Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.13

Marilyn A. Katz, Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991. Pp. xii, 223. ISBN 0-691-06796-1. $35.00.

Reviewed by S. Douglas Olson, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This book is intended as a study of one of Homer's most opaque (if intriguing) characters, Penelope of Ithaca, and of what an analysis of her behavior and the way scholars have treated her can tell us about the larger purposes and meaning of the Odyssey. Katz's goal is to develop "a new sort of unitarian interpretation" of the poem (p. 17), by seeking out "fissures in the text" not in order to reconcile them but in order to discover "how they condition its meaning" (p. 15). Penelope is a fascinating character and there is nothing inherently misguided about looking for significance in the seams (rather than the fabric) of Homer's story, so that some of what this book has to say is both interesting and important. All the same, Penelope's Renown must be judged a failure, not only because it is argued in a generally murky and confusing way, but because it is riddled through with errors, omissions and misstatements of fact, which seriously undermine its larger conclusions.

Chapter 1 is a long introduction, which lays out Katz's purposes and methodology. Chapter 2 is thus the real beginning of this book, and takes as its starting point Agamemnon's praise of Penelope at XXIV.192-8. From here Katz sets out to examine first the role of the Mycenean saga in Books I-IV and XI, and then the meaning of kleos in the Odyssey and the problem of Penelope's kurieia. Here as elsewhere in this book the thread of the argument is sometimes difficult to trace. All the same, the author seems to have two basic points: that the story of Agamemnon serves as a disturbing alternative plot in the poem, which constantly threatens to erupt into Odysseus' successful homecoming, and that the issue of control over Penelope is somehow crucial to understanding Telemachos' choices and dilemma. The first point is well-taken, and I have in fact recently argued much the same thing in print.1 As for the second point, Katz depends throughout on the work of Nagy and A. T. Edwards, and those who find their arguments compelling will probably feel her discussion here is helpful and insightful, and vice versa. I personally found the claim that in the Odyssey kleos accrues only to those who die in battle or have a successful homecoming (p. 22) extremely difficult to square with Penelope's repeated insistence that the kleos of her vanished husband is "wide throughout Hellas and midmost Argos" (I.343-4; IV.724-6), but this is perhaps a minor matter. The idea that the Ithacan queen emerges as a woman oddly free of effective male control, on the other hand, is interesting, although the discussion of her precise marital and social status would have been greatly clarified by reference to Combellack's review of Page, The Homeric Odyssey, in Gnomon 28 (1956), esp. 414, which Katz seems not to know.

Chapter 3 begins with an exploration of what Katz argues is the transition from the Clytemnestra-model for Penelope's behavior in Books I-XV to the Helen-model in Books XVI-XXIII, and then moves on to the question of Telemachos' kleos. Whereas the first two-thirds of the poem involved a nostos and thus the threat that Odysseus might be murdered by his adulterous wife as Agamemnon was, Katz maintains, in the final third the context is xeniê and the danger that of being abandoned like Menelaos. The alleged Helen-paradigm scarcely leaps out at one from the text, while the xeniê-theme is emphatically part of the Agamemnon-story in the poem (esp. IV.530-5; XI.409-11), as is the idea of the illegitimate remarriage of the returning hero's wife (I.36; III.272). Katz has also failed to offer a close study of the Helen of the Odyssey, whom she seems to regard as fundamentally free but whom Homer's characters routinely present as the passive object of external manipulation (esp. IV.261- 4, 274-5; XXIII.222).2 My real objections to Chapter 3, however, have to do with Katz's treatment of the question of Telemachos' kleos. Following up on Athena's insistence that Odysseus' son should emulate Orestes (I.29 8-302), Katz attempts to show that he too first accepts his father's death and then returns home to seize control of his house and thus consolidate his glory. This is an interesting (if not particularly original) idea.3 Although Katz cites P. Jones, "The kleos of Telemachus: Od. 1.95," AJP 109 (1988) 496-506, she fails to grapple with (or even to acknowledge) his basic point, which is that XIII.422-3 (Athena's insistence that she sent Odysseus' son to Sparta "so he might get kleos esthlon for himself by going there [keis' elthôn]" means that Telemachos' kleos must originate not in what he does or intends to do on his return to Ithaca, but in something which happens to him abroad. At the same time, Katz also fails to note the one point in the poem at which the boy is explicitly said to secure kleos, when he is recognized as Odysseus' child by Nestor in Pylos (III.75-8, 121-5).

