishes weaving the shroud, she will choose one of them. However, each night she undoes her weaving, thus stalling for time.
Parker’s poem presents Penelope’s reflections on the situations in which she and Odysseus find themselves. She imagines him out on the sunny, breezy ocean, surrounded by beautiful seas and horizons. Meanwhile, speaking of herself, Penelope says,
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.
Penelope, in other words, feels confined, both physically and socially. She performs mundane social deeds (such as rising to heed a neighbor’s knock on a door), brewing her tea, and, above all, doing and undoing her weaving of the shroud. Her reference to “Bleach[ing] the linen for my bed” is especially intriguing, reminding us that for twenty years she is a loyal, sexually faithful and sexually isolated woman. She sleeps alone.
The final line of the poem is sardonic: People will call Odysseus “brave,” whereas she seems to assume that her own sacrifices will largely be forgotten. To some degree she is correct: Homer’s poem, after all, is called The Odyssey, not The Penelopiad. Men wrote the rules and did the writing; men determined what was celebrated and what was simply taken for granted. Parker’s poem is a small protest against the fact that Odysseus is famous whereas Penelope is comparatively unknown. In fact, by naming her poem “Penelope,” Parker seeks to provide a bit more balance, if only slightly. Odysseus is the subject of a lengthy epic; Penelope, in Parker’s poem, receives just ten lines, and even half of those are focused on Odysseus.
Penelope, in Parker’s poem, seems slightly bitter about the contrast between her life and the life of Odysseus, and she seems slightly jealous of the reputation he will eventually enjoy. She, after all, does not here call him “brave.” In fact, she makes his voyages sound like a holiday cruise, which is far from the truth. One could even argue that the poem, however much it elicits sympathy for Penelope, also provokes some sympathy for Odysseus as well. If his wife only knew the challenges he is facing as he tries to return to her, she herself might also call him “brave.”
There is also some irony in the fact that we know about Penelope, and value her as much as we do, precisely because she is presented by the male poet Homer as such a thoroughly admirable figure.