The Odyssey By Homer Summary and Analysis Book 19 - Penelope and Her Guest

Summary

The suitors have gone home for the night. Odysseus instructs Telemachus to gather the weapons and hide them where they will not be readily available to the suitors the next day. Melantho, the disrespectful servant girl who sleeps with Eurymachus, confronts the beggar/Odysseus once more.

Finally alone with Penelope, Odysseus offers convincing evidence that he knew her husband. Penelope seems suspicious about his identity. An old nurse, Eurycleia, is assigned the duty of bathing the guest. She innocently comments on how much he resembles her king, whom she raised from early childhood. Stunned, she identifies a scar, over his knee, left by a boar's tusk, and realizes that she is, indeed, bathing, her master. Odysseus immediately and sternly swears her to silence, forbidding her even to tell Penelope his identity.

After the bath, Penelope rejoins the beggar/Odysseus and reveals that she will conduct a contest the following day to select a husband and satisfy the suitors. The challenge involves a feat that only Odysseus has performed before: stringing his great bow and shooting an arrow through a straight row of twelve axes. Odysseus enthusiastically approves of her plan.

Analysis

This section of the epic is primarily concerned with the question of Odysseus' identity. Scholars disagree vehemently on how much Penelope knows. On the surface, she seems to accept the beggar as another wayfaring stranger, certainly more interesting than most but of no great personal significance to her. The beggar/Odysseus repeatedly states that her husband's return is imminent; she remains skeptical. Beneath the surface, however, the reader can see several indications that Penelope is at least suspicious about the vagrant's true identity.

When Odysseus and Penelope finally meet, she directs the conversation. First she wants the beggar/Odysseys to understand her considerable efforts to dissuade the suitors: She has used her son's youth as an excuse. For three years, she held the suitors off through her ruse of the shroud, telling the suitors that she must finish a shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law, against that sad but inevitable time of his death. During the day, she worked at her loom in view of the suitors; at night, she unraveled the day's weaving. She was successful in this deception until her own maidservant revealed the truth, a point that also influences Odysseus' eventual judgment of the servants in Book 22.

Having in this way identified herself to the visitor, Penelope probes him for information about his background. Odysseus answers with a fictitious autobiography that includes a friendship with her husband. Penelope tests him by asking specific questions about the clothing and comrades of Odysseus. The beggar/Odysseus has impressive answers, citing a purple woolen cape and a gold clasp with a hound clenching a fawn. He mentions Odysseus' herald, Eurybates.

Finally, he predicts that her husband will return as the old moon dies and a new moon rises that very month. (Critics mention this as one of several references to death and rebirth in the epic, other references being Odysseus' return from the Land of the Dead; his arrival, naked and caked with mud, on Phaeacia; and his return to Ithaca.) Penelope concedes the accuracy of the description of her husband but wonders, momentarily and beautifully, if he ever really existed: "Odysseus. There was a man, or was he all a dream?" (19.363)

The strongest case for concluding that Penelope is at least suspicious that the stranger is her husband begins with her call to Eurycleia to bathe the guest. She tells the nurse to "come and wash your master's . . . equal in years" (19.407). Penelope seems to have started to ask the nurse to wash her master's feet. She changes this, mid-sentence, to an unlikely phrase about the guest's being the master's age. Translator Fagles uses an ellipsis to indicate a pause, effected by word order in the Greek. Eurycleia, who cared for Odysseus when he was a boy, soon identifies him as her master (in large part because of the scar above his knee, which she sees while bathing him).

Further supporting the assumption that Penelope is aware of the beggar's identity is that, following the bath, she confides in him to a remarkable degree. She shares a dream with him, in which an eagle kills her flock of geese and then takes on a human voice to tell her that he, the eagle, is her husband and the geese are the suitors. Penelope wonders if this is a dream from the gate of ivory (meaning that it is insignificant) or the gate of horn (indicating that the dream is true or prophetic).

Most interesting is the contest that Penelope decides will choose her husband. The test, the next day, will be to see who can properly string Odysseus' great bow and shoot a single arrow cleanly through a dozen axes set in a row. Surely it is no accident that only one man, Odysseus himself, has ever been able to perform this feat.

Glossary

Icmalius a chair maker and wood craftsman on Ithaca.

shroud a cloth, often ornate, used to wrap a body for burial.

Cnossos a major city on Crete.

Parnassus a peak (about 8,060 feet high) in southern Greece, north of the Gulf of Corinth.

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