Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.13

Barbara Clayton, A Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer's Odyssey.   Lanham:  Lexington Books, 2004.  Pp. xi, 141.  ISBN 0-7391-0722-4.  $75.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-7391-0723-3.  $22.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christian Werner, Universidade de Sao Paulo (
Word count: 1802 words

It has been about ten years since the last books centred on Penelope and the Odyssey were published,1 and Clayton's (hereafter C.) book shows that questions concerning Penelope and the Odyssean poetics have not been exhausted yet. The task of the book is easily summarized. The author tries to define Penelope's voice or poetics and links it to the web that the heroine weaves, unweaves and reweaves. Her voice is not only a different one, but builds a (gendered) difference that not only may be traced in the Odyssey itself, but also in scholarly texts written in the last 150 years and in the literary heritage that followed the poem. Thanks to its point of view and scope the book may not only engage the attention of classicists, but also of a wide public interested in feminine and feminist literature or poetry in general. Unfortunately the accomplishments of the book are irregular, as I will try to sketch below.

C.'s book is fluently and well written. There are only a few print problems, for example, Pedick for Pedrick (p. 14, n. 63, and p. 134) and Olsen for Olson (p. 26, n. 16, and p. 134). All Greek is translated and many aspects of the Odyssey and some characteristics of oral poetry are briefly explained, so that it will not be difficult to non-classicists to get through the book. It lacks an index of passages, and the index of key words has some problems.

In the first chapter, C. examines two groups of texts concerned with the Odyssey. The first one is composed by 36 handbooks of Greek literature and general works on Homer published between 1858 and 1997, all of them listed in an appendix. By means of them C. reveals a curious reception history of the poem among a representative number of scholars. The second group is constituted of texts that concentrate on the Odyssey, particularly some books and articles of the last decades concerned with Penelope's characterization. The first group allows C. to uncover, not without some fine irony, two traits that commonly underlie an evaluation of the poem: 1) weaving is a metaphor widely used in reference to the plot complexity of the poem; and 2) the Odyssey is feminine or inferior in comparison to the Iliad. C. shows for instance that even Samuel Butler did not really praise what he identified as feminine in the poem. Through the second group C. sets the benchmarks of her own study. After presenting the texts of some authors who have discussed the poem's gender ideology in a more subtle way, particularly the possibility of considering Penelope a quasi-feminist heroine, C. announces the books of Katz and Papadopoulou-Belmehdi (see note 1) as her own starting point.

Chapter two is central to the book. Here C. defines her Penelopean or unweaving poetics, gendered as feminine. She establishes a set of connections between weaving, μήτις and poetry pertinent to a poem that is essentially self-referential, insofar as much of it is composed of stories told by some of its characters. Penelope, Odysseus and Athena are the three main plotters of the poem, contrivers of schemes and storytellers at the same time. C. associates Athena, the controller of the Odyssean plot, with poetry because she assumes that the Greeks were familiar with an association of weaving and poetry. Odysseus, the principal storyteller of the poem, is presented in a complementary, tension-free relation to the goddess. He is the one who shows himself as a master of μήτις in the Cyclops' episode. Nevertheless, more important to C.'s purposes is the depiction of Penelope, especially her web trick. The author defends that Penelope must have (re)woven a story on her web, so that the audience can understand her to be a bard figure of a kind similar to Odysseus. That is not all. C. weaves parallels between the 1) repetition of Penelope's weaving/unweaving process, 2) the unique threefold repetition of the shroud story in the Odyssey and 3) the repetition characteristic of oral poetry, in order to demonstrate her reading of the bardic nature of Penelope and her activities. Penelope, more fundamentally than Odysseus, forces the audience to think about the poem's composition. The purpose of such a reading is clear: Penelope appears as a woman with her own voice or écriture, and her web is an action or process that brings ambiguity and multiplicity into the men's world. Here we have the core of C.'s reading, based upon the works of writers like Cixous and Lacan. Finally, in order to define in which way Penelope's work is at the same time finished and unfinished, C. establishes some connections between the story of Ares and Aphrodite and the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope in Book 23. Hephaestus' net is shown to be a "text-generating sign" (p. 51), another instance of the μήτις-weaving poetry the author tries to describe. That is perhaps the weakest in C.'s set of examples to illustrate the poetics she tries to circumscribe.

