Odyssey Essay - Critical Essays

John A. Byrne, John Sculley



Odyssey c. Eighth Century B.C.

Greek poem.

For information on the Iliad, see CMLC, Volume 1.

The Odyssey is considered one of the greatest literary achievements of Western civilization. Composed of twenty-four books totaling over 12,000 lines, it details the wanderings of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and focuses on his honor, bravery, resourcefulness, and nobility. Although the Odyssey has been deemed inferior to Homer's other epic, the Iliad, by many critics, it has been praised for its structural sophistication, thematic consistency, and complex characterization.

Plot and Major Characters

The story of the Odyssey begins ten years after the fall of Troy, during which interval Odysseus has been trying to return to Ithaca, where his wife, Penelope, is faithfully waiting for his return. The reader is first introduced to the hero, Odysseus, in Book V, near the end of his seven-year captivity by the goddess Calypso. Under Zeus's orders, Calypso releases Odysseus, who, after building an improvised boat, resumes his journey home. Along the way Odysseus stops at the island of Phaeacia, where he meets the young princess Nausicaa and recounts to the Phaeacians his adventures during the first three years after the Trojan War— with the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, and the Sirens. Odysseus sets out to sea again and upon his arrival in his kingdom discovers that Penelope is being courted by suitors who are also plotting to kill his son, Telemachos. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus mingles with the suitors in his palace, talks with Penelope, and is recognized by his old nurse, Eurycleia. He is also reunited with Telemachos, and together they plan their revenge against the suitors. Penelope, longing for Odysseus's return but realizing that she can no longer delay replying to the suitors' marriage requests, decides to hold a bow-and-arrow contest and offers herself as the prize. The suitors try in vain to string Odysseus's bow, and finally Odysseus (still dressed as a beggar) steps forward to try. He succeeds, revealing his identity, and together he and Telemachos kill the suitors; Odysseus then approaches Penelope, who is still not convinced that he is truly her husband. As a final test to determine if her husband has really returned home, Penelope asks Odysseus a question about their marriage bed, and his correct answer proves his identity. They go to their bed, make love, and exchange stories of what has happened since they were last together. Odysseus then resumes his place as King of Ithaca and restores peace to his kingdom.

Major Themes

The central theme of the Odyssey is that of disguise and recognition. The clearest example of this is Odysseus's concealment of his identity from his friends and family in Ithaca and the subsequent private scenes of recognition that structure the second half of the poem. Odysseus reveals his identity to a number of characters in the poem: his son, Telemachos, who then makes plans to help him kill the suitors; his dog, Argus, who recognizes his scent and dies from the excitement of his master's return home; his nurse, who sees the scar on his thigh by which she recognizes Odysseus as she bathes him; his wife, Penelope, who is cautious to believe he has returned; his father, Laertes, who regains physical and emotional strength upon his son's return home; and the suitors, who are punished for their selfish and underhanded actions during Odysseus's absence. Sheila Murnaghan has noted that, furthermore, "the reunions of these characters with Odysseus involve these characters' own shedding of disguise and recognition as well as his." Laertes, for example, sheds his rags and the weakness of old age upon Odysseus's return, becoming the strong patriarch that Odysseus left behind twenty years earlier. Telemachos also undergoes a change, but, unlike that of Laertes, it is not a recovery of a previous state but growth into a new state of maturity. The complex nature of the two main characters, Odysseus and Penelope, also plays an important part in the Odyssey. W. B. Stanford has praised Odysseus as "one of the fullest and most versatile characters in literature: a symbol of the Ionic-Greek Everyman in his eloquence, cleverness, unscrupulousness, intellectual curiosity, courage, endurance, shrewdness," and Nancy Felson-Rubin has observed that, "the Penelope who emerges by the end of the poem is a forceful figure who operates imaginatively within the constraints of her situation and succeeds in keeping her options open until she reaches safety in her husband's embrace."

