BMCR 2020.09.43

Travel and home in Homer’s Odyssey and contemporary literature

, Travel and home in Homer's Odyssey and contemporary literature: critical encounters and nostalgic returns. Classical Presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 175 p.. ISBN 9780198814016 $85.00.

Carol Dougherty’s stimulating new book, like its predecessor The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination of Homer’s Odyssey (2001), begins with travel; but its true focus is the consequences of travel, with homecoming in mind. In this contribution to Oxford’s Classical Presences series Dougherty reflects on the nature of homecoming, the nature of home-making, the responsibilities of house-keeping, and, ultimately, nostalgia. Dougherty herself describes this volume as ‘an experiment in improvisatory criticism’ (1): a new interpretive rationale that, in this case, brings Homer’s Odyssey together with five 20th and 21st century novels that, like the Odyssey, are preoccupied with travel and return. The novels in question are (in the order in which they are presented) Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992); Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980); Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006); Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918); and Toni Morrison’s Home (2012).

This is not, however, as Dougherty makes clear, an exercise in reception. The authors whose work is studied here do not explicitly invoke the Odyssey as a model, as, for example, Margaret Atwood does in The Penelopiad (2005). It is quite simply their thematic concerns that establish their relevance to this study. In pairing these five contemporary novels with the Odyssey, Dougherty hopes that some ‘new and surprising conversations will emerge from the serial unpredictability of reading these texts together’ (16), generating new ways of thinking about the Odyssey; she argues that the poem itself, and our perceptions of it, will ‘change and adapt’ with each new encounter, in much the same way as its hero improvises and adapts to new situations.

In Chapter 1 Dougherty reads The English Patient as an account of how travellers on the road create new, provisional homes (24) — not to mention new flexible notions of identity (27). As we follow the lives of those who take up residence in the ruins of Villa San Girolamo towards the end of World War II, we are prompted, Dougherty suggests, to think more about ‘the domestic nature’ of Odysseus’ experiences abroad — and how, after his tumultuous journey home, they complicate the experience of return (32) — despite the inevitable nostalgic pull of home. Reading The English Patient leads Dougherty to reflect on the time that Odysseus spends with Circe and with Calypso before he at last reaches Ithaca, and home, once more.

Whereas Ondaatje, through occasional references to the hero Odysseus, actively prompted reflection on the theme of travel-and-return as it is evoked in the Odyssey, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, the subject of Chapter 2, offers no such hints. For Dougherty, however, Robinson’s drifter-hero, Sylvie, who steps in to ‘mother’ her two nieces after they have been abandoned, suggests both Odysseus’ mobility and Penelope’s ability to keep house — although Sylvie’s competence in the latter field is clearly in doubt. This is no celebration of a ‘settled and sedentary home’ (58). The nieces respond in contrasting ways to their environment: one opts for the Penelopean virtues of traditional house-keeping — she moves in with her home economics teacher; the other remains with Sylvie, who, despite her house-keeping failures, represents family. And, in time, she and Sylvie abandon the house for a life of travel, occasionally reappearing in the neighbourhood (as Odysseus himself will come and go) while on their way to somewhere else. Housekeeping is a melancholy novel, one that focuses on, and complicates, the relationship between those who go and those who stay. In its final scenes it becomes clear that attempts to bring the traveller and the housekeeper together in ‘some productive relationship’ (69) will always fail. And, Dougherty claims, it points up sharply the Odyssey’s ‘perpetually idealized notion’ (68) of Penelope and Odysseus as emblems of a like-minded merger of travel and home.

Robinson’s Housekeeping tries to imagine a way in which women can keep house and travel. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, by contrast, considers the possibility that men might do the same. This male version of house-keeping, for a father and his son who, having escaped apocalyptic devastation, now move from place to place pushing a shopping cart that carries their few belongings, is un-Penelopean; it is a form of making-do that has more in common with Odysseus’ resourcefulness.

In the Odyssey Odysseus and Telemachus follow separate paths. McCarthy’s father and son travel together. What they discover is that the houses they come upon, some of which appear even to offer abundance and comfort, are not safe places: an appearance of hospitality is not to be trusted. The father makes great efforts to create ‘a sense of home’ (81) for his son, exercising those same handyman skills that Odysseus practised. Violence, too, plays a part, just as Odysseus brings violence into his home. This constant effort eventually takes its toll: the father dies, leaving his son to find his own way in the world. The Road, like Housekeeping, cannot offer a solution to the irreconcilability of mobility and its freedom on the one hand and family and domesticity (with its security and emotional connection) on the other (90). This is the issue that the Odyssey-poet carefully avoids: making the focus of his poem Odysseus’ return to his wife, he sets to one side the hero’s eternal restlessness.[1] Dougherty turns now to the very experience of homecoming, explored first through Rebecca West’s 1918 novel, The Return of the Soldier. Chris Baldry has been sent home to recover from a head injury suffered on the World War I battlefield. Amnesia has wiped out the past 15 years of his life. He has no recollection of marriage to his “cover-girl” wife, the death of their young son, or his recently renovated home. He and his wife have no private memories to share—none of the ‘secret signs’ known to Penelope and Odysseus. What Baldry recalls, and what he now yearns for, is a more distant past, memories of happier times, in a happier, exotic, location, and a happier relationship. Baldry’s nostalgia works against a good homecoming. Dougherty contrasts Baldry’s form of nostalgia with that of Odysseus, whose homesickness, along with Athena’s plan for him, rescues him from the ‘permanent state of amnesia’ (111) that Calypso offers him. That is, through his own will and with the god’s support, Odysseus is able to reimagine a return; thus he is able to achieve a safe — and good — homecoming.

