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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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BOOK 19: RECOGNITIONS AND A DREAM

With the suitors safely bedded, Telemakhos and Odysseus lock the weapons and armor in the storeroom. Then Telemakhos goes to bed. Odysseus receives another insult from Melantho. Eurynome, the housekeeper, spreads a couch for Odysseus and finally he and Penelope sit down to talk in private. "Who are you, where do you come from?" she asks. He doesn't explain right away.

She tells of her situation, the trick of the shroud, and says, "I have no strength left to evade a marriage." It's an intimate conversation for a woman of her rank to be having with a beggar. She asks him about himself again, and this time he tells her a false story, again saying he's from Krete. You might compare this version with the one he told Eumaios in Book 14. He says he once entertained Odysseus at Knossos, and when Penelope weeps for her lord "like melting mountain snow," you're told that he weeps inwardly, that he has the ability to hide his feelings.



When she asks for proof that he really knew Odysseus, he describes his own clothes of twenty years ago: cloak, pin, shirt, also his woolly-headed herald, Eurybates. She is strangely moved, and cries again. She believes him. This whole scene is highly charged emotionally, so much so that some critics argue that Penelope may unconsciously know she is speaking to her husband.

He says he's heard that Odysseus has made a fortune among the Thesprotians. He adds a bit of factual material about the Phaiakians-perhaps even Odysseus, the master of self-control, is having a hard time concealing how he really feels and is skating dangerously close to telling her the truth. He says that even now Odysseus is on a ship, wealthy, close to home-in fact, he will be there tomorrow! Here Penelope backs away, as she did when Theoklymenos said Odysseus was at hand. The details of his clothing are tangible proof to her. An assertion, out of nowhere, that her husband is almost there is less convincing. But she does feel strongly about this stranger.

She calls for a bed to be made for him, and mentions a bath. He refuses a footbath unless it is given by an old woman, someone like himself in years. He is staying in his character of an elderly beggar. Calling Eurykleia, Penelope stops herself from saying, "Come bathe your master's feet." Homer keeps you on the edge of your chair all through this scene. Will the secret of Odysseus' identity be revealed? Or will it remain hidden?

By insisting on an old maidservant like Eurykleia, Odysseus has almost asked to be recognized, for Eurykleia nursed him as a baby and knows him inside and out. She feels Odysseus' presence even before she starts to bathe his feet. She tells him many strangers have come but none who seemed so like Odysseus as he does. But Homer delays the moment of revelation in a masterful way. First, he has Odysseus remember the scar on his thigh, worry that Eurykleia will notice it, and tell us the story of how he got it. This digression takes quite a while and is full of interesting details, all of them just as interesting, Homer seems to imply, as what is about to happen. But when you return to what is about to happen, it's even more dramatic because you had to wait for it. Eurykleia sees the scar. "You are Odysseus!" she exclaims. She has no doubt. It's a moment of intense feeling for her, for Odysseus, and for the reader. Odysseus swears her to secrecy, and Athena distracts Penelope from noticing.

But this powerful chapter has not yet reached its climax. Bedtime approaches. Penelope tells the stranger how hard the nights are for her, alone, tortured by her situation, not knowing what to do. Imagine how those words must affect Odysseus. Telemakhos is no longer a boy, she says. (He proved that in Books 1-4.) She's going to have to do something. She asks the stranger to interpret a dream of an eagle attacking twenty fat geese. The eagle spoke to her and said he was Odysseus. The stranger says it is a true dream and that Odysseus has shown her the doom of the suitors. She speaks of true and false dreams for a bit, but then, almost as though she were bringing to consciousness an unconsciously arrived at decision, she tells the stranger she has decided to act.

Tomorrow she will present the suitors with her husband's bow and challenge them to string it and shoot it straight through twelve axe heads as only her husband was able to do. The man who performs this feat will have her hand. She could have decided to do this a week from now, or even a year from now, but something-perhaps her unconscious awareness of her husband's presence-makes her decide to do it tomorrow.

Let there be no delay of the trial, the stranger says, Odysseus will be there. It's wrenching as the scene ends to see Penelope go up to bed alone. It's hard not to feel that on some level she believes that Odysseus will be there, that perhaps he has even been there already.

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