I’m helping some friends home-school their high school-aged daughter by taking on the literature component of her curriculum. I volunteered for this, actually, because I think it’s important that young people have a grounding in the classics upon which our Western literature is based. I can’t tell you how many of the creative writing students, both grad and undergrad, don’t know The Odyssey, haven’t got a clue who Virgil is (either in his own right or as Dante’s guide in The Inferno), and can’t identify why they know the name ‘Gabriel’ nor what its significance is. Yes, I view these as serious deficits for writers and also anyone who is studying literature. So much of our literature is based on these earlier works, that not knowing them cuts out a whole level of understanding. I also believe that all art exists in conversation with what’s gone before it. To me, not knowing these earlier works is like not learning the alphabet and being expected to read.
The reading list I designed, follows the development of one of the major motifs of Western lit – the journey. Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Aenid, Candide, Huckleberry Finn, The Lord of the Rings, Siddhartha, and a few others I can’t think of right now.
Which is not what I wanted to write about with this blog post. This is:
We’re working on The Odyssey right now. It’s probably my fourth or fifth time reading this book, and my next novel (the one I actually went into grad school for so I could work on it) is based on it. Simply said, I love this story.
The first time I read it was as a freshman in high school, a really bad prose translation. I’ll admit, the book didn’t make much of an impression except for my teacher’s insistence that Odysseus’ naming of himself as ‘nobody’ in the Cyclops’ cave was an expression of his loss of identity (this is also the same teacher who later declared that a minor character in a Hemingway novel would succeed while all the rest were doomed because he was wearing green pants when we meet him – I love Mr. Johnson, he was one of the best teachers I ever had, but…he played a little bit on the heavy side with symbolism) (okay, in full disclosure, there was another thing I remember about that reading. Because of the bad translation – which substituted ‘no one’ for ‘nobody’ and my slight dyslexia, I read the name as ‘Norman,’ and couldn’t figure out why this was such as especially good trick on Odysseus’ part. I mean, so what? When Polyphemus’ friends are asking, “Who’s hurting you?” and he says, “Norman is hurting is me.” where’s the cleverness in that?)
I read the book in my freshman year of college, too. This time, it made a much greater impression on me, largely because my class was in open rebellion about calling Odysseus a great hero. It was 1983, and we were a generation that had grown up with our country’s disgust about the Vietnam war as part of our daily routine. That Odysseus lost ALL 600 of his men on the way home from Troy, spent a year living with one goddess and seven living with another, and kept falling asleep at the most inopportune times, was more than we were willing to accept in a hero. My professor finally gave up trying to have discussions about the book and we turned to The Aeneid, a book I gave up on reading, though I don’t remember why. What I do recall about The Odyssey, though, was that Professor Vos gave us a poem by C.P. Cavafy titled “Ithaka” which I have carried with me ever since. It’s a beautiful poem about living for the journey not the goal that ends with the lines, “And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you/ Wise as you will have become, so full of experience/ you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” (from the translation by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard)
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I read The Odyssey and started recognizing how extraordinary it is. Maybe it was because I was almost the same age as Odysseus is in The Odyssey. Maybe it was also watching Troy and being struck by Sean Bean’s portrayal of the man and his friendship with Achilles. Maybe it was also a phenomenal series of lectures on the book by Elizabeth Vandivier (by the Teaching Company, if you don’t know about them, you should), and the classics kick my husband and I were on (still are, actually). Maybe it’s because I realized I have the same scar on my leg that Odysseus has on his. (This is how the servant, Eurycleia, recognizes him – from the scar he got boar hunting as a boy. The boar charged and caught him across the left thigh with one of its tusks. My scar comes from running into a 2 x 4 my dad used to balance the window air conditioner in my room – the year I was in 7th grade, my dad left the boards and air conditioner in the hallway after he’d taken it out. I didn’t notice the board sticking into the hallway when I went running back to my room one day. I still have a lovely 4 inch crescent-shaped scar on my left thigh. Not as exciting as Odysseus, but still…an odd thing to have in common). So I don’t know what happened, but this time, the book hit a chord.
Most especially, on my third read-through, I was struck by how amazing Penelope is. A lot of feminists dislike her because, while Odysseus is off sleeping around and taking 10 years to get back from sacking Troy, she is calmly sitting at home, tending the farm, and being endlessly faithful to him. I think she’s extraordinary. First off, this is an incredible love story. Odysseus loves Penelope. He loves Ithaca, but it’s Penelope he’s longing for. Calypso knows it. She asks him what Penelope has that she, a goddess, doesn’t, and Odysseus, ever the cagey one, tells her that really, it’s Ithaca that he wants, but he’s also just been told he can go home after this goddess has been trying, for seven years, to convince him to let her make him immortal and never-aging (good thinking, there. Dawn, with her rosy fingers, made the same offer to a mortal, but forgot the never-aging part – not pretty) if he’ll consent to becoming her husband. Odysseus has been holding her off for seven years, which has to mean something in the Penelope department, as far as I'm concerned. If it's just Ithaca he wanted to get back to, I don't think he would have been so reluctant (yes, he sleeps with Calypso, his "unwilling flesh" alongside her "flesh that was all too willing." Then again, she's got him captive. What's he going to do?)
To me, Penelope is every bit as clever and intelligent as Odysseus. She’s surrounded by duplicitous women in The Odyssey, all of whom offer a cautionary tale about what havoc unfaithful wives can wreak. Helen, who’s infidelity caused the Trojan War, and Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, who conspired with her lover to murder her husband when he returned from war, are pretty powerful warnings about what not to do as the wife of a king. She speaks bitterly of the Trojan War, calling the city Des-troy, because so many lives were destroyed by Helen's folly. This is not a woman who is going to be unfaithful to her husband. But she's not just faithful, she’s smart. She holds off the suitors until her son, Telemachus, is old enough to defend the family fortune and property, to take his father’s place as head of the household. She’s kept the fortune together for 20 years, too. Odysseus’ holdings, while diminished by three years of the suitors partying, isn’t even close to being gone. And when this guy shows up and kills all the suitors, she doesn’t rush into his arms immediately. She tests him.
I love the moment when, after the suitors and disloyal servants have been dispatched, and Odysseus cleans himself up, Penelope and Odysseus are sitting on either side of the hearth. Just sitting there. She’s looking at him, and he’s staring into space. Telemachus rushes in and declares that she’s got to be the hardest-hearted woman on the face of the planet, but she just tells him she and Odysseus have other ways of knowing each other, and Odysseus sends him out to go do something else. That’s when Odysseus says he’s tired and wants to sleep, and Penelope tells the servants to take his bed, the one from his bedroom, and make it up in the courtyard. Odysseus made this bed so that one post is a living tree, still attached to the ground. The only way this bed could be moved is if it got cut down at some point. Odysseus explodes, accuses her of being unfaithful, and explains how the bed was made, by his own hand. Only then does