All this is essentially preamble, however, for the most important part of Penelope's Renown for a professional Homerist is Chapters 4 and 5 and Katz's insistence there that all previous analyses of Penelope's character, be they analytic, neoanalytic or unitarian, are flawed and misleading. Katz has read widely in the secondary literature (particularly in German), and the overview of scholarship provided here is often interesting and insightful. All the same, she also mishandles and misreads the text of the Odyssey itself so frequently that the larger argument she is constructing quickly falls apart. The problem with all previous discussions of Penelope, Katz insists, is that they attempt in one way or another to evade the fact that Homer's presentation of the Ithacan queen is simply illogical. Thus at XVII.162-5 Penelope accepts Theoklymenos' prophecy about Odysseus' impending return (p. 104; "an enthusiastic endorsement" p. 115) and at XVII.545-7 confidently asserts that none of the Suitors will escape slaughter (pp. 105, 116). At XVIII.158-303, however, she abruptly decides to remarry, and despite "trustworthy signs of Odysseus' return" (p. 115) "inexplicably rejects" the Stranger's exegesis of her dream of the eagle and the geese (p. 116), which a moment earlier she had offered as "a rationale for waiting" (p. 117). There are very real problems with Penelope's character in the Odyssey and in particular with the meaning of her apparent announcement of her readiness to marry and solicitation of gifts at XVIII.256-83. Acceptance of "incoherence" and "contradiction" ought to be the last resort of the serious unitarian critic, however, and closer attention to the text shows that Katz has not treated Homer fairly. At XVII.162-5, first of all, Penelope responds to Theoklymenos' prophecy about her husband's imminent return only by saying ai gar touto, xeine, epos tetelesmenon eiê (XVII.163). ai gar with the optative in Homer expresses an emphatic wish, but does not imply any judgment as to whether or not the imagined action is likely to take place (e.g., IV.341-5; VI.244-5; VIII.334-42; K-G II.570.1 n. 1). Penelope's words thus show she would like Odysseus to come home, but (pace Katz) make no claims about the probability of this happening. At XVII.545-7, secondly, Katz has simply mistranslated the Greek. ke is not one of those particles which can safely be ignored and in fact changes the meaning of a future indicative radically, giving it a highly conditioned character (S 1793; K-G II.392.1). The crucial verse (oude ke tis thanaton kai kêras aluxei XVII.547) should thus be translated not "not one of them will escape death and the fates" (Katz pp. 105, 116) but "in that case [i.e., if Odysseus were somehow to come home; cf. XVII.539-40] not one of them would escape death and the fates." This is only another desperate wish, stirred up by Telemachos' apparently propitious sneeze (XVII.541-5), not the confident prediction Katz makes it out to be. Penelope's willingness to dismiss "trustworthy signs of Odysseus' homecoming," moreover, scarcely makes her unique in the poem. Omens and prophecies abound in the Odyssey, but characters routinely ignore them when this suits the poet's purposes. Thus at II.157-84 the Suitors laugh down the wise old seer Halitherses' interpretation of the sign of the eagles along with his claim to have prophesied Odysseus' return alone, disguised and in the twentieth year, and later ignore Theoklymenos' graphic vision of impending death and destruction as well (XX.350-83). That Penelope (who is equally in the dark about her husband's return) does the same with the prophecy at XVII.151-61 and the Stranger's interpretation of her dream (which, once again pace Katz, she nowhere presents as a "rationale for waiting") is thus scarcely surprising. This is not simply "incoherence," however, for, as Eumaios has already made clear, the Stranger is far from the first impoverished wanderer to have predicted Odysseus' imminent return (XIV.124-32; XV.378-85; cf. I.414 -6). Nor does the fact that he saw Penelope's husband once twenty years earlier (XIX.221-48) prove anything about either the truth of his other claims (XIX.269-307) or his abilities as an interpreter of dreams (XIX.555-8).

