Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.12


Marilyn A. Katz, Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey. Princeton University Press, 1991. Pp. 223 + xii. $35.00.


Reviewed by Charles Rowan Beye, City University of New York.

This is a thought-provoking book from any number of perspectives. Katz wishes to make Penelope a more important player in the story of Odysseus' return to Ithaca, and she succeeds. It is not clear that her reading is one that we might imagine to have been possible for that remote and inaccessible, possibly entirely illusory group of people, 'Homer's audience.' But never mind. She has produced a feminist reading that establishes Penelope as something other than a more sophisticated or complicated version of Argus, just waiting for dear old master to come home, so that he can wag a tail, and then die out of the narrative.

The format of the book serves the reader well. An introductory chapter explains the method. Katz is much indebted to the German analytic and neo-analytic schools which have identified so many contradictions, inconsistencies, and awkwardness in the narrative. Likewise she believes in poems generated by writing, in a poet who could pick and choose from texts. She borrows from the oral school the notion of themes, typical scenes, and a critical willingness to believe that the poem has some kind of unity. Her own position is ambiguously stated, however. "...my discussion proceeds from the unity of the Odyssey as we have it, and is concerned to discover what might be called the text's strategies of meaning, and to define the basis on which the text is experienced as having narrative coherence." (page 17). I take this to mean that Katz bases her criticism and interpretation on the text as it is established in the twentieth century, its unity being finally the material fact of its being printed as such. "The text's strategies of meaning" can mean, and probably does, considering its place in the sentence, authorial intent, although, since meaning is something only bestowed upon a text by the reader, those words may refer to the reader, despite the fact that in the very same sentence "text is experienced as having narrative coherence" certainly refers to the reader's response. Ancient reader? modern reader? ideal or universal reader? -- one is not sure although, since in her subsequent discussion Katz has frequent occasion to mention various anthropological or sociological insights into archaic Greek culture, we must assume that she also has the archaic 'original' audience in mind. Katz will not mention poet, poets, reader, or audience, and these tortured circumlocutions are the result. The sentence quoted is an example of the unfortunate fact of Katz' frequent obscurant prose style. One is grateful, therefore, for the introductions and conclusions in the chapters, as well as the grand introduction and conclusion to the book, where the direct arrangement of exposition is an antidote to the language. What is one to make of "For although on the denotative level of meaning Penelope's kleos is identical with her faithfulness, I argue that Penelope's kleos understood connotatively and from within an explicitly interpretive framework is itself a problematic concept, and that it is also one in which some of the poem's central narrative features are inscribed." (page 6)? The connotatively understood kleos eludes me. Does 'instantiate' -- a favorite word in this book -- means 'demonstrate' in the sentence "In Odysseus' case, this convergence of husband and stranger attests also to the capacity of disguise not just to misrepresent reality, but to instantiate it." (page 193) What is 'reality' for that matter? More than once Katz draws attention to one of her central ideas in this locution: "...[the House of Atreus] story operates throughout as an alternative plot that threatens to attract the Odyssey into its orbit." (page 30). Katz, anxious to steer clear of the noxious notions of author or audience, envisions ancient mythoi, like so many atomic particles floating about, autonomous, discrete, evidently subject to random interference or attraction. But in fact in what sense does the House of Atreus story have the power of attraction? Because the poet/poets teases/tease the reader/auditor by setting up suggestions that the Odyssey story is going in that direction? Because the reader/auditor knows the House of Atreus story so well that he/she cannot resist reading the Odyssey story in terms of it? Is the Odyssey story so new that the reader/auditor has no resistance to the House of Atreus story? These questions spring to mind and demand answers. One does not like to dwell on infelicities of style except when the reader must puzzle out literary critical positions implicit in them. For example, is not the expression "...the Odyssey's construction of its own mythos against the examples of Helen and Clytemnestra." (page 160) a disguised and less honest way of saying 'the narrator's playing off the examples of Helen and Clytemnestra'? The use of 'retrieve' eludes in "...what could be understood as characterological incoherence was in fact retrieved by the structure of the episode." (page 113) Is it not illogical in the following fragment (page 113) "... I tried to show how the representation of Penelope functioned in concert with aspects of the poem's narrative structure ..." to suggest that the representation can function in concern with that of which it is a product?

Katz takes the position that the problems that the analysts identify are actually strengths of the narrative. Her indeterminacy is what used to be called 'creative ambiguity.' Where analysts demonstrated contradictions and blamed these on authorial incompetence when it came to making a seamless story line out of hand-me-down narrative materials, Katz has effectively demonstrated that the Odyssey's very own quality derives from them. Katz has made a real contribution by bringing a wide variety of analytic and neo-analytic ideas to the American scholarly community, made up as it is of strict adherents of the oral theory on the one hand and persons who cannot easily read German on the other, not to mention younger persons who have no knowledge of nineteenth century Homer criticism. She is liberal in her quotations so that her reader has almost the equivalent of a variorum commentary to certain key passages of the poem. Sometimes where Katz has gathered from many scholars their conflicting close readings of a line or lines (cf., e.g., 1.298-300 [page 34]; 24.196-97 [page 21] it will remind her reader that long narrative poetry of this sort is not meant to be read closely like lyric poems and certainly the 'meaning' of the poem will hardly stand on such minimal foundations. Katz, herself, because she assumes for the Odyssey a text and reader, is able to read very closely. She notes, for example, that Clytemnestra, Helen, and Penelope are mentioned together at 11.438-39, and that this concatenation constitutes the moment when the Odyssey narrative switches from Penelope attracted into the paradigm of the murderous wife to Penelope informed by the welcoming Helen. One might legitimately complain that this is subtle, fine-spun, and too elegant for a panoramic narrative such as the Odyssey displays. Certainly anyone dedicated to the proposition that the Odyssey represents a performance would object. While one may read a text as one chooses, critics whose explication is founded on the notion of an 'original' reader, as I believe is the case with Katz, must beware. Katz makes much of the anecdotes in Book Four as operative in the construction of the ambiguity in Penelope's behavior very much later in the poem. Would anyone other than a reader make this association ? Would anyone other than the reader who turned back to Book Four make this association? What kind of written text was available to early readers that permitted them to flip back easily enough to make the reading experience function in this fashion?

