BMCR 2005.11.03

the Plot of Homer’s Odyssey

, Taking her seriously : Penelope & the plot of Homer's Odyssey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 136 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472114891 $45.00.

This beautifully edited book with its poetic title adds a new perspective to the well-known but, as it transpires, still open theme, namely: “to make the strongest case possible for Penelope’s centrality to the plot” (2). It is an attempt at reading the “Odyssey” from Penelope’s point of view, which is grounded in the fact that the structure of the “Odyssey” points to such a perspective. Earlier analyses, though not lacking in mentions of the figure of Penelope (cf. Finley’s “making Odysseia a Penelopeia“), in effect accord her a rigid status in the epic which boils down to giving her a secondary position in relation to Odysseus. Richard Heitman (H.) intends to demonstrate, however, that she is a character of equal rank, as is reflected, for one, by the equal distribution of narrational and dramatic passages between both characters.

In the “Introduction” (1-10), H. attempts to refute those tendencies which run counter to taking Penelope seriously. Above all, he directs criticism at those critics who bypass principally those fragments of the “Odyssey” which could allow Penelope’s role to come into relief. Likewise, theories of oral composition (Parry, Lord) ignore Penelope’s character by claiming that her inconsistencies need not have a psychological dimension since they may just be put down to difficulties of oral composition. Even those approaches which maintain the unity of the “Odyssey” fail to give due attention to her significance (Aristotle is an example here, as the principal theme of the “Odyssey” for him is nostos, homecoming). It is interesting that even feminist readings have failed to portray Penelope’s depth of character, noticing only her indeterminacy. Finally H. writes of the “approach [which] is perhaps really more of a fundamental assumption underlying all previous approaches” (7): understanding her in terms of her function of “sexual fidelity to Odysseus” (Ovid). Penelope, according to this assumption, is a function of Odysseus. This interpretational set-up means that the popular image of Penelope is one marred by passivity, misogyny and feminism. In conclusion, H. states that studies of the character of Penelope to date “tend to maximize the passivity of Penelope’s character and to minimize the importance of the events in Ithaca” (9).

H.’s book intends to restore symmetry to the figure of Penelope in relation to Odysseus since the reader is brought up against the “serious agency of Penelope in the plot” (5). H. exhibits methodological care, however, to avoid falling into new prejudicial assumptions whilst trying to avoid the ones mentioned, and thus exercises Husserl’s bracketing. On p. 9, H. gives five principles for his study (e. g. the last one, “the most controversial assumption” is the following: “Penelope gives accurate accounts of her own feelings and motives”). For both Odysseus and Penelope, H. adopts “the same criterion for evaluating the truth of what each says” (9). The introduction fulfills its task well, giving the context, aim and method of his study as well as assumptions behind it. At the same time, H. already displays his multidimensional understanding of Homer’s characters who represent a synthesis of feelings – thoughts – intentions.

Six chapters follow. It is interesting that there is no separate conclusion (it should probably be assumed, therefore, that the last chapter takes on the role of summary, as its title suggests). The notes have been positioned after the last chapter (113-121), followed by the bibliography (123-130), index (131-136) of names, notions etc. All in 136 pages.

In the first chapter (“The Stakes of the Plot”, 11-33) H. reminds us that the “Odyssey” is not only a “nostos story”. Over half of the “Odyssey” is set in Ithaca and the central figure in Ithaca is Penelope, who is therefore no less important than Odysseus. The main culmination point of the plot at Ithaca is the imminent wedding, which is stalled by the arrival of the lost husband just in the “nick-of-time”. H. notes that the behaviour of the suitors as suitors is understandable, but evokes criticism in so far as they squander the estate of Odysseus. In general, it is better to distinguish between the point of view of the Ithacans and that of the reader, who more readily takes up the perspective of Odysseus, forgetting that he is a “disaster for many of these families” (27), including the families of the suitors. It should also be borne in mind that the violence of the suitors starts when they discover Penelope’s trick. Before then, they didn’t waste her estate since they hoped that it would eventually fall to one of them after he married her. This wastage of her estate is intended as a way of forcing Telemachos and his mother to succumb to marriage.