In chapter three C. interprets Odysseus' lies and the scar scene between Eurycleia and the hero in terms of the Penelopean poetics she sketched in the previous chapter. The path chosen by the author reverses the usual readings of the poem: it is not Penelope's actions and discourses which mirror Odysseus' notorious ability, but quite the opposite. Odysseus' lies, which he weaves thanks to his μήτις, are Penelopean discourses, by which he reweaves his identity until being found out by his old servant. In the context of the first lie (book 13), C. explains the importance of Athena's mist in producing a "constantly shifting displacement between appearance and reality" (p. 58). For the audience the only point of stability is the similarity between Odysseus and Athena. In such a scenario Odysseus acts in face of the difficulties imposed on him by Athena exactly like the "man in the middle voice" described by John Peradotto, both actively and passively.2 C. develops a further differentiation made by Peradotto between a discourse of representation and one of production. She tries to demonstrate that in the Cretan tales Odysseus devises a kind of poetic discourse based on improvisation, explicitly fictitious and moulded by the contingencies of a particular occasion (discourse of production). On the other hand, the Wandering tales are based on traditional material and aim at truth (discourse of representation). This distinction is taken one step further by supposing two bardic types: one related to the heroic world and to truth (the Wandering tales and the songs of Demodocus and Phemius), and the other to the world of a beggar and his ability to tell lies. C. shows that Odysseus' persona in the tales occupies a middle position in order to subvert different kinds of symbolic binarism, particularly by reweaving Iliadic material. There is again the ambiguous tone that characterizes the unweaving poetics, a tone that can be felt in the scar scene as well. The strong textual evidence that Eucycleia recognises Odysseus not visually but tactilely allows C. to suppose, based on feminist theory, that such a recognition is pre-eminently feminine: "The source of the story rather than the story itself, i.e., the narrative point of view, is Penelopean: elusive, multiple, and ambiguous" (p. 78). Finally, C. argues that in the lie to Laertes the audience perceives the poet himself fashioning a discourse of production. Odysseus names the trees of the orchard in a way similar to Athena when she dispels the mist in Book 13 and mentions familiar landmarks to the hero.

In the fourth chapter C. presents a plethora of authors who have woven and rewoven a Penelope close to or far away from Homer's one. By means of poems written by well-known poets like Wallace Stevens and Linda Pastam or some not so well-known like Karen Whitehill and Joseph Aulander we discover that the Penelopean poetics stick fast to the representations of Penelope through the centuries. Penelope appears as representative of a feminine discourse not only in the Odyssey but also in many texts that reread it. The highlights of this historical investigation are Joyce's Molly Bloom, whose discourse is gendered as feminine specially through its multiplicity, Dorothy Parker's poem "Penelope", a sonnet by Edmund Spenser, Theodore Weiss' "The Storeroom" -- in which Odysseus' typical instruments, "the bow and lyre, have been incorporated into the Penelopean web" (p. 111) -- and Derek Walcott's "Omeros", all of them beautifully interpreted. Some authors focus on the apparent nullity of Penelope's weaving. But this is not the predominant Penelope of the later tradition. "Penelope" frequently declares her independence from the masculine word/world, particularly by her body and her work. Penelope's heritage is not a nothingness, but a creative process.

When she examines poetry in general, C. produces fine and acute literary analysis. In chapter two she deploys her creativity too, but here the argumentation lacks rigor. C. does not convincingly demonstrate that Penelope is represented in the Odyssey as a bardic figure, a Scherazade. The evidence collected by the author is fragile. Why should more prominence be given to the pair Athena/Penelope than to the confluences among Odysseus, Athena, Hermes and Hephaestus? If retelling is what characterizes a Penelopean poetics, then the Wandering tales are discourses of production as well, because Odysseus tells them not only to the Phaeacians but also to his wife. There are many tensions or near conflicts that are completely blurred by the author, like the one between Odysseus and Athena in book 13.3 C. tries to show that Odysseus' voice and many later texts are reflections of Penelope's action, but the results effectively demonstrate the opposite. C's reading of Homer's Penelope is not really the beginning of her demonstration, but the end. As a matter of fact, chapter two should come after chapters three and four. In a poem like the Odyssey, so concerned with its own poetics and whose main character is directly and indirectly depicted as a bard, why should Penelope not be shown more explicitly to be a bard too, inasmuch as she and Odysseus plot his return together? There are some books and articles not mentioned by C. that may permit a reweaving of some of her readings.4

But C. is right to attribute a central role in the poem to Penelope. Her book certainly contributes to the discussion about the differences between an Odyssean and an Iliadic poetics, at least by insisting that Penelope's character is fundamental to them. I would like to finish by saying that to the readers who go to interpretative texts in order to find the truth about the texts they are interested in, C.'s book (particularly chapter 2) will probably be disappointing. But to the readers that seek first of all to explore different points of view than their own, this may be a useful and challenging book.


1.   M. A. Katz, Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey, Princeton, 1991; N. Felson-Rubin, Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics, Princeton, 1994; I. Papadopoulou-Belmehdi, Le chant de Penélope: Poétique du tissage féminin dans l' Odyssée, Paris, 1994.
2.   J. Peradotto, Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narrative in the Odyssey, Princeton, 1990.
3.   See J. S. Clay, The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, Lanham, 1997 (first published 1983), chapter 4.
4.   For example, A. Ford, Homer: The Poetry of the Past, Ithaca, 1992; H. P. Karydas, Eurykleia and her Successors: Female Figures of Authority in Greek Poetics, Lanham, 1998; M. Finkelberg, The Birth of Literary Fiction in Ancient Greece, Oxford, 1998; I. de Jong, A Narratological Commentary on the OdysseyCambridge, 2001; P. Pucci, "Between narrative and catalogue: life and death of the poem", Metis 11, 1996, pp. 5-24.

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