BMCR 1998.08.04

Regarding Penelope. From Character to Poetics


[The editors of BMCR asked me to review this book when it was first published four and half years ago, but personal circumstances intruded. I am therefore glad that its reissue gives me the opportunity to address it seriously. The reprint includes a new preface that briefly surveys subsequent work on the epic. Page numbers remain the same except as noted.]

Early in the film Regarding Henry the title character, a ruthless lawyer, is scolding his young daughter for spilling juice on his piano. She has no reply, so he concludes, “qui tacet consentire videtur,” and translates, “he who is silent is understood to consent” — the speaker’s consolation and the audience’s dilemma. The phrase, however, hints that the speaker may be deluded: people are silent for other, more dangerous reasons, including sneakiness — if they know other ways to score their points. And that’s the problem with Penelope in the Odyssey : so many silences surround her behavior and motives. Are we to understand that Homer takes for granted both her social role in the story, and his audience’s assent to his depiction, and so does not bother detailing her motivations and character? Or are these silences, like Henry’s daughter’s, pregnant with possible meaning that we would do well to investigate?

Felson believes the latter, and she offers a way to study Penelope that opens up a range of meanings behind the silences of both the character and the narrator. We learn best about Penelope by observing how different individuals and groups regard her — that is, watch and assess her actions. Felson further argues that the presentation of Penelope is characteristic of a whole poetic strategy deployed by Homer to engage his audience’s interest and attention: characters regard each other and make guesses about intent within the story; that is also how the audience regards the poem. Felson appropriates one of Odysseus’ cardinal epithets — polytropic — to describe how the audience engages this epic, and how she herself reads it. Ideally, the audience should interact with the text and poet as Odysseus does with his wife, in a relationship of reciprocity.

In her first chapter Felson connects the interpretive problem of Penelope’s representation with the larger issue of how the poet uses silences and innuendo to entice the audience into an interpretive collaboration with him. The audience’s task, and the source of its pleasure, is to observe the queen’s behavior and to speculate about her plans. Felson calls this enticement a “courtship,” to emphasize the similarities between it and Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope, which offer the best model for regarding her, and in some sense, all women. Thus Felson argues that Homer’s attitude about women differs radically from that of at least some of his listeners, as well as of other ancient male authors. In her second chapter Felson analyzes Penelope’s career, both prior to the time of the main story and in that story itself, as a series of events that fit into a variety of “plot-types.” These are broad outlines of stories about a woman waiting for her husband, often with mutually exclusive outcomes, and they help the audience guess about Penelope’s motives. Since each event could be part of several outlines, however, the audience can never quite be sure which scenario is guiding Penelope’s behavior. In this chapter Felson deals with Penelope most directly as an agent who makes choices about and guides her own story, with profound effect on the direction of the whole narrative.

In the next four chapters Felson studies male characters who regard Penelope from differing perspectives corresponding to her actual or potential status within one or more of the plot-types: Odysseus, who regards her as his wife; Telemachus, as his mother; Agamemnon, as what he considers a heroine in wifely terms; and the suitors, as a seductress whom they court but who in fact, like a siren, is destroying them. Felson first traces the characteristics that color this figure’s (or group’s) point of view. She then studies how Penelope is regarded by him (or them), particularly in the last third of the poem. Rather than attempt to impose coherence on Penelope’s representation, as critics often do, Felson argues that the contradictory signals Homer’s audience receives about Penelope derive from these conflicting points of view. Felson’s closing chapter correlates this internal operation of regarding Penelope with the larger aim of Homer to create a relationship of reciprocity with his audience.

Felson’s topic and her approach appear in other recent books on the Odyssey, but she combines them in a provocative way, and, when she succeeds, the results are arresting. Time and again I found insights that change the way I think about the epic. Yet this book is not without its problems, some concerning its balance. Felson’s survey of Odysseus’ career is too brief to develop much beyond the standard discussion about homophrosyne between this exceptional couple; she is much better dealing with Agamemnon and the suitors, whose appearances in the poem are more narrowly confined and more susceptible to her focus. Felson’s presentation of her theoretical assumptions is also uneven. At times she is very clear about these, and she discusses technical points without unwieldy jargon. But some crucial assumptions, such as the developmental model that informs her discussion throughout the chapters on Telemachus, Agamemnon, and the suitors, are only adumbrated in the text (69f), with references to earlier studies. More serious are the problems having to do with how Felson deploys this psychological model and the other theory most essential to her purposes, audience response. Both of these are individually powerful tools for the literary critic, and their combination should yield compelling results. That they do not always do so in this book is worth reflection.

Felson begins with two shrewd notions about the way audiences operate vis-à-vis texts. First, listeners like to be kept guessing about the direction a story may take. As long as an audience perceives open options in a narrative, its curiosity remains alive and its pleasure in listening continues; once its sense of choice is gone, the narrative is effectively over. Homer exploits this characteristic in his audience very well, designing his narrative, especially concerning Penelope, so that the greatest number of options about her motives remains open for as long as possible. Second, an audience shifts its affiliation to characters’ points-of-view (xi/xiii), trying on various characters’ behaviors and attitudes, as it were, and in each posture, it speculates about characters’ intents and motives. This polytropic manner of experiencing the narrative is a crucial part of what enables an audience to construct personalities for characters, as it assembles impressions from individual events, actions and comments.

