Skip to main content

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 39: Thoughts on Book XIX

Not the reunion between Penelope and Odysseus you were expecting, was it?

Of course, there is much else here besides, with Telemachus and Odysseus plotting the slaughter of the suitors and the wonderful story of Odysseus' naming and the origin of the scar; like a mystery writer, Homer has saved some vital information until the end. But what makes this book special are the scenes between Odysseus and Penelope.

Many readers of The Odyssey argue that it's somewhere around this section that Penelope realizes who her husband is--if not sooner. That can't be proven--the text, like Odysseus himself, is too wily for that--but there are a few things that allow a reader to infer that Penelope has more knowledge of the situation that she's letting on.

First, and most subtly, especially in translation, is Homer's language. Penelope and Odysseus, you may have noticed, are often described in similar ways: thoughtful, mindful, etc., depending on your translation. Remember when Penelope was told by the go-between that the stranger wanted to wait until later to have an audience with her? In her response, Penelope uses the same terms to praise this stranger's thoughtfulness that have been used consistently, and essentially exclusively, to describe herself and Odysseus. There are multiple cases of this linguistic identification throughout this and the preceding books, all indicating that Penelope is aware of this stranger's true identity perhaps as soon as he enters the palace.

Which brings us to the nurse. Eurycleia, before she even detects the scar that confirms his identity, tells the stranger that he looks very much like her master, Odysseus. Penelope certainly must have made the same realization, but she doesn't mention it to him--why? The simplest explanation is that, since Odysseus is in disguise for some reason, she plays along; she's just as aware of the untenable nature of the situation with the suitors as anyway else, perhaps more so. If her husband is in disguise instead of dealing with the problem outright, than the disguise must be integral to his plan to rid her and his house of the suitors forever. As a good wife, and a good match for Odysseus, she plays her part in the unfolding drama--even to the point where Athena, who's the personification of wisdom and strategy, is said to turn Penelope's head so that she won't hear the excited outcry of the old nurse upon recognizing her master.

Moreover, Penelope almost slips up when instructing Euycleia to wash the stranger's feet. The line presents quite a task for the translator, because it is essentially Penelope saying something and then trying to backtrack and correct what she's just said before finishing the sentence. Here's how it's rendered by Fitzgerald: "Come here, stand by me, faithful Eurykleia, / and bathe, bathe your master. I almost said, / for they are of an age, and now Odysseus' / feet and hands would be enseamed like his." There's a poetic stutter in the middle of the lines in the Greek, clearly indicating that Penelope starts one sentence but has to catch herself before she reveals more than she ought. She covers fairly well, but it's clear what she was starting to say.

Then comes the description of the dream-- the "waking vision" Penelope claims to have had in which Odysseus returns, disguised as an eagle and kills the suitors, represented by swans. She details it to him and he confirms the only obvious interpretation: Odysseus is at hand and death awaits the suitors. Penelope demurs, though certainly glad to have her husband, even in disguise, confirm that the suitors are soon to meet their deaths. What's most interesting about this is that, while we have had various portents and prophecies scattered throughout the poem, especially in the sections once Odysseus has returned to Ithaca, we've not heard of this vision before. Almost certainly, that's because she just made it up. She already knows it's Odysseus, she hears the bowl clatter to the floor when the nurse recognizes Odysseus' scar, and she devises this dream as a way to ensure that they're on the same page, essentially: death for the suitors, and soon.

And finally, there's the Test of the Bow. Once Odysseus has confirmed to Penelope that the suitors will be killed, Penelope outlines the test she will present to the various suitors. The one who wins will win her hand. More details about this challenge come later, but it's clear and sufficient to say now that this challenge is one which Odysseus, and perhaps only Odysseus, can perform. Just as Odysseus is testing his wife, confirming for himself that she remains unchanged and steadfast in her love for him, so, too, is Penelope testing him. Indeed, even after the suitors have been dispatched, Penelope will have a final test for her husband, perhaps the most perfect test that could be devised.