Textual History

Authorship of the Odyssey has traditionally been attributed to the blind Greek bard Homer, but his relation to the Iliad and the Odyssey has incited much scholarly inquiry and has brought together the efforts of experts in such fields as archeology, linguistics, art, and comparative literature. As a result of their research, three main theories regarding the composition of the poems have emerged: the analytic, the separatist, and the unitarian. Until the publication of Friedrich Adolph Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795, the notion that Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey was largely undisputed. However, citing certain inconsistencies and errors in the texts, Wolf asserted that the two works were not the compositions of one poet, but the products of many different authors at work on various traditional poems and stories over time. Wolf's argument convinced many critics—who were subsequently termed the analysts—but also inspired the notorious authorship controversy known as the "Homeric question." Another theory that escalated at this time was that of the separatists, who believed that the Odyssey and the Iliad were written by two different authors who may not have even known about each other's works. While these two views prevailed throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were ultimately challenged by an opposing group of critics, the unitarians, whose primary spokesman was Andrew Lang. The unitarians insisted that a single individual of genius composed the Homeric epics, supporting their claim by citing a unified sensibility, original style, and consistent use of themes and imagery in the poems. Another theory, proposed by Samuel Butler in 1897, asserted that the Odyssey was written by Nausicaa, a young woman from Trapani and a member of King Alcinous's household, but this theory has been widely discredited among scholars.

The textual history of the Odyssey is assumed to have begun with an oral version of the poem which was transmitted by local bards and probably recorded on papyri shortly after Homer's death. Although Homeric Greece did not yet have a system of writing appropriate for literary texts, records indicate that a Phoenician alphabet may have been adapted and used for this purpose in the eighth century B.C. Once set down in writing, the poems most likely became the exclusive proprety of the Homeridae, or sons of Homer, a bardic guild whose members performed and preserved the poems. Scholars believe that in the second half of the sixth century B.C. the Athenian dictator Peisistratus, who ruled from 560-27 B.C., established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations that had accumulated in the process of transmission—thereby establishing a Canon of Homer. Fragments of papyrus have been found in Egypt, the earliest dating from the third century B.C., but the oldest complete manuscript is the Laurentianus of the tenth or eleventh century A.D. The first printed edition of Homer's poetry appeared in Europe in 1488 and remained in use until the seventeenth century. Many translations of the Odyssey have subsequently been published; critics agree that the most influential translations have been those by George Chapman, Alexander Pope, Samuel Butler, and Richmond Lattimore.

Critical Reception

The Odyssey has often been unfavorably compared to the Iliad by critics who have condemned it for its excessive repetitiveness, drawn-out narrative, and lack of unity. Yet in spite of its weaknesses, the Odyssey is still considered one of the greatest literary works of all time. G. S. Kirk has stated that, "no one in his senses can deny that the poem is a marvelous accomplishment," and Stephen V. Tracy has asserted that, "the Odyssey has something for everyone; it is a highly entertaining adventure story." One aspect of the poem on which scholars have focused is that of the origin and artistic merit of the first four books of the Odyssey, collectively known as the Telemachia. Cited by some critics as evidence in support of the analytic theory because of its distinctive treatment, the Telemachia, according to other critics, is indeed a part of the original story and figures prominently as a necessary link to establishing Odysseus's importance and stature within Ithaca. Pointing out the centrality of the Telemachia in the Odyssey, J. W. Mackail has commented that, "nothing in the Iliad is such a feat of design as the way in which the first four books of the Odyssey do not bring Odysseus onto the scene at all and yet imply him through every line as the central figure." Differences in style between the Odyssey and the Iliad have also prompted significant debate, particularly the Odyssey's greater emphasis on myth, prominence of women in the poem, and downplaying the lore of warfare. Samuel Eliot Bassett has noted that, "the Iliad is a tale of war, unmarked by trickery: the Odyssey of domestic intrigue," and Andrew Lang has observed that, "the Odyssey is calmer, more reflective, more religious than the Iliad, being a poem of peace." Examining the role of the gods in the Odyssey, Samuel Butler has noted an evolution, contending that "in the Odyssey the gods no longer live in houses and sleep in four-post bedsteads, but the conception of their abode, like that of their existence altogether, is far more spiritual." As early as the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope cautioned, "whoever reads the Odyssey with an eye to the Iliad, expecting to find it of the same character, or of the same sort of spirit, will be grievously deceived." Although critics still debate the relative merits of the Odyssey compared to those of the Iliad, most agree with Stanford's assertion that "few long poems equal it in the variety and charm of its word-music, and few stories surpass it in sustained excitement and human interest."