In the second chapter (“Strategy for Survival”, 34-49), H. first discusses the meaning of the phrase “knees gave way and the heart” (4, 703 – H. maintains that it appears 10 times in Homer altogether. Then H. underlines Penelope’s ties, which link her not only with Odysseus but also with her son. H. asks himself: “Does Penelope feel less love for her son than for her husband?” (35). The key to an answer is the last words spoken by Odysseus to Penelope before leaving Ithaca. Penelope repeats them (18, 259-270). They tell us that Odysseus gave Penelope a time limit for when she should remarry if he failed to return from Troy as the time when Telemachos should grow a beard. According to H., Odysseus’ words as cited by Penelope “form the most important passage for understanding Penelope’s role in the plot of the Odyssey” (44). H. demonstrates that Penelope is convinced that Odysseus is dead and will never return, but her attitude of waiting is intended to safeguard her son since “Penelope’s power to protect her son rests upon her ability to inspire loyalty in a new husband” (49).

The third chapter (“How Old Is Telemachos”, 50-62) is an attempt to answer a question which is set at the end of the second chapter: “what is the reason that she is still at home? Why has she not married again?” (49) To answer this question, the focus needs to be shifted to the figure of Telemachos, to his character and to use the language of psychology, to the contextual set up of his birth, childhood and adolescence. The age of Telemachos also needs to be considered and whether his beard would have already appeared. Rather than answer this question, it is easier just to say that Telemachos is a pepnumenos. H. interprets this word to mean artless (55). Telemachos is therefore “honest, frank, unguarded, naive-like a good child” (55). These are traits which inhibit him from passing into adulthood, into his father’s state, who, in contrast to being pepnumenos is polumetis. Telemachos has nobody from whom to learn since his father is away. This chapter is therefore an introduction into the psychology of Telemachos.

In the next chapter (“Penelope as Tragic Heroine”, 63-84), H. returns to the character of Penelope. He discusses Penelope’s decision to remarry and thus save her son, especially considering that the suitors embark on another scheme against him. It is just then that the new guest arrives. Penelope does not know the real identity of the beggar. It is known already to Telemachos and his sneezing is a sign of this (17, 544). Penelope fails to recognise the sign and reacts to the sneeze by laughing. According to H., this is precisely the only place “that we ought to consider not taking Penelope at her word”, since “her laughter is quite uncharacteristic of her” (66). This distinction demonstrates that H. does not give dogmatic weight to his assumption of taking Penelope seriously. The point at which Odysseus, on being recognised by Eurykleia, returns to his interrupted conversation with Penelope, represents, for H., “the heart of the poem’s plot and message” (68). On the one side, her marriage would save her son and estate, but on the other, it would mean breaking “with all she knows and loves” (70). The tragic situation of Penelope is further corroborated by her dream of the twenty geese and the differing interpretations given by Odysseus and herself. In the end, H. writes of her tragic situation as follows: “for her, heroism demands the courage to go unrecognized as a hero” (84).

The penultimate fifth chapter (“The Limits of Deception”, 85-103) concerns Penelope’s reaction to news of the murder of her suitors. What is obvious to Eurykleia and the readers, is hardest to imagine for Penelope. In her mistrust, thanks to which she persevered through all those years of Odysseus’ absence, she now goes too far. She even rejects his “scar as proof of Odysseus’s identity” (87). H. analyses the problem of recognition (who is who and how you can know it) and takes up the question of continuity of identity. In brief, “recognitions in the Homeric poems are generally as intellectually unproblematic as they are emotionally profound” (93). Penelope is sceptical – if a goddess made him first a beggar and then a beautiful man, what could be the difficulty in giving him a scar similar to the real scar of Odysseus. On the other hand, Penelope witnesses the corpses of her murdered suitors with her own eyes. In the end, she needs to pass him through her own test in order to settle his identity.

