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While Celine Dion’s sentiments of “My Heart Will Go On” from the Titanic are touching, Odysseus and Penelope’s reunion begs the question: does the heart truly go on and on?  It easy to become caught up in Penelope’s misery and Odysseus’ desire to return to Ithaca, yet their reunion is not as heartfelt as one might expect—it is about the desire for truth.  While there is no doubt of Penelope’s faithfulness, Odysseus’ wiles and craftiness lead the reader to believe that perhaps Odysseus’ heart has changed within the last twenty years.

From Book One, the reader is shown how keenly Penelope yearns for her missing husband—“‘the unforgettable grief, it wounds me most of all!/ How I long for my husband—alive in memory, always’” (1.393-4).  As much as Penelope weeps throughout the Telemachia and instead of a romantic make-out session worthy of any B-rated movie, the reader is given a twisted and deceitful game of mistrust.  When Penelope asks her disguised husband who is he, Odysseus turns the question on her.  “‘My good woman… no man on the face of the earth could find fault with you./  Your fame, believe me, has reacted the vaulting skies’” (19.116-8).  This is a clear-cut example of deflection.  The quote above and his following simile have no place with his desire to not answer her question.  Why deflect an opportunity to reveal himself to his wife?  One possibility is that he does not want to reveal himself to her incase of infidelity.  “I’ll stay here behind/ to test the women, test your mother too,” Odysseus tells Telemachus (47-8).  He trusts her so little that he creates a lie after lie to satisfy his own selfish mistrust.  His Cretan lie—“falsehoods all”—only causes Penelope to suffer more and brings her to tears (234).

Once Penelope is able to control herself, she too has craft to weave.  Her inquiry into Odysseus’ clothing when he traveled to Crete is wily and justifiably so.  With as long as she has been living with liars and their tricks it is only natural for her to be wary (no matter how moved she may be) of information of Odysseus she gains.  Homer calls Penelope “cautious,” and rightly so (574).  Her explanation of her past twenty years shows the reader that she too is well versed in wiles and lies, and she desires as much truth from Odysseus from her “test” of him (249).  Yet Odysseus’s tests end in a satisfactory answer while Penelope’s end in tears.

An interesting dynamaic within Book Nineteen is the names that Odysseus and Penelope are called by each other and by Homer.  Homer calls Penelope “alert… wise… grief-stricken… reserved… discreet… cautious… seasoned… wise” which the reader can agree with, yet Odysseus’ names for her catch the reader off guard (97, 137, 242, 354, 408, 574, 630, 662).  In his first greeting, he calls her “my good woman” and in his second speech to her he says “my lady… wife of Laertes’ son, Odysseus” (116, 186).   The leap from “woman” to “my lady” is quite a large one and its reason can only be found in the text.  Between the two titles is Penelope’s story of her past twenty years—her years of faithfulness to her husband and her fears for the future.  Odyssesus calls her “my lady” out of respect for her devotion to him and adds  “wife of Laertes’ son, Odysseus” to remind her of whom her loyalties belong to.  Odysseus is no doubt ruffled by the question of his return (especially since he is right in front of her) and such comments are meant to bring her back to the reality of Odysseus’ return.  When Penelope tests him for the first time, he refers back to “good woman” now dropping the “my” from before (253).   The revert back to “woman” from “lady” shows how unhappy he is with her questions of him.  Yet when she gives him a pleasing response to his tale, back to the niceties of “noble wife of Laertes’ son, Odysseus” (301).  When Penelope offers to have Odysseus bathed and pampered like he would have been as King of Ithaca, he turns down the offer calling her “my queen” (384).  However, the kind names end with the confession of Penelope’s dream.  While Penelope turns to the disguised stranger as she would Odysseus in his husband capacity, her misunderstanding and doubt in her dream’s meaning can be seen as the source of Odysseus’ frustration and Penelope’s title demotion.  When it comes to Odysseus’ titles however, Penelope is much more straightforward.  Throughout their conversation, Odysseus’ trickery gains Penelope’s trust.  Odysseus’ name “stranger” changes to “my friend” after Odysseus passes Penelope’s tests (114, 354).  While Odysseus hides his true nature from Penelope, Homer is upfront with Odysseus’ titles—“master of craft… the master improviser…  the great master of subtlety… the crafty man… wily… quick” (116, 185, 254, 384, 624).

The truly heartbreaking part of their shared deception and search for truth is how miserable the two are.

Odysseus’ heart went out to his grief-stricken wife

but under his lids his eyes remained stock-still—

they might have been horn or iron—

his guile fought back his tears….

As seen in lines 242-245, the pain is palpable throughout Book Nineteen.  While Odysseus and Penelope are certainly not like Jack and Rose, the question remains—is love enough to sustain a couple through the hardest of life’s situations.  For Penelope it is and at times it appears the same applies to Odysseus: their future is left up to the reader—a true choose-your-own-adventure.  Whether Odysseus returns from his final prophetic journey or whether he dies through the will of the Gods, the reader has the power to decide if a happy ending is in their future.

22 Responses to “Choose Your Own Adventure – Penelope and Odysseus in Book 19”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Charlotte,

    This is a good paper with some excellent textual analysis. Of course, we would have to check the Greek to make the points fully stand up. But this translation is a pretty solid one and so I would expect most, if not all, of your points to track.

    Your analysis of the woman/lady transitions are great. That is a very carefully written scene which is fraught with tension. We know that Odysseus is testing Penelope (19.48-49), but we also know that Penelope is capable of enchanting and seducing men (18.316-318; the parallels with both Circe and Helen are striking). So what is going on in this scene? I think there are suggestions, as I mentioned in class, that Penelope knows all along, or at least guesses, and that she is testing Odysseus and not just tesing the beggar. Regardless, as I said, you pay very close attention to Homer’s word choices, and that is exactly what we should be doing. So great job there.

    Re: Penelope’s fame reaching the vaulting skies (19.116-118), we have of course seen something like this before: Odysseus’ unveiling and self-disclosure to the Phaeacians (9.22). I think there is another reference, too, that I am forgetting. The point is that Penelope has a man’s fame, a hero’s fame–at least according to Odysseus (though it may be mere flattery), she is held in that high of a regard.

    Re: the importance of the “reserved” epithet and the business about Odysseus’ eyes being horn or iron, I think Alina’s paper would be helpful reading.

    I think you are right to suggest that the ending is a bit open. Will Odysseus come back? Will he finally get to settle down with Penelope? We know that this is her wish, at any rate (23.326-328). But we also get a hint there that she realizes that the gods will do as they wish. Aphrodite, of course, is responsible for Odysseus leaving in the first place (by inspiring Helen to generate the Trojan War), and remember I said that the Greek mentions Aphrodite at 22.469, when Odysseus commands Telemachus to kill the maids and “blot out of their minds the joys of love.” Is Athena getting her revenge on Aphrodite? Does that bode ill for even Odysseus and Penelope?

    KH

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