Principal English Translations

The Odysseys of Homer (translated by George Chapman) 1614

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Alexander Pope) 1725

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (translated by William Cowper) 1791

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Theodore Alois Buckley) 1855

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by William Cullen Bryant) 1871

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by S. H. Butcher and A. Lang) 1888

The Odyssey (translated by Samuel Butler) 1900

The Odyssey (translated by J. W. Mackail) 1903-10

The Odyssey (translated by A. T. Murray) 1919...

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George Chapman (essay date 1614)

SOURCE: A dedication to the Odyssey, in Chapman's Homer: The "Iliad," the "Odyssey," and the Lesser Homerica, Vol. 2, edited by Allardyce Nicoll, Pantheon Books, 1956, pp. 3-8.

[A successful English dramatist and poet, Chapman is chiefly remembered as a scholar and translator of Homer's works. While his merits as a translator are often debated by scholars, his Iliad and Odyssey remain landmarks in Homer studies. In his 1614 dedication of the Odyssey to Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, Chapman deems Homer "the most wise and most divine Poet."]


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René Le Bossu (essay date 1675)

SOURCE: "Selections from Treatise of the Epick Poem (1675) translated by W. J.," in The Continental Model: Selected French Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, in English Translation, edited by Scott Elledge and Donald Schier; revised edition, Cornell, 1970, pp. 307-23.

[Le Bossu was a French critic best known for his Treatise on Epic Poetry, written in 1675. Much discussed in England even before it was translated into English, the Treatise was severely criticized by Samuel Johnson and, in France, by Voltaire for its rigid rules concerning epic poetry. In the following excerpt from that work, Le Bossu analyzes Homer's crafting of the hero of the Odyssey,...

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Thomas Hobbes (essay date 1675)

SOURCE: "Preface to Homer (1675)," in Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, Vol. II: 1650-1685, edited by J.E. Spingarn, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1908, pp. 67-76.

[Hobbes is best known for such philosophical writings as Human Nature (1650), Elements of Law (1650), Leviathan; or, the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), and Elements of Philosophy (1655). As a young man he knew Francis Bacon and assisted the great Lord Chancellor in translating several of his essays into Latin. Hobbes was greatly influenced by the works of Galileo and his contemporary, Descartes. In his 1675 preface to the Odyssey, Hobbes...

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Alexander Pope (essay date 1725)

SOURCE: A postscript to The "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" of Homer, edited by W. C. Armstrong, translated by Alexander Pope, Leavitt and Allen, 1848, pp. 401-19.

[Pope has been called the greatest English poet of his time and one of the most important in the history of world literature. As a critic and satirical commentator on eighteenth-century England, he was the author of work that represents the epitome of Neoclassicist thought. His greatness lies in his cultivation of style and wit, rather than sublimity and pathos, and this inclination shaped his criticism of other writers. In the following excerpt from the postscript to his 1725 translation of the Odyssey, Pope argues that the...

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Thomas De Quincey (essay date 1841)

SOURCE: "Homer and the Homeridae," in The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, edited by David Masson, A. & C. Black, 1897, pp. 7-95.