The thing to remember about Odysseus and Penelope, always, is that they are well matched and they love each other deeply. This is not a political alliance, or a marriage based on youth and beauty that faded over time. Their marriage is a meeting of minds, of souls--much like that of the King and Queen of Scheria, Alcinous and Arete. In fact, the depiction of Odysseus and Penelope is probably the first description of enduring, mature, romantic love in the entire Western canon. Penelope is the only woman worthy of Odysseus, but Odysseus is the only man worthy of Penelope. They cannot have their proper reunion with so much left undone; so they test each other and silently recommit to one another after twenty years apart.

*******************************************************************************

Some selected passages...

"As she listened on, her tears flowed and soaked her cheeks as the heavy snow melts down from the high mountain ridges, / snow the West Wind piles there and the warm East Wind thaws / and the snow, melting, swells the rivers to overflow their banks-- / so she dissolved in tears, streaming down her lovely cheeks, / weeping for him, her husband, sitting there beside her." (Fagles translation, lines 236-41)

I'm a sucker for a good Homeric simile, and this description of Penelope is one of the most beautiful. It also has the connotation of a long freeze thawing, which is especially apt given the circumstances.

"Destroy, I call it--I hate to say its name!" (Fagles, lines 299)

I don't know why this rather clever pun hasn't been used by previous translators before (the phrase is usually "unmentionable Ilium" or something similar), but I quite like it, even if it does seem a bit too witty at first blush. Penelope, however, is very clever and well-spoken, so I think it goes to her character.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Prague Blog: Preliminary -- Why?

Since I decided to uproot my entire life, move to a country I have never visited, and train in a career I have no experience with, people have often asked me, "Why?" I'm sure that many of them likely were wondering 'WHY?!?!?!" but, if so, they were polite enough to hide that fact. So, here, as the first (unofficial, preliminary) installment of my Prague Blog, I thought I would try to make the case for why this isn't a completely ridiculous thing to do.

The first starting premise for this is probably a key facet of my personality: I don't like things. Not, "there are things I don't like," but rather, on the whole, I don't care about physical things. I am not a thing person.* To a lesser extent, but still worth mentioning, I am not a creature comforts person. It is true that I go a bit stir crazy when I don't have access to walkable shops, etc., and I do have a great fondness for hot and cold running water and HVAC , but my needs in t…

Prague Blog: Preliminary -- What I Leave Behind

This post if pretty melancholy, and more personal than I often get. If you want more like this (or less), one way to ask is to go to https://www.patreon.com/sjcaustenite, become a Patron, and then exercise your right to request something more cheerful in the future.


**********************

When I first made the decision to move to Prague, I focused solely on the opportuity it presented. Once the decision had been made, however, I started to think of practicalities. Like, how good is their internet speed? (About the same as the USA's, if not better.) How much are smokes? (About $4.50 USD--yes, I know I should quit, but I would rather quit because I want to rather than because it's too expensive.) What's the gay scene like? (So thriving the NYT did a piece on it.) Do they have Pizza Hut? (The chain is returning to Prague this year after a 13 year hiatus.)

Generally, the things that make my life not just tolerable but enjoyable will be available in abundance. Oh, to be sure, t…

Prague Blog: Preliminary -- The Things I'm Carrying, in Video Form

In Book II of the Iliad, Homer (let's just call the author that) enumerates the forces that sailed from Greece to lay siege on Troy, and then does a similar, smaller listing of the Trojan force. The "Catalogue of Ships," as it's known, stops the forward momentum of the epic to make sure the reader understands the scene on the plains outside Troy. At the same time, it establishes a great deal about the power dynamics at play, and provides us greater insight into the characters involved. Sometimes, what (or who) you own can speak volumes about who you are. In that spirit, but with none of the grandeur, I'm making a list of all the things I kept when I left my apartment and, more to the point, all the things I am taking to Prague with me.

The first category is things I'm keeping but not taking. This includes about a hundred books, mostly from my time at St. John's; a Johnnie chair, a college graduation present from my mother; various small items of sentiment…