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Stay at Home: Impossible Isolation in Homer

Justin Arft

University of Tennessee

Domestic interiority in Homer is commonly employed as a marker of gendered authority and divided social spheres. While gendered paradigms are often reversed in Homer (Foley, Arthur, Warwick), interior spaces remain a locus of isolation for women. While women’s isolation inside the household can indicate alienation and subordination, Andromache and Penelope imagine their husband’s isolation within it as a ward against the devastating effects of their eventual absence. This paper explores the gendered ramifications of how women’s isolation is a traditional outcome of the absence-devastation pattern in Homer (Lord, Foley) and men’s isolation, although an immediate affront to their traditional heroism, becomes the key to their survival. Ultimately, women’s imagination of men’s isolation serves as an index for feminine critique of heroism and women’s control over fate and narrative in Homer.

In the Iliad and Odyssey, the prospect of isolation is very real for women and only putative for men. Although the Odyssey’s interior space of the bedroom is a locus for performance of epic and private reunion that can be delayed indefinitely (Murnaghan [2011]), Odysseus’s departure from it alienates Penelope (Hernández) and implies Odysseus’s inevitable return to conflict (Arft). Thus, the Odyssey effectively asks the audience to return to that space in reperformance to preserve Odysseus in memory, with Penelope playing a key role in that process (Arft). Andromache more directly wishes for Hector to shelter in place within the city (Il. 6.431-32), but the pressures of kleos and aidōs deny this possibility. Andromache’s post-war isolation and alienation are anticipated in the imagery of Iliad 6 (Cohen) and are the inevitable outcomes of Hector’s death. While the Odyssey is less open about Odysseus’s demise, it tacitly suppresses cyclic traditions of his absence, death, and the dissolution of Ithaca (Arft, Burgess). Odysseus’s absence, however, has the same alienating effect on Penelope, leaving her captive not to foreigners but to an empty home (Hernández).

Penelope and Andromache, however, deploy tactics characteristic of their husbands, military strategy (Il. 6.431-93) and mētis (Od. 23.174-80), in their attempts to isolate them to the oikos (Tsagalis, Arthur). These momentary encroachments upon their husbands’ domains, even if ineffective, opens the text to a reversal of traditional modes of heroism, thus allowing their critique. These scenes, then, give way to an expression of women’s desires wherein the audience envisions an alternate reality, not unlike those of laments (Murnaghan [1999]), in which the isolation of the hero is their only means of survival. Through these imagined scenarios, the Iliad and Odyssey explore the consequences of a household disrupted by absence, with isolation employed as both symptom and a cure. For women, isolation is symptomatic of the destructive effects of seeking kleos; for heroes, isolation becomes the cure for devastation. Overall, women’s idealization of isolation challenges the ethics of heroism and gendered authority in Homer. Andromache and Penelope cannot rewrite epic, but they encourage the audience to imagine alternatives, an exercise in “open readings” (Doherty, Wilson) of otherwise indeterminate or uncomfortable outcomes.

Session/Panel Title

The Powers and Perils of Solitude in Greek Literature

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