[An English critic and essayist, De Quincey used his own life as the subject of his best-known work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), in which he chronicled his addiction to opium. He contributed reviews to a number of London journals and earned a reputation as an insightful if occasionally long-winded literary critic. At the time of his death, De Quincey's critical expertise was underestimated, though his talent as a prose writer had long been acknowledged. In the following excerpt from an article first published in...

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Samuel Butler (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: "Who Was the Writer?", in The Authoress of the Odyssey: Where and When She Wrote, Who She Was, the Use She Made of the "Iliad, " and How the Poem Grew under Her Hands, 1897. Reprint by University of Chicago Press, 1967, pp. 200-09.

[An English novelist, satirist, essayist, and translator, Butler is best known for his The Way of All Flesh (1903), an autobiographical novel that satirizes Victo-rian church and family life. As a Homeric scholar, Butler achieved notoriety for his The Authoress of the Odyssey, in which he propounded the theory that the Odyssey was written by a woman. In the following excerpt from that work, he contends that the Odyssey was...

(The entire section is 3850 words.)

Andrew Lang (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: "Notes of Change in the Odyssey" in Homer and His Age, 1906. Reprint by AMS Press, 1968, pp. 229-43.

[Lang was one of England's most powerful men of letters during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. A romantic vision of the past imbued Lang's writings, coloring his work as a translator, poet, and revisionist historian. Among the chief proponents of Romanticism in a critical battle that pitted late-nineteenth-century revivalist Romanticists against the defenders of Naturalism and Realism, Lang espoused his strong preference for romantic adventure novels throughout his literary criticism. In this essay, Lang contends that there are few societal differences between...

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Franz Kafka (essay date 1924?)

SOURCE: "The Silence of the Sirens," translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, in Parables in German and English, Schocken Books, 1947, pp. 75-77.

[Regarded as a major figure in twentieth-century liter-ature, Kafka was an original, profoundly moral writer whose central concern was with the essential loneliness of modern man struggling to comprehend an incomprehensible world. His literary reputation rests largely upon the posthumous publication of Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1935), Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), and Amerika (1927; America, 1938), which relate surreal, nightmarish stories of alienation. In the following essay, originally written in...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

Werner Jaeger (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "Nobility and Areté," in Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Vol. I, second edition, translated by Gilbert Highet, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1945, pp. 3-14.

[Jaeger was a German educator and classics scholar whose works include Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development(1934) and Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture(1939-44). In the following excerpt from the latter work, originally published in German in 1934 under the title Paideia: Die Formung des Griechischen Menschen,Jaeger examines the Iliad and the Odyssey as examples of the early Greek aristocratic culture, noting the embodiment of those ideals in the...

(The entire section is 4687 words.)

Samuel Eliot Bassett (lecture date 1936?)

SOURCE: "The Epic Illusion (Continued)" in The Poetry of Homer, University of California Press, 1938, pp. 57-80.

[Bassett was an influential Greek scholar and one of the foremost Homeric specialists of his time. In this excerpt from a posthumously published collection of lectures, he analyzes Homer's use of dialogue to create the "illusion of personality" in the characters of the Odyssey and the Iliad.]

No poetic picture of past human life can produce the illusion of reality if it does no more than convince us with its general likeness to life. The real world that we know is peopled with other human beings no two of whom are identical. The more intimately...

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Erich Auerbach (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Odysseus' Scar," in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1953, pp. 3-23.

[Auerbach was a German-born American philologist and critic. He is best known for his Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der Abendländischen Literature (1946; Mimesis, The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 1953), a landmark study in which the critic explores the interpretation of reality through literary representation. In the following excerpt from that work, Auerbach compares the discourse, perspective, detail, and historical development of the Odyssey with that of several Old...

(The entire section is 9496 words.)

Mark Van Doren (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "The Odyssey," in The Noble Voice: A Study of Ten Great Poems, Henry Holt and Company, 1946, pp. 45-85.

