Dora Wheeler, Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night, 1886, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, silk embroidery with silk thread.
Marie La Fond
In Dora Wheeler’s Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night, the Greek heroine Penelope is depicted pulling threads from her large, unfinished tapestry by the light of a small oil lamp. Remarkably, Wheeler’s piece is itself a needlewoven tapestry, and like the tapestry within the tapestry, it is also the work of a woman weaver. By weaving another woman’s act of (un)weaving, Wheeler engages meta-textually with a nexus of related ideas about feminine creativity and authorship, and through the crucial placement and posture of her woven Penelope as a mirror image of herself, she weaves her own story into the monumental tapestry of myth.
In the Odyssey, Penelope, wife of the hero Odysseus and his equal in intellect, ingenuity, and endurance, remained at home on the island of Ithaca during her husband’s extended absence. As Odysseus spent 20 years participating in the Trojan War and then wandering the world on his way home, Penelope managed the household, a task made increasingly difficult by the horde of suitors who presumed Odysseus dead and began pressuring Penelope to select one of their rank to marry – and living off Odysseus’s property in the meantime (Morford et al. 519, 527). To avoid remarrying, and thus transferring Odysseus’s property to another man, Penelope told the suitors she would choose one of them when she had finished weaving a tapestry to serve as a burial cloak for Odysseus’s father, Laertes; by day, she would weave the tapestry, and by night, she would unravel her day’s work so that she would never finish her task and never reach the dreaded day of remarriage (Morford et al. 527, 529).
The ruse of the weaving is one of the most prominent parts of Penelope’s narrative, and it is through her weaving (and unweaving) that Penelope exerts control over herself and her story. In her book entitled Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought, Ann Bergren examines the knotted intersection between women, weaving, language, truth, and authority in ancient Greek ideology, and she uses Wheeler’s tapestry as a “graphic introduction” to her subject (1). Bergren explains that in Greek thought, weaving (which was specifically women’s work) was metaphorically linked with speech, especially poetry, and by extension with the construction and control of truth and reality (13-9). Penelope’s ability to weave and unweave makes her akin to a poet, controlling threads in the tapestry of her and her family’s story. Wheeler’s choice to depict Penelope during her nightly unweaving emphasizes Penelope’s artistic authority over a story that is always in flux and always in the making.
Wheeler’s portrayal differs from ancient Greek art, in which Penelope is usually shown seated by her loom with her head bowed in thought (La Fond 04:27-04:35). Other ancient depictions of women weaving typically show the women from the back or in profile, but Wheeler notably depicts Penelope frontally (Bergren 6). Bergren comments on the way Penelope is placed: “She stands upright like the threads of the warp. Her arms are stretched out from her shoulders, in line with the weft threads she pulls away from her web. In this posture, the body of Penelope parallels her weaving. By turning her back upon it, she becomes her web’s duplicate. Woman is her weaving” (6). Penelope’s outward-facing stance causes her to meld with the tapestry behind her, which is depicted blank like a canvas, so that she becomes the subject of her own weaving, and simultaneously the subject of the larger tapestry, the meta-text in the sense of Latin textus, “that which is woven” (Bergren 1). Bergren analyzes Penelope’s web in the Odyssey architecturally as a woven wall that covers (and deceives) (ch. 8). But in Wheeler’s tapestry, Penelope’s frontal posture and life-size depiction suggest not a wall that blocks from view but a mirror that reflects an image back – and the reflection of this woman (un)weaving is Wheeler herself. Through her mirror image, Wheeler signals her authorial control to make, unmake, and remake her tapestry and thus herself. Wheeler becomes, like Penelope, the subject of her own tapestry – and becomes, like Penelope, the subject of the tapestry within the tapestry, Penelope’s web. Wheeler thus weaves herself into the legacy of feminine creativity and locates her own story in the overarching tapestry of myth.
Bergren, Ann. Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought. Hellenic Studies Series 19, Harvard UP, 2008.
La Fond, Marie. “Homeward Bound: The Odyssey.” Greek and Roman Myth. University of Washington, June 2021, canvas.uw.edu/courses/1457478/pages/lesson-8-video-lectures?module_item_id=13108141. Accessed 21 June 2021.
Morford, Mark, et al. Classical Mythology. 11th ed., Oxford UP, 2019.