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Invitation to World Literature

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Experts' View: Penelope

An excerpt from The Odyssey, by Homer
Book 23: Penelope tests Odysseus

"Penelope said
'Come, Eurycleia, move the sturdy bedstead out of our bridal chamber— that room the master built with his own hands. Take it out now, sturdy bed that it is, and spread it deep with fleece, blankets and lustrous throws to keep him warm.'

Putting her husband to the proof—but Odysseus blazed up in fury, lashing out at his loyal wife: 'Woman—your words, they cut me to the core! Who could move my bed? Impossible task, even for some skilled craftsman—unless a god came down in person, quick to lend a hand, lifted it out with ease and moved it elsewhere. Not a man on earth, not even at peak strength, would find it easy to prise it up and shift it, no, a great sign, a hallmark lies in its construction. I know, I built it myself—no one else...

There's our secret sign, I tell you, our life story! Does the bed, my lady, still stand planted firm?— I don't know—or has someone chopped away, that olive-trunk and hauled our bedstead off?'

Living proof— Penelope felt her knees go slack, her heart surrender, recognizing the strong clear signs Odysseus offered. She dissolved in tears, rushed to Odysseus, flung her arms around his neck and kissed his head..."

Mary Zimmerman:

"Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, and she's a perfect match for him, because she's just as crafty as he is, just as devious, just as careful, and just as imaginative. She's keeping all of these suitors at bay in her house who are just clamoring to marry her and take over the castle and the lands of Odysseus by telling them, Oh, you know, I have to weave a shroud for my poor father, and I just have to finish this, and so she weaves it every day, and then at night she unweaves it, so it's never ever done. So, even though he comes and he says, I'm home, it's me, it's your husband, she wants one test."

Simon Armitage:

"When they were married, Odysseus didn't simply have a bed made for them, it was almost as if he constructed the palace around the whole bed. It was sort of a tree bowl that had grown into the palace and they built the bedroom around it."

Gregory Nagy:

"I think in a modern novel, you would expect a husband and wife to recognize each other before any other recognition scene happens. But in The Odyssey, that relationship is so complex and so deep that when it has been severed, it takes a very long and hard time to rebuild."

Thumbnail image of David Damrosch

David Damrosch Sums It Up:

This scene shows a fascinating mix of psychological realism and a symbolically heightened reality, in a kind of expansive elaboration of the early flashes of realism to be found in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. In that story, Gilgamesh denies that his beloved friend Enkidu has died, sitting by his corpse for six days and seven nights, until a worm crawls out of Enkidu's nose. Homer makes much use of this vivid physical detail to bring his scenes to life even farther. A lesser work would have cut straight to the chase, giving us an emotion-filled scene of rejoicing as the long-separated hero and heroine rush into each other's arms. Yet here, surprisingly, Penelope refuses to recognize her beloved husband, despite the fact that Athena has even restored him magically to his youthful appearance of twenty years before. Not yet a modern novelist, Homer is quite comfortable giving us this miraculous transformation, and Penelope herself never questions how this rejuvenation could come about. So why doesn't she recognize him? Or does she, but she is refusing to admit it to herself? Or is she so completely a match for Odysseus that she takes nothing for what it seems to be? Homer leaves us to plumb the meaning of the scene as he fleshes it out with the many details that Odysseus, having fallen into the loving trap set for him by his wife, calls to mind in outrage at the idea that she now might have a new, movable bed.