[Van Doren was one of the most prolific men of letters in twentieth-century American writing. He wrote accomplished studies of Shakespeare, John Dryden, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, and served as the literary editor and film critic for the Nation during the 1920s and 1930s. Van Doren's criticism is aimed at the general reader, rather than the scholar or specialist, and is noted for its lively perception and wide interest. Like his fiction and poetry (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939), his criticism consistently examines the inner life of...

(The entire section is 11976 words.)

E. M. W. Tillyard (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Homer: The Odyssey," in The English Epic and Its Background, Oxford University Press, 1954, pp. 21-39.

[Tillyard was an English scholar of Renaissance literature who remains highly reputed for his studies of John Milton, William Shakespeare, and the epic form. In the essay below, Tillyard details similarities between the Iliad and the Odyssey, maintaining that they are different but equally brilliant poems.]

Some readers think the Odyssey greatly inferior to the Iliad. T. E. Lawrence's chilly preface to his translation is a modern example of such an opinion, and Longinus's remark on the Odyssey,...

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W. B. Stanford (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "The Untypical Hero," in The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero, second edition, Basil Blackwell, 1963, pp. 66-80.

[Stanford was a writer on Greek literature, politics, and ecclesiastical affairs. In this essay, first published in 1954, he explores Odysseus's unconventionality as a hero, noting that Homer "skilfully succeeded in distinguishing Odysseus by slight deviations from the norm in almost every heroic feature."]

There is nothing freakish about Odysseus's personality in the Homeric poems. In the Iliad Homer endows him with the normal qualities of an Achaean hero—princely birth, good physique, strength, skill...

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Cedric H. Whitman (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "The Odyssey and Change," in Homer and the Heroic Tradition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958, pp. 285-309.

[An American classics scholar specializing in Greek literature, Whitman is highly esteemed as a Homer critic. In the following essay, he explores some societal and artistic changes that took place between the time of the Iliad and that of the Odyssey, and notes how these changes are reflected in the latter work.]

A study of Homer oriented … through the Iliad is bound to differ widely from one whose focus is primarily the Odyssey. For all their identity of style, the contrast between the...

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Albert B. Lord (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "The Odyssey," in The Singer of Tales, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960, pp. 158-85.

[A specialist in Slavic studies and contemporary literature, Lord has written extensively on folklore and folk epics. In this essay, he analyzes the structure of the Odyssey as oral epic, emphasizing its place within the context of other narrative oral poetry.]

In reading the Odyssey or the Iliad we are at a distinct disadvantage because we are reading isolated texts in a tradition. The comparison with other traditions shows us very clearly that songs are not isolated entities, but that they must be understood in terms...

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G. S. Kirk (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Odyssey," in The Songs of Homer, Cambridge University Press, 1962, pp. 355-71.

[An English professor of Greek, Kirk is the author of numerous critical works on classical authors, including several books on Homer. In this essay, Kirk assesses the flaws of the Odyssey, contending that while "the poem is a marvellous accomplishment" it "fails to achieve the profound monumental effect of the Iliad."]

The Odyssey is a poem of greater structural sophistication than the Iliad. This is seen particularly in the division of the action between Ithaca, the Peloponnese, Calypso's island, Scherie and, by reminiscence, the scenes of...

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Howard W. Clarke (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Telemachus and the Telemacheia," in The Art of the Odyssey, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967, pp. 30-44.

[In the following essay, first published in the American Journal of Philology in 1963, Clarke discusses the first four books of the Odyssey, known collectively as the Telemacheia, which deal with Telemachus' journey and his gradual coming of age.]

The criticism of Homeric epic has become so formalized over the centuries that it has developed denominations to accommodate scholars of various persuasions. There are, first, the "Separatists," who believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey are by two different poets, who may...

(The entire section is 7123 words.)

H. D. F. Kitto (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Odyssey" in Poiesis: Structure and Thought, University of California Press, 1966, pp. 116-52.

