BMCR 2021.04.09

The unknown Odysseus: alternate worlds in Homer’s Odyssey

, The unknown Odysseus: alternate worlds in Homer's Odyssey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. Pp. 160. ISBN 9780472037797 $24.95.


This book, originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback, constitutes the author’s attempt to account for an apparent incongruity: though the Odyssey has engaged the imaginations of generations of readers, the story of the returning hero seems in itself to lack “the requisite complexity and richness to account for the poem’s enduring power” (x). Through an extended reading aimed primarily at an audience of non-specialists, Van Nortwick argues that the Odyssey owes its continued resonance to the tension that emerges between two competing versions of Odysseus: the centripetal hero, whose interests align with the imperatives of the nostos plot, and the centrifugal hero, whose desires extend beyond return, revenge, and restoration, and whose actions often run counter to those goals. The book’s bipartite structure reflects this tension. Part One (“The Making of Odysseus”) examines the unfolding of Odysseus’ character from the perspective of the centripetal plot; Part Two (“The Unmaking of Odysseus”) explores how the poet leads the audience away from the centripetal agenda, both by delaying its fulfillment and by compelling the audience to consider perspectives that lie outside the restrictive lens of the nostos plot.

Chapter One, “The Hero Emerges,” offers a reading of Odyssey 1–5, with a focus on the development of the centripetal plot and the emergence of the centripetal hero at the center of it.  Van Nortwick argues that the Telemachia establishes a setting and moral framework that motivate and justify Odysseus’ return, deception, and violent reprisal. Though one might reasonably question the ethical underpinnings of Odysseus’ revenge—and of the duplicity that enables him to exact it—the rhetoric of the centripetal plot insists on the necessity of Odysseus’ return and consistently deflects the audience’s qualms about the moral implications of Odysseus’ actions. The presentation of anarchy within Odysseus’ palace, for example, and the consistent messaging around the chaos that ensues from a lack of male authority reinforces the audience’s sense of the urgency of Odysseus’ return. Similarly, the celebration of Odysseus’ uses of deception by Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen predisposes the audience to adopt a similar perspective on Odysseus’ subsequent duplicity. Finally, the insistence on the connection between hospitality and morality—and portrayal of Penelope’s suitors as transgressors of both—encourages the audience to endorse their extermination. In a particularly illuminating discussion of Book 5, Van Nortwick shows how Odysseus’ decision to leave Ogygia simultaneously reinforces and undermines the centripetal plot. Odysseus’ departure from Ogygia serves the return plot, insofar as it allows Odysseus to make progress in his journey back to Ithaka, but his departure from Ogygia also reflects a resistance to stasis that runs counter to the imperatives of the return story, revealing a fundamental tension between the linear plot and the ‘man of many turns’ at its center.

In Chapter Two, “Odysseus at Work,” Van Nortwick argues that the Odyssey’s notoriously unsatisfying ending is a product of the mismatch between the two different versions of Odysseus that have emerged over the course of the poem—the centripetal hero, defined by social and familial roles that anchor his identity to Ithaka, and the centrifugal hero, whose identity is expressed and affirmed though action. That is, the poet creates a plot whose fulfillment necessitates the return of Odysseus, but develops the character of Odysseus such that he cannot comfortably inhabit the roles that the plot’s fulfillment requires him to fill. The imperatives of the plot demand the centripetal version of the hero outlined in the Telemachia, but the character that the audience comes to know over the course of the poem is defined by his resistance to the comfortably static environments represented by Ogygia, Scheria, Aeaea, and finally Ithaka: “Odysseus’ character fits uneasily into the cozy, settled cosmos of Ithaka after the suitors are killed. Instead, he represents a kind of subversive agent in the midst of his own supposed domestic bliss” (41). Drawing on Sheila Murnaghan’s articulation of “two contrasting visions” that the Odyssey holds in suspense, Van Nortwick argues that the competing versions of Odysseus correlate with “two competing visions of human life” (39), a fantastical vision of the world, in which people and places remain “unmarked by time and change” (51), and a realist vision of the world, in which people and places change with the passage of time.

Chapter Three, “Subversive Anonymity,” marks the beginning of Part Two, which considers aspects of the poem that lead the audience away from the centripetal agenda. Focusing on the longer episodes of books 9–12, Van Nortwick argues that Odysseus’ encounters on the island of the Cyclopes, Aeaea, Hades, and Thrinakia follow a pattern whereby Odysseus arrives as an anonymous stranger into a society whose way of life presents an existential threat; infiltrates a feminine milieu; brings disorder and pain to a female (or feminized) character; effects significant change while remaining unchanged himself; and finally emerges, named and symbolically reborn. These episodes thus replay a pattern established by Odysseus’ encounters with the Phaeacians and Calypso and anticipate Odysseus’ return to Ithaka, where the pattern plays out for a final time. While these episodes prepare the audience for the fulfillment of the centripetal plot, they also undermine it in two ways. First, by creating parallels between Hades and Ithaka and between Penelope and various detaining female characters, these episodes pose rest in Ithaka as a kind of symbolic death. Second, while the centripetal plot emphasizes the centrality of Odysseus’ nostos to his kleos, Odysseus’ long narrative to the Phaeacians reveals a more complex relationship between the two; Odysseus needs to emerge from nameless obscurity in order to win kleos, but the maximization of his kleos in fact requires the delayed fulfillment of his nostos and suggests the advantages of anonymity.