Felson’s use of these two intuitions about audiences, however, lands her in a tricky interpretive position. She posits that the internal audience makes its choices based on its own intuitions, which emerge from its character — hence the need to observe male characters’ actions, to see what forms them as potential “regarders” of Penelope. It follows then that Homer’s audience also follows its own intuitions, and when she illustrates this process, it emerges that these intuitions are not always based on the text. The plot-types provide some guidance, since they give definition to the broad outlines of the story in which actions fit, but Felson asserts that she, as part of Homer’s audience, has deliberately invented motivations based on her individual perceptions of characters’ psychological make-up (19). Her purpose is “mimetic,” that is, illustrative of what she believes Homer’s audiences do. The problem is, this process, as she constructs and enacts it, is all too subjective. Throughout the book I found notions about characters and their behavior that seem eccentric because the text does not bear them out. The indeterminacy derived from the audience’s shifting perceptions, while necessary for her view on how listeners collect impressions of individual characters, nevertheless undermines the critic’s ability to articulate convincingly what the audience as a whole is registering. The problem is compounded by Felson’s inconsistent sense of who “Homer’s audience” is; sometimes she acknowledges that it is ancient, with at least the potential for vastly different assumptions from our own, but sometimes she seems to equate it with her own reactions.

As for Felson’s application of an abstract psychological model, she introduces this midway through the book to account for the changes that Telemachus experiences as an adolescent in the course of the epic. She uses it as well to articulate the flaws in Agamemnon and the suitors that produce their respective visions of Penelope. The model is her own adaptation of Terence Turner’s reformulation of Van Gennep (69); she has added two moments of separation and conceptualized it as a story — a shrewd move that allows her to apply it to various parts of the epic narrative. But adherence to this model leads Felson to claims that, while provocative, seem overly subjective, and once again, the problem of who Homer’s audience is intrudes.

For instance, Felson is right to flag Telemachus’ excessive brutality in killing the faithless maids as one of those “silences” that need interpretation; Odysseus only wanted them killed, not tortured. But to interpret this moment she uses the psychological model to argue that his brutality is evidence that he isn’t having sex. The further implication is that this abstinence would also be inferred by Homer’s audience and considered significant. It seems equally possible — perhaps even more probable — that Homer and his audience would take for granted the opposite: that a healthy adolescent male with access to slaves would obviously be having sex. While the psychological model works for Felson, the silence about the brutality remains for the ancient listeners.

Any application of an abstract psychological model to a literary text must be careful about its object of study. Characters themselves make unsatisfactory objects, because, as Felson herself argues, these are merely a collection of signals registered by the audience, which imposes its own sense of coherence and thereby creates a whole personality (126f). This is the process which she calls “psychologizing,” and I agree with her about it. But there is then little ground for psychoanalyzing the construction. Peter Brooks argues that the proper locus for psychoanalytic or psychological study is text and its rhetoric (4), that is, its strategies for influencing its audience. By paying careful attention to what the text seems to expect its audience to react to, and by familiarizing ourselves with that audience’s cultural frame of reference, we can talk about the psychology or “mind” of the text. This kind of analysis, however, can be difficult for ancient texts, since it needs a firmer sense of an ancient audience’s contexts than we have for Homer’s audience.

Finally there is the book’s title, Regarding Penelope, which, like so many titles, inscribes its great aim. Felson is ambitious in her attempt to combine the fruits of audience-oriented criticism with psychological analysis, and the verb “regard” nicely captures the nuances of both activities, signaling the combined actions of watching and assessing. But I expected more — something which the film Regarding Henry did so well. For much of the movie the audience’s role parallels what seems to be the point of the title: people have to watch and (re)assess Henry in his new life after his brain injury. “Regarding,” that is, sounds like a gerund — as it for Felson. But the real power of the film derives from the growing awareness that “regarding” needs also to be heard as an attributive participle that modifies Henry — he himself has to watch and assess how others react to him, and he must learn to have regard for others.

I wanted Felson to consider more fully Penelope as an agent regarding others. However silent the Odyssey seems to be about Penelope’s reactions, there are indications, some explicit, some not, about how she regards the men around her in all their roles. For instance, Penelope’s first entrance and lament about Phemius’ choice of song is a powerful indictment of what the suitors enjoy listening to and have on their minds. An obvious point, perhaps, but what is not so obvious is that it is precisely Penelope’s regard that has modeled ours. Felson does bring many other such instances (although not this one) to light in the course of her discussion, but she does not draw from them the coherent picture of Penelope as an agent of interpretation that I believe she could have. Studying Penelope as largely an object of others’ regard leaves a powerful part of the argument underdeveloped.

Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8061-2961-1. Others have studied this polyvalent quality of the Odyssey, but Felson is right to focus on the uncertainty about Penelope’s plans as a powerful site for this guessing game that brings the audience pleasure. And, in deliberately casting it as a site for pleasure, she also pokes a bit of fun at those critics who so deliberately and seriously have analyzed the text for sure signs of when exactly Penelope recognizes Odysseus. For instance, although I liked her emphasis on how narrow and flawed Agamemnon’s regard for Penelope is, it is difficult to understand this as the result of an arrested adolescent maturation (94f). Peter Brooks, “The idea of a psychoanalytics literary criticism,” in Discourse in Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (1987) 1-18; he also denies the usefulness of “psychologizing” about the audience itself (2), although I think to study the rhetorical strategies intended for the listeners will tell us something about it.