The last chapter (“The Poem of Mind”, 104-111), and the shortest one — which, alongside its eloquent title and summary character — means it should be treated as the conclusion, considers not so much just Penelope as the epic poem taken as a whole. At points, the author loses his distance on the theme being discussed and unnecessarily criticises the “Iliad” as compared with the “Odyssey”: “this [sc. power of the mind as self-control], too, the Iliadic hero lack” (106). This interjection is misplaced, the more so considering that arguing for the superiority of one epic poem over the other is not the subject of the work. Other intellectual short-cuts are also surprising: first he states that “self-control is not (…) to be without emotion”, but soon after categorically maintains that “Odysseus and Penelope never deny their deep-felt feeling but also never allow emotion to trump rationality” (107). His generalisations, though probably true, include, for instance: “strong emotion requires even stronger mental control” (107). H. also achieves a dichotomic distinction in this chapter: “Odysseus is multiplicity (…) Penelope has no epithets that begin with polu. (…) Penelope’s spirit is one of concentration” (108). It would seem that H. is here homing in on a conclusion, but he then puts off again onto deep waters and gives his consideration to the meaning of epithets built on the ending phrôn. notwithstanding that he has earlier advocated an integrated understanding of characters (feelings – thoughts – intentions), here, in a cursory manner, without any explanation, he makes for an intellectual: ” phrên, naming the human organ that is the seat of thought” (108-109) — by-passing feelings and intentions. His admiration for the figure of Penelope also seems to be expressed in his affirmation that: “her [Penelope’s] mind is mind at its best” (109) and in the final rather exaggerated statement of this chapter: “in the poem of mind, the Odyssey, it is wisdom, whose depth is for Penelope to sound” (111). Hence, although this final chapter seems satisfactory in terms of Homeric studies, it is the weakest part of the whole dissertation.

In relation to the whole, it is worth mentioning a point of difficulty, namely that from the very beginning H. also speaks for Telemachos and goes on to give him a lot of attention (a large part of the first chapter and the majority of chapter 3). Thus we must either adopt the view that in psychological terms (or perhaps also physical?) Telemachos is part of Penelope, part of her set-up, which would allow the title of the book to be retained in its present form, or Telemachos is a third player, equal and independent, alongside Odysseus and Penelope — but then the title should be broadened. For Jonathan Shay,1 for instance, Telemachos is the only one to be excluded from Odysseus’ circle of cruelty, interior to which are his wife, father, citizens of Ithaca and servants, because in reality he makes up one with his father. It would seem therefore that until both partial perspectives are conjoined – the paternal and the maternal – there can not be a full perspective.

In the main text, the Greek is transliterated (apart from one place, at the bottom of the acknowledgments). Greek characters have been maintained in the notes (114-118, 120-121) and in the titles given in the bibliography (123-124, 127, 129), but not in the index. The index is not comprehensive (e.g. Pandareos’ daughter appears also on p. 108). The bibliography consists principally of English language publications, some German and French contributions and very few Italian ones. Judging from the bibliography, one may conclude that even though on the one hand we may be encountering a decline in Classical studies, especially in Europe, on the other such a prolific amount of work is appearing that American scholars are unable to keep up with the American authors and take them all into account. It is understandable that the bibliography may have omitted Barnouw’s Odysseus, Hero of Practical Intelligence,2 it is harder to explain the absence of Shay’s Odysseus in America, which would have contributed to enriching the analysis carried out by H., especially considering that Shay also attributes meaning to Odysseus’s scar, considering it even “central to understanding Odysseus” (p. 143).

The bibliography lists all publications in one listing, without distinguishing between primary text, translations and secondary references. Under Homer (126), therefore, several translations have been given, though the most important text which H.’s work rested upon is listed under Thiel, H. van. 1991. Homeri Odyssea (129).3 I have noticed only a few typographical errors.4

It would be good to see H.’s book among set reading for studies into Homer’s psychology (the Library of Congress catalogues it as: “separation (psychology)”). It is an example of a neat and valuable contribution which is both intelligible to non-specialists and inspiring for psychologists and classicists. It demonstrates that research into Homer still is not dated and is capable of extracting ever new exciting ideas from Homer’s texts.


1. J. Shay, “Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming”, foreword by M. Cleland, J. McCain, Scribner, New York 2002, p. 280, n. 1, cf. also p. 280, n. 9.

2. J. Barnouw, Odysseus, Hero of Practical Intelligence. Deliberation and Signs in Homer’s Odyssey (University Press of America, New York 2004), writes of “the sign’s power to convince” (261) (in H. “higher standard of proof” (95)); just like H., (105) Barnouw takes thought 6, 182 as very significant and adopts it as the motto as his book.

3. This problem continues to come up; it was last brought up by John Scarborough in his review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.74.

4. posos (6) instead of poros (?), Oydssey (31), ‘of’ instead of ‘or’ in a cited translation of “Odyssey” 18, 266 (44), poluatlas instead of polutlas (108 and in Index – 134), absense of diacritical marks on two occasions in note 7, line 2 of the Greek citation (115), an error in the Greek words in the title of an article by W. K. Lacey (127). A small typing error in the headers of the Notes: different configuration for even and odd numbered pages.