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Penelope's Recognition of Odysseus: the Importance of Simile in Odyssey 23

Shea Whitmore

Hillsdale College

      One important narrative ambiguity in the Odyssey is the question of Penelope's recognition of Odysseus. Exactly how and when Penelope recognizes her husband has been the subject of scholarly debate since Hellenistic times. One mainstream reading of this narrative controversy is the “gradual recognition”  argument—in other words, that Penelope recognizes Odysseus gradually and by degrees, culminating in a moment of full recognition in Odyssey 23 (Emlyn-Jones, 2). In this paper, I follow this reading, and I draw on my reading of the epic simile in Odyssey 23.233-240 as evidence.

            The simile in question likens Penelope's recognition of Odysseus to the experience of shipwrecked men who reach land by swimming. While Homer uses epic simile for a variety of purposes, epic similes can often be read with a view to larger narrative considerations, and the simile in Odyssey 23.233-240 seems especially suited to such analysis. My own analysis of Odyssey 23.233-240 hinges on the coincidence of metrical pauses with the literal meaning of the words and with the overall sense of the simile. More specifically, the two words in the simile that denote the “land” to which the shipwrecked sailors are swimming (γῆ and γαίης) are both surrounded by some combination of caesura or diaeresis, and so set apart from the rest of their respective lines. The immediate effect of this is a kind of word-painting, which makes an “island” out of the word for “land” within the line. By itself, this effect is not relevant to the overall narrative of the Odyssey. The word in the simile for “husband” (πόσις), however, is also separated from its line by a caesura and a diaeresis, and this is notable, because it equates Odysseus (who is the husband in this context) to land.

            In light of Homer's emphatic uniting of Odysseus with land (by both the sense and metrical variation of the simile), I turn to the question of how and when Penelope recognizes her husband. In the simile, the sailors are shipwrecked and swimming for their lives, and they are in a desperate situation. Penelope, beset by suitors and without Odysseus to set the household in order, is similarly afflicted. The sailors first see land, and the sight gives them hope, but they must swim in order to reach land. There is a movement from the apprehension of and hope for safety to its realization, and this movement is a gradual process. In the same way, Penelope perhaps has an intuition that the disguised Odysseus is her husband, and perhaps she hopes that he might be, but she does not become certain that he is Odysseus until he proves himself through his actions; it is only after he has dispatched the suitors, set his household in order, and offered his wife sufficient proof of his identity that Penelope explicitly acknowledges him as Odysseus.

            Through the coincidence of metrical pauses with sense in Odyssey 23.233-240, Homer has emphatically united Odysseus with land as it appears to shipwrecked sailors. This uniting can be read with a view to a particular narrative controversy: how and when Penelope recognizes Odysseus. I offer my reading of the simile in Odyssey 23.233-240 as evidence that Penelope recognizes Odysseus gradually, with her full recognition made explicit in Odyssey 23. 

Session/Panel Title

The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

Session/Paper Number

61.1

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