How do the depictions of grief in The Odyssey and "An Ancient Gesture" develop a universal theme? How does Millay use the story of Penelope and Odysseus to convey a modern theme?

"An Ancient Gesture" uses the story of Penelope and Odysseus to convey a modern theme. The speaker says that she is crying like Penelope did in ancient times, but her tears are real, not a gesture. As such, the poem shows that grief is universal and that women's pain is "real" while men's is staged or artificial.

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A universal theme is one that cuts across time and culture. Grief for a missing loved one who has gone away is an example of a universal theme. Such grief is experienced across all cultures and is almost always expressed through tears. We also know from literature such as Homer's Odyssey that tears of grief over a missed person or homeland were common thousands of years ago in ancient Greece and in other historic cultures, just as they are today. They transcend time or space.

In The Odyssey, Penelope cries because she misses her husband, Odysseus (or Ulysses), who is taking many years to return home to her from the Trojan War. She is tired of waiting, not knowing if and when her beloved will return. She is tired, too, of weaving and unraveling her weaving to fend off unwanted suitors—she has promised to marry one of the suitors when her weaving is finished, so must keep unraveling it to stay loyal to her husband.

In "An Ancient Gesture," the speaker, who is crying and wiping her eyes on the edge of apron, imagines that thousands of years ago in a different culture, Penelope did the same thing as she is doing. In this way, the speaker tries to universalize the grief a woman feels when a husband is missing. Penelope is also a woman who is very highly revered for her loyalty to her husband. By comparing herself to Penelope, the speaker is adding dignity and stature to her own pain. Odysseus, the speaker says, also shed tears, but she sees these as fake tears, a "gesture" or surface response learned from Penelope.

Millay uses the gesture of wiping away tears to show that even in the modern world, grief over the loss of a beloved is real and, like Penelope's pain, worthy of respect. She makes the theme particularly modern, however, by gendering it: she says that a woman's pain and grief is truly felt, reflecting real suffering, while men (like Odysseus) simply borrow the gesture of crying for show—they don't feel it the way women do. The poem doesn't make it entirely clear why the speaker feels this way, but it could because Odysseus cried when he wanted to leave Circe. These tears about wanting to go home are suspect because he dallied with the enticing Circe before he grew tired of her, leaving the grieving Penelope to fend for herself.

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