Toni Morrison’s Home takes up the theme of nostalgia once more: not the retrospective, ‘reflective’ longing of Chris Baldry but a ‘restorative’, creative, nostalgia (113-114). Frank Money, the hero, a Korean War veteran, had left a home that he disliked in Lotus, Georgia, to go to war. At war’s end, despite his traumatic experiences, Frank’s homecoming, as Morrison shapes it, will ultimately be productive. Initially, however, on account of his nightmares and his disruptive behaviour, his new relationship with Lily breaks down. Before we return to follow Frank’s story, Dougherty asks us to consider Lily’s predicament, which offers us a new perspective on Penelope. After Frank leaves her, Morrison’s Lily is relieved; she is now able to enjoy the freedom of her own place. Dougherty asks whether Penelope too might have enjoyed those years — although not, I suggest, after the arrival of the suitors — when she was mistress of the domain on Ithaca.

Frank has turned from Lily in order to rescue his sister, in trouble in Lotus (an allusion that we should not ignore). To his surprise he finds that Lotus has changed for the better. Lotus becomes for Frank a ‘version of home that might be remembered differently from afar’ (133). And he and his sister reconstruct in Lotus a ‘new and better home’ (116), better than the one Frank had left behind years before. This, Dougherty suggests, is a consequence of the ‘utopian, restorative impulse’ of nostalgia (133). Thus, as she argues (137-138), one can go home again. It will be strange; but it may be better. Home, she says, ‘challenges our devotion to the romance of the Odyssey’. It focuses our attention on what has been unresolved in the poem: the need for reconstruction—‘for healing, for addressing the violence that characterizes human experience both at war and at home’

Of Dougherty’s five novels the first three explore ‘new ways to think about how Homer’s Odyssey distinguishes between those who travel and those who stay’; the remaining two focus quite explicitly on the ways in which a soldier might return from war (141-142). For her the theme that emerges with most clarity is that of nostalgia. Nostalgia, for Dougherty, is more than simply a sentiment; it represents ‘the process of moving from the pain of separation from home toward some kind of reengagement with it’.  With reference to the Odyssey, she argues that we observe the working-out of this process in the hero’s sojourn on Scheria, where Odysseus is able to move from forgetting to remembering and to reimagining a return. Phaeacia, she has noted (31), is the place where Odysseus puts himself back together by talking. Through talking he is at last able not only to contemplate the violence of making war and the ‘unsettling demands’ of his travels thereafter but also to negotiate his complicated feelings, his desire and his anxiety, about home and what he will find there (144). Nostalgia, Dougherty finds (146-147), provides the framework for the sojourn itself and for Odysseus’s long narrative of Books 9-12. And, indeed, in the hero’s return to his own land we will again see ‘nostalgia’s play with memory and loss’ (148).

Nostalgia, that is, has provided ‘an interpretive framework, a mode of critical analysis’, for the project as a whole (149-150). Dougherty suggests here that nostalgia in this case is polytropic: we cannot forget the ‘demands and challenges’ of these five novels about travel-and-return and still find, when we return to the Odyssey, a ‘familiar and comforting text’. Rather, after these unexpected literary encounters, we must engage with the Odyssey in new and unexpected ways.

Dougherty’s improvisatory criticism, like reception studies, has looked to contemporary writing to bring to the fore new possibilities for reading Homer’s Odyssey.[2] In doing so she has teased out the complications, for both traveller and house-keeper, that underpin far-flung travels and the late return; and she has thrown light on the Odyssey-poet’s compositional choices, as he shapes his narrative to navigate — and, on occasion, to skirt — those complications. After having read Travel and Home you will not return to the Odyssey that you thought you knew.


[1] Almost as an afterthought, Dougherty introduces (at 92) the notion that we should see in McCarthy’s father and his son not Odysseus and Telemachus at all but rather Anchises, Aeneas and Ascanius, the fathers and sons who travel on into the world after the fall of Troy.  This, I think, is a proposal to be weighed up in a separate essay, one that considers The Road alongside the Aeneid; but it has no place in the present study.

[2] This is not to say that Dougherty has neglected Homeric scholarship. I note the omission only of M. Alden, Para-narratives in the Odyssey, Oxford, 2017.