Katz' book will be excellent in a seminar devoted to the criticism of Homer. Since all the Greek is translated, the book will be valuable to any student of literature or criticism. Reading the various opinions she has gathered together suggested to me that the book will allow the student to confront an important chapter in the history of literary criticism, the moment when the critical ill will of classical scholars (Wilamowitz in 1927: "I have no reservations that this stupidity cannot belong to the poet of Book 13," Vester in 1968: "an Odysseus who in five speeches attempts to lead his wife to recognition and yet does not accomplish this goal ... is rather a bungler" [both quoted by Katz, pages 57, 132-33]) left them out of the mainstream of criticism and set classical literature beyond the purview of students of literature.

Katz wishes to establish a Penelope who is consistently ambiguous, free-floating, as it were, capable therefore of choice, rather than the woman who waited at home in a pool of tears until her errant husband appeared in her bedroom. Katz makes a very good case for the creative ambiguity of the Penelope figure. Let us exercise caution, however. Katz quotes Sheila Murnaghan saying "Penelope's motives ... are difficult to assess because the poet is generally uncommunicative about her thoughts, as he is not about Odysseus' ..." (page 84). Perhaps the poet does not communicate them because she does not exist for him to the depth that requires her having motive. This is not to say that the artistic creation, Penelope, is not a complex verbal construct susceptible to interpretation, just as any verbal construct is. But the author of this verbal construct is not necessarily aware that this is so. I make this point since one might construct an interesting reading of the poem on the surface fact that Odysseus is so much more accessible.

Since it seems more reasonable that this is a poem conceived by a male or males, for an audience predominantly of males, in a society devoted to the supremacy of males, one might rather imagine the contradictions in Penelope as expressions of male fear of woman as an unknowable, unpredictable, contradictory loose cannon. Penelope gets all gussied up and appears to the suitors. Maybe she likes to stir up a few hormones. That is a common enough male notion about women. Maybe, on the other hand, the male narrator likes the idea of a group of males growing sexually excited in front of the very man who will shortly bed the recently beautified woman. This is another commonplace male fantasy. But Katz is determined to read a Penelope who is more in control, more consistently inconsistent that what those ideas imply. Chapter Four "What Does Penelope Want?" begins with a good survey of ideas about Penelope's character, but the reader would like to have seen some discussion by Katz of the fact that the several commentators whom she cites in this chapter are all bourgeois men talking about a woman character. This seems to me to be crucial, when questions of chastity, constancy, and the like are addressed.

Katz develops the idea of a Penelope which grows out of narrative patterns, at the same time dismissing the psychological school of Odyssey criticism and thus laying to rest that entirely unlikely scenario in which Penelope knows all along that the begger is Odysseus in disguise. Construing Penelope's friendliness to the beggar as deriving from the analogy of Helen who helps the disguised Odysseus in Troy constructs her behavior from the reiteration of a story line and supplants psychological motivation. I could not agree with her more. There is no such thing as character in any of these one-dimensional stick figures who walk through the narrative.

She portrays Penelope as in effect floating -- no longer under the protection of her husband or any other male of her household, not yet entering into a new marital relationship and coming under the protection of a new man. Katz cleverly ties this to all the other indeterminate states and transitional situations of the poem. When Telemachus finally matures to become the kyrios of the house, Penelope is able to assume the consort status; as such she is then able to suggest a potential for the behavior of Helen, consort in Troy who welcomes the disguised Odysseus, consort in Sparta who abandons her home and family going off with another man (itself analogous to her exciting the Achaians hidden in the horse at Troy by mimicking their wives). The contradictions in Penelope's behavior, one moment the loyal wife awaiting Odysseus and welcoming the beggar, the next exhibiting herself to the suitors and calling for the contest, stem, as Katz sees it, from these contrary story lines. The analyst and neo-analyst position is that the narrator is essentially dominated by his story material. Katz, on the other hand, makes an excellent case for the creative genius that brings these together.

Katz is very good on the idea of the displacement of motifs and themes onto another figure in the story. When, for instance, Penelope goes downstairs to the man who has been called her husband she alternates between joyous acceptance of the news and suspicion. Katz suggests that the joy of discovery in the scar/washing scene is displaced upon Eurykleia, but that the readers know that in other versions this is the moment when Penelope makes her discovery. Thus they will invest that joyous anagnorisis in to her happy descent of the stairs, and at the same time respect the suspicions of the woman who in fact does not yet know.

Katz enlarges our understanding of the way in which the story of the House of Atreus functions in the poem. For instance, the way in which Telemachus replicates Agamemnon's experience of an ambush upon his return from Troy, as Menelaus describes it in the fourth book, makes immediate sense of the peculiar switch in locale at the close of the fourth book as the suitors are describing planning an ambush. Her interpretation allows one to understand the fourth book, with its extraordinary shift in time and locale, as very much a self-contained episode.

Although I do not at all agree with the notion of an original reader for the Odyssey text as a historical proposition, I found this book stimulating and valuable in every way (except for a misreading of Athena's remarks to Odysseus [13.332] which Katz calls chiding and I should call congratulating) and consistently helpful in my own understanding of the poem.