Invitation to World Literature
The Odyssey The Odyssey: Expert’s View
Experts' View: Penelope
An excerpt from The Odyssey, by Homer
Book 23: Penelope tests Odysseus
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?’
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…”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.