Though the readings Van Nortwick offers in this chapter are perceptive and illuminating, the pattern that he articulates does not hold up as neatly as one might like. Though I am persuaded, for example, that Odysseus’ emergence from Polyphemus’ cave can be read as a symbolic rebirth, I am not equally convinced that Polyphemus’ cave should consequently be understood as “a feminine milieu” (52) nor that the Cyclops’ maintenance of order within his cave is clearly gendered. I am similarly dubious that the myth about Teiresias’ transformation into a female body, a story first attested in the Hesiodic Melampodia (fr. 275), contributes to the conclusion that Odysseus’ katabasis constitutes a “masculine penetration of a feminized milieu” (60). Van Nortwick’s sustained attention to considerations of gender and sexuality is generally useful, but occasionally produces readings that may not convince—at least not without substantiation. His assertion, for example, that the transformation of Odysseus’ crew members into pigs “is a transparently allegorical reference to what sex brings out in a man” (54) appears to apply anachronistic cultural associations to Homer, for whom pigs elsewhere function as property, food, or symbols of ferocity. Two of the four episodes discussed in the chapter do not fit the paradigm as precisely as the others. The Circe episode, which lacks several elements of the established pattern, is taken to be a “comic interlude” (56). The Thrinakia episode is also an awkward fit: “[t]here is no society for Odysseus to encounter, no detaining woman” (61), and the interpretation of the Cattle of the Sun “as animal versions of Circe” is, as Van Nortwick acknowledges, “something of a stretch” (62).

Chapter Four, “Constructed Lives,” argues that the biographical, autobiographical, and pseudo-autobiographical narratives that comprise much of books 13–16 undercut the centripetal agenda both by delaying its fulfillment in narrative time and by articulating a perspective on human life that conflicts with the one presupposed and reinforced by the return plot. “Whereas the return plot depends on a model of the self that is fixed and unchanging, the personae we encounter in the countryside” characterize life as “uncertain, difficult, limited by time, chance, and the ordinary frailties that beset us all” (66). Reading with both perspectives in mind opens up ways of understanding the poem that remain closed if one is alert only to the imperatives of the return plot. From the monocular perspective of the return plot, for example, the personae that Odysseus inhabits and the tales he tells must be interpreted as fabrications “designed solely to help Odysseus manipulate others” (76); so too, the bond he forges with Eumaeus must be considered inauthentic, given its basis in deception. However, if we temporarily ignore the centripetal agenda, which demands the unreality of Odysseus’ personae, then the parallels between Odysseus’ pseudo-autographical narratives in books 13–16 and his autobiographical narrative in books 9–12 compel us to “see the false tales as part of a continuum along which various versions of Odysseus exist within the framework of the narrative” (77).

Chapter Five, “The Ward of Hermes: Odysseus as Trickster,” pauses the sequential reading of the narrative to consider the presentation of Odysseus’ character in books 5–16 from the perspective of the “trickster paradigm” and to demonstrate how Odysseus’ alignment with that archetype encourages the audience to interpret the centrifugal aspects of his character not as lapses of self-control, but instead as insights into a more nuanced character than the centripetal perspective allows for. Drawing on Lewis Hyde’s definition of a trickster as an itinerant figure whose transgressions create category confusion out of which new meaning is generated, Van Nortwick argues that Odysseus, in his adventures away from Ithaka and in the stories he tells there in disguise, is an embodiment of the trickster archetype, one who uses his words and his wits to enact transformative change, “creat[ing] new worlds…and also call[ing] the reality of established ones into question” (94). While the claim that Odysseus can fruitfully be seen through the prism of the trickster paradigm is convincing, it is unclear to what extent Odysseus’ trickster persona should be distinguished from his centrifugal persona, with which it is “closely allied” (94).

In Chapter Six, “Sleepers Awake: The Return of the Beggar,” Van Nortwick demonstrates the collision of the two versions of Odysseus at the end of the poem by considering the disconcerting implications of the likeness between the goals of Odysseus’ journey—Ithaka and Penelope—and the various obstacles that have stood in the way of his return. Though Ithaka is consistently presented as the goal of the centripetal hero, it also bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the places that have threatened to trap Odysseus throughout the poem. In its “lack of masculine authority,” “atmosphere of passivity and impotence,” and promise of long-term stability, Ithaka takes on associations with other dangerous, feminized spaces, like Ogygia, Scheria, Polyphemus’ cave, Aeaea, and Hades (99). From this perspective, Penelope may be viewed as yet another ‘detaining female’ who threatens to keep Odysseus in a state of stasis that is elsewhere equated with death. The poet thus complicates Odysseus’ return, denying the audience the satisfaction of a happily-ever-after ending and infusing the poem with the tension that accounts for its enduring power.

In the brief Epilogue, “Wor(l)ds,” Van Nortwick suggests that the poet’s insistence on the artificial nature of the plot that Athena devises encourages the audience to read it as one among many possible perspectives on Odysseus’ return. Liberated from the confines of the centripetal plot, the audience is invited to enjoy a more nuanced perspective on Odysseus and those around him.

The book is well written and finely produced, with minimal and inconsequential typos. An index allows for easy navigation.

In spite of the minor reservations expressed above, the book is a success. The Unknown Odysseus provides an excellent point of entry for a general audience and would work well in an undergraduate course as an ancillary guide to the poem. Though it is not aimed at a specialist audience, I certainly benefited from its insights.