Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission
Source: Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission

Introduction

Let’s start with a simple question:

Would you like to be betrayed, forgotten, or abandoned for other younger and more divine bodies?

Hell, no!

Then, I ask you, do you consider Penelope and Odysseus’ story to be a romantic one?

Wait, did you say yes!?

I know. Penelope and Odysseus have been depicted over the centuries as an example of love, and they have also been The Couple in literature; as in Book XXVI of Inferno (79-142), when Dante highly praises their love. Yet the romantic essence of this story still looks so elusive to me. The ethics of their love seem to be so heartbreaking, that I have to investigate it in this short (maybe too short) post.

Can love be ethical?

Certainly, we fall in love not because it is the right thing to do, but because it feels right.

Romantic feelings and emotions arise with no control. Of course, we do have control over them—we can choose whether we want to let them grow or push them back. Nevertheless, we cannot choose our feelings.

In that sense, to me love itself seems to be another form of ethic. In morality as well as in love, radical freedom is required. As Kant remarked, if we were obliged to behave properly, no actual choice would be left to us, and without choice no moral action would actually exist. It would be just imitation or obedience. Similarly, in love, if I were obliged to love someone, then that love would certainly not be real.

In both cases, fear seems to be what restrains us from living that kind of freedom. We decide to stick to a set of rules because hopefully other people will do the same as us, and coexistence will be easier.

Yet, what would happen if we overcame that fear and were left completely free, what would we chose as the actual compass for our deeds? How would we manage the tides of feelings and desires that we happen to experience?

That is where the story of Odysseus and Penelope can guide us to an answer.

Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission
Source: Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission

The Story

After 20 years of adventures Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) is ready to come back home. Having fought for 10 years against tremendous warriors in the Trojan War, resisted (more or less) for another 10 years the charm of enchanting women and defeating frightening giants, now he is in front of the gates of his kingdom, at last. Athena, his protector, helped him to reach his island, Ithaca (Book XIII); but his problems are not over.

In fact, he is in front of the gates, but as a beggar. He is not the lord of his kingdom anymore, and he does not look like a king either. He is poor, with a ragged beard and torn clothes. He needs to find his way to the palace where his enemies are now the new lords.

Eumaeus, his old counselor, and Telemachus, his son, who didn’t recognize him at first, help Odysseus find his way to the palace; the plan was to amuse the suitors with a fight among beggars (Book XV). The winner would have the privilege to be the only beggar allowed inside the palace. Needless to say, Odysseus wins, having an enviable muscular and deft body. (Book XVI)

Yet, once inside, a nightmare is unfolding in front of him: his worst enemies are everywhere, behaving intolerably not only toward his possessions, his house, but toward his family too; wasting his money, mocking his son, and most unbearably harassing his wife. His wife. For twenty years he has not seen her, smelled her hair, or looked into her eyes. (Book XVII)

She does not look a day older, and her beauty is no less striking than the day of their farewell. She does not recognize him, although Argo (his dog) and Eurycles (his nurse) do. But it is not the time for him to reveal to Penelope his identity. (Book XVIII)

The Story within the story

A short pause here. On Odysseus’ choice to not reveal himself immediately, Malerba wrote a novel, 'Itaca per sempre '(Ithaca for ever), in which he imagined Penelope being mad at Odysseus for that choice. Not recognizing him was a pretense. She decided to resist his attempts to convince her—even Athena’s effort to make him more attractive does not win over Penelope’s will (XXIII, vv.166-172)!

Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission
Source: Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission

Back to the story

At any rate, now “polymethis” (cunning) Odysseus is inside his kingdom and thanks to his son’s help, he wins Penelope’s suitors. He reveals his identity to Penelope but despite the general joy, she is conservative and cautious. For 20 years she had kept all her pretenders at bay with the stratagem of the shroud. She promised that she would marry one of them after the shroud for her father-in-law's eventual burial was finished: every day she wove that shroud, and each night she unraveled nearly all of the day's work. Now that they had understood the trick (one might say that these suitors were a little slow and simple minded people) Penelope is in serious trouble; but yet she can’t believe that the solution to her problems is standing in front of her, in the shape of that old man, the one she has been waiting twenty years for. When she calls Eurycleia to bathe the guest, she tells the nurse to "come and wash your master's . . . equal in years" (19.407). While Euryclea does not need proof to recognize him, Penelope does. Telemachus even accuses her to have (XXIII, vv.96-103; II, vv. 356-359) a heart of stone. Maybe she really does not want to give away her power so easily and be subjected to a stranger king; or, as Malerba suspected, she was offended by Odysseus’s silence and was taking her revenge.

In any case, Odysseus had to find a more personal truth to convince her about his identity. Here is where their story strikes the deepest cord—the two of them shared a secret that was theirs only. He tells her that their bed was made by him out of olive wood and could not be moved because it had been carved into an honest-to-Zeus olive tree (Book XXIII, vv. 177-179). After that proof Penelope is his again--he regained her absolute trust.

Might this be the answer?

Is that bed the answer we were looking for? Is this the compass that keeps love free and ethical at the same time? Does this bed represent a lucky connection that persists despite the years; a place to which they both want to come back?

The last verses say: “and went to bed themselves throughout the shadowy hall. When the two had had their full enjoyment of lovely love, they took delight in stories, telling them to one another” (Book XXIII, 299-301).

Despite the years, the distance, the pain, in one word - life, with an act of absolute freedom they want to come to their bed, their hidden secret, and share stories with each other.

This might simply be the essence of love.

Finding each other in absolute freedom and independence.

Odysseus betrayed and abandoned Penelope.  If I were Penelope I would not be happy to live that kind of love, but yet that love still seems to be ethical to me because they lived in a space of absolute freedom and autonomy. They made their choices about their lives, and yet they found each other again.

A conclusion 

Similar to ethics, love does not stem from any specific category. It does not have to be a specific way—mono/poli-amorous, peaceful, passionate, reassuring--, it is what partners choose to do about their love in every crucial crossroad of their relationship that makes that love true and ethical at once. Love lies in the fact that the partners are willing to choose and find each other, well… maybe, that is the part that is left to the good luck.