[A British critic, translator, and specialist on Hellenic drama, Kitto has written extensively on ancient Greek literature, theater, and history. In this excerpt, he defends the structure and theme of the Odyssey.]

There are two Homeric questions. There is the one first asked by Lachmann and eagerly debated ever since: one Homer, or two, or a multitude? The other is: What are the poems about? How did Homer think? We can consider the poems either as historic monuments (which they are), or as poems (which they are). I admit that the two questions are not...

(The entire section is 5271 words.)

C. M. Bowra (essay date 1971?)

SOURCE: "The Odyssey: Its Shape and Character," in Homer, Gerald Duckworth & Company Limited, 1972, pp. 117-40.

[Bowra, an English critic and literary historian, was considered among the foremost classical scholars of the first half of the twentieth century. He also wrote extensively on modern literature, particularly modern European poetry, in studies noted for their erudition, lucidity, and straightforward style. In this post-humously published essay, Bowra examines the characters, structure, and sources of the Odyssey. Textual references to the Iliad have been rendered in roman numerals, while references to the Odyssey are in arabic numerals.]


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Denys Page (lecture date 1972)

SOURCE: "The Lotus-Eaters," in Folktales in Homer's "Odyssey, " Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973, pp. 3-21.

[Page is a classics scholar and the author of the highly regarded Sappho and Alcaeus (1955). In the following excerpt from a lecture delivered in 1972, he speculates on the historical basis of the tale of the Lotus-Eaters.]

Odyssey 9.80-104: Odysseus and his companions set sail from the coast of Thrace. Their course lay down the east coast of the Peloponnese, round its southern promontories, and up the west coast to Ithaca:

But as I was doubling Cape Malea, the waves and current and...

(The entire section is 3595 words.)

Jasper Griffin (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Characterization," in Homer on Life and Death, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1980, pp. 50-80.

[In the following essay, Griffin addresses the issue of inconsistent characterization in the Odyssey, contending that the complexity of the characters gives them "depth and significance."]

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Sheila Murnaghan (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Recognition and the Return of Odysseus," in Disguise and Recognition in the "Odyssey," Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 20-55.

[Here, Murnaghan explores the theme of disclosure and recognition as it relates to Odysseus and Laertes, Telemachos, Eumaeus, and Penelope, as well as discussing Odysseus's need to re-establish his past relationships with these characters.]

During their meeting in Book 13, Athena and Odysseus sit down together at the base of an olive tree and concoct the plot through which, imitating the story of a disguised god, he will defeat his enemies. This then becomes the plot, in a literary sense, of the second half of the poem, a plot...

(The entire section is 10184 words.)

Nancy Felson-Rubin (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Wife," in Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 43-65.

[In the essay below, Felson-Rubin examines the husband-wife relationship of Odysseus and Penelope and details "the formal pattern of their second courtship."]

Odysseus's image of Penelope once he is home differs radically from the image that drew him there. While he journeyed, he envisioned Penelope as a fixed point, a stable goal, a telos or "fulfillment." So long as he remembered her and Ithaka, he never strayed too far nor roamed too recklessly. Once he is on Ithaka, however, Penelope becomes an enigma for him (as she is for other characters). In a...

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Further Reading

Austin, Norman. Archery at the Dark of the Moon: Poetic Problems in Homer's "Odyssey. " Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975, 297 p.

Detailed analysis of poetics, structure, and unity in the Odyssey.

Beye, Charles Rowan. "The Odyssey," in his "The Odyssey" and the Epic Tradition., pp. 158-205. Anchor Books, 1966.

Focuses on the Odyssey's recurring themes of wandering, recognition, temptation, and hjomecoming.

Bremer, J. M., De Jong, I. J. F., and Kalff, J., eds. Homer Beyond Oral Poetry. Amsterdam: B. R. Grtner Publishing Co.,...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)