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The Odyssey: Wife and Husband

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

We are introduced to four marriages in the Odyssey, but of course, the most important is that of Penelope and Odysseus. Agamemnon warned Odysseus of the dangers of trusting one's wife after you've been absent for a number of years, and Odysseus has fully heeded that warning. But now's the time to reveal himself. The suitors have been killed, and there's no longer any threat. He's observed his wife and learned from others that she's been faithful to him. Yet when the nurse Eurycleia goes and tells her that Odysseus has murdered all the suitors, she is not convinced. She descends from her bedroom to discover Odysseus awaiting her. But instead of falling into her arms, she quietly sits down and stares at him, uncertain whether the man seated opposite her is her husband.

"No other woman with such a stubborn spirit as yours could keep back from her husband who, after much suffering, had returned at last in the twentieth year to his own country," says Telemachus.

What is stubbornness in one's person's assessment, however, is self-control in another's. Penelope is playing Odysseus at his own game. Well, it's not a game. What I mean is that she is just as suspicious as he is, and indeed she has every right to be so. Over the years, she's been deceived by many imposters claiming to be Odysseus, and she doesn't intend to fall for that trick yet one more time. Besides, Odysseus is still disguised as a beggar. Why should she believe him? So Odysseus goes off to take a bath, and when he returns, he's literally a new man because Athena has restored him to his true self – or rather, she has caused him to look like a god.

The point is that Penelope knows full well how to give Odysseus a taste of his own medicine. She postpones greeting him just as he has postponed greeting her. He has tested her, and she will now test him.

When Penelope takes up her position opposite him, Odysseus now accuses Penelope of having a heart of iron – it's one of the places when Homer forgets that bronze hadn't been invented in the time that the poem was set. Then she instructs Eurycleia to have their marriage bed set up outside the marriage chamber.

Odysseus immediately flies into a rage. The bed was made out of a living olive tree, so it couldn't possibly have been moved except by someone who had entered their bedroom, and if anyone had entered their bedroom, that could mean only one thing. As soon as he says this, and explains how he had constructed the bed, Penelope is no longer in any doubt about his identity, and finally, their reunion takes place.

It is a moment of extreme emotional intensity, and in order to make it come alive, Homer introduces a simile – arguably the most satisfying in the entire poem.

"Just as the land appears to someone who has been buffeted by the storm and who finally steps safely on shore, so welcome was her husband to Penelope." What is remarkable about this simile is that it actually reverses the roles that Penelope and Odysseus have been playing. It's really Odysseus who is the sailor finally stepping back on shore after surviving a tempest at sea, and Penelope, who is the welcome dry land. By reversing their roles in the simile, Homer is emphasising their perfect union. Penelope is fully Odysseus' equal.

At climax to Homer's Odyssey, it is not the man who claims the woman as his rightful property. By a beautifully ironic twist to the traditional story-pattern motif, it is the woman who finally acknowledges the man as her mate and who consents to the resumption of her role as a wife.

What happens after this? What do you think? They go to bed. Homer doesn't describe their lovemaking. We just know that it happens. After they have satisfied themselves, Odysseus gives an account of his adventures to Penelope. And just as he's telling her about the Phaeacians, he falls asleep.

What does she make of all this? Odysseus doesn't state openly that he had affairs, but he does mention both Circe and Calypso, and we might suspect that Penelope would suspect he's been unfaithful. But Homer says nothing about her reaction. She silently disappears from the poem, while Odysseus prepares to do more killing. But if I were Penelope, I'd certainly give him a piece of my mind.

In the next lesson, we're going to talk about all the killing that Odysseus does.

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Written by

Robert Garland