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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.


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