Penelope is thus a far more consistent and coherent character than Katz has made her out to be. She is trapped and desperate and increasingly in despair (esp. XIX.157-61; cf. the image of the baffled and encircled lion at IV.791-3), but (at least before XIX.560-81, when she announces the contest of the bow to the Stranger) she has not obviously given up hope altogether. Instead, she is torn in a variety of directions, precisely as both she (XIX.524) and Telemachos (XVI.73) say. When she does act in an odd and unusual fashion in Book XVIII by deciding to show herself to the Suitors she despises (e.g., XVII.499), moreover, Homer is careful to assign responsibility for this decision to Athena (XVIII.158-62) and to make it clear that Penelope herself does not understand what has come over her (XVIII.163-5).4 Similar points must be made in response to Katz's arguments in Chapter 5, where the main thrust seems to be that the situation in Odysseus' house changes radically with his return there at the end of Book XVII. Telemachos can now play the xeinodokos as he could not before, while Penelope is encouraged by the Stranger to reenter the lower part of the house as she declined to earlier. In fact, Telemachos has already entertained a xeinos in Book I, and although his situation is clearly difficult there (esp. I.132-4) he nonetheless manages to carry out virtually every step in the normal etiquette of guest-friendship (esp. I.120-43, 169-73, 309-13). The boy's initial reluctance to take Theoklymenos home at the end of Book XV, moreover, has nothing to do with a generic unwillingness or inability to receive guests (n.b. XV.281 autar keithi philêseai), but only reflects his temporary need to be absent in the country (XV.515). In the end, in fact, he agrees to accept the seer as his xeinos when the latter prophesies a great future for his house, and sends him off to stay with Peiraios on only a very temporary basis (XV.529-46, esp. 542-3; cf. XVII.71-3). That Telemachos becomes aware of his father's return before Theoklymenos arrives in the palace at XVII.84 (actually well before Odysseus enters the great-hall at XVII.336) is thus only coincidence and has nothing to do with the boy's power to receive guests. Nor is Penelope banished permanently to her chambers upstairs, as Katz seems to believe. Instead, she comes down into the megaron when the Suitors are absent (cf. XV.515-7), and actually makes several appearances there in Book XVII before the Stranger arrives, in a passage Katz simply ignores (esp. XVII.36-44, 100-6, 162-5). Although Katz insists there is a radical shift in the power-balance between mother and son in the final third of the poem culminating in the confrontation over control of the bow at XXI.330-58, finally, the action in this scene is virtually identical to that in I.328-64: in each case Penelope tries to assert control in the great-hall, and when Telemachos instead puts her "in her place" and claims authority for himself she withdraws in silent astonishment.

As I hope I have made clear, my objections here do not have to do with the subject-matter or methodology Katz has chosen. Penelope and the problems that surround her deserve serious scholarly attention, and some of the issues raised here are very important. What I do find disturbing is the author's careless treatment of the primary text, which in the end renders everything else she has to say suspect. In Chapter 6, Katz goes on to build a complicated and somewhat obscure case involving (inter alia) marriage, host/guest relationships, and literary and personal indeterminacy. I too believe the Odyssey is a rich and profound text, and I have no doubt that one of the things it is "about" is marriage and other social relationships which exist between men and women. Given the profound problems with the argument in the first five chapters of this book, however, I find it difficult to put any confidence in its larger conclusions. I also remain unconvinced that the Odyssey is on any meaningful level concerned with the indeterminacy of personal identity, however fascinating modern literary theorists may find that problem to be.5 Nor do I see much reason to believe that the undeniable fact that human social relationships are socially constructed rather than natural phenomena necessarily means Homer intended to illustrate that with his story of Odysseus and Penelope. Other readers may naturally disagree with me on all these points.

Penelope is an interesting and important character in the Odyssey, and Katz is to be commended for attempting to think her role in the poem through in a sophisticated and thoughtful fashion. All the same time, something seems to have gone terribly wrong in the editorial process here, so that basic mistakes and misjudgments have been allowed to make their way into print and thus to damage severely the credibility and coherence of Penelope's Renown as a whole.6 I append a brief list of a few more of the most obvious errors and misstatements of fact in this book. Typos are also disturbingly frequent, although the proof-readers rather than the author ought probably to be blamed for this.

1) Odysseus' boast about his kleos and its connection to doloi (IX.19-20) is made not to Polyphemus (p. 23), but to the Phaeacians.

2) There is not just one public assembly on Ithaca (II.6-259) (p. 25) (an idea Katz makes much of), but two (XXIV.420-66).

3) On Telemachos' first speech in Book II: "Telemachus' right to his oikos had been established earlier, in the conversation with Eurymachus at the end of Book 1 (lines 397-404), and is clearly not a matter of dispute" (p. 37). Eurymachos is a snake, a liar and a hypocrite (cf. XVI.434-48, esp. 448), whose assurances to Telemachos cannot be taken seriously. Indeed, Antinoos responds to the boy's speech by making it absolutely clear that his house and property will not be his to enjoy in peace until Penelope marries one of her Suitors (II.123-8).

4) Katz insists the ambush set in Book IV initially has nothing to do with control of Odysseus' property and that "it is only in Book 16 that the threat posed by Telemachus [to the freeloading Suitors] is specifically articulated as such" (pp. 73-4). In fact, Telemachos threatens the Suitors with death for consuming his goods and occupying his house at I.374-80, II.312-7.

5) Telemachos' remark at II.313 is not made in the Assembly (p. 124), which ended 56 lines earlier (II.257), but in his own house.

6) erethizô does not normally mean "provoking someone to a statement or to behavior that is self-revelatory" (p. 131 n. 19). XIX.45 is an odd and exceptional usage; cf. IX.494, XX.374, etc.

7) goaô/goos does not refer specifically to mourning for the dead (p. 141); note esp. XXI.228, where a goos arises when Philoitios and Eumaios realize Odysseus is alive and standing before them.

8) Penelope is not the only woman in the poem to give guest-gifts to a visitor (p. 151). Helen does precisely the same thing and in an even more emphatic manner (XV.100, 104-8, 123-30; n.b. XV.125 kai egô).

9) It is not only Odysseus and Penelope who accuse the Suitors of improper behavior toward her (a point Katz seems to regard as highly significant) (p. 171), but Telemachos as well ( mêtera moi mnêstêres epechraon ouk ethelousêi II.50, much more explicit that Odysseus' remarks at XX.35-40; note also XVII.401-3).

10) Il. VI.314-7, which describes the construction of Paris' house, says nothing about when this was done and thus lends no support to the (intriguing but unprovable) notion that Odysseus built his bed(room) specifically for his marriage to Penelope (p . 179).


  • [1] "The Stories of Agamemnon in Homer's Odyssey," TAPA 120 (1990) 57-71.

  • [2] Odysseus' mention of the gunaikeias . . . boulas of Clytemnestra and Helen to Agamemnon in the Underworld is as close as anyone in the Odyssey comes to assigning free will to Helen, and even then the principal agent in her story is said to be Zeus (XI.436-9).

  • [3] Oddly enough, Katz does not cite G. Rose, "The Quest of Telemachus," TAPA 98 (1967) 391-8, who makes a very similar argument. She can scarcely have been unaware of the article, since Jones (cited below) is responding specifically to it.

  • [4] I found myself unable to follow Katz's treatment of this passage. On p. 81 she seems to follow Buechner in recognizing that all the motivations discussed in the passage [hopôs petaseie malista / thumon mnêstêrôn ide timêessa genoito / mallon pros posios te kai huieos ê paros êen] must belong to Athena alone, since Penelope cannot know about the presence of her husband in the house (XVIII.165). On p. 88, however, she insists that the purpose of "stretching out the heart" of the Suitors "must be [Penelope's] own" [emphasis in the original]. That achreion d' egelassen (XVIII.163) "is better explained narratologically or sociologically than linguistically" [pp. 88-9] is not obviously anything other than an attempt to avoid the relatively straightforward ["linguistic"] implications of the words themselves: Penelope is not altogether in control here.

  • [5] See the related discussion of Matthew C. Clark and Eric Csapo, "Deconstruction, Ideology, and Goldhill's Oresteia," Phoenix 45 (1991) 95-125.

  • [6] I should note here, however, that at least two of the colleagues thanked on p. ix for reading earlier drafts of this book are primarily Latinists, who cannot really be held responsible for mistakes involving details in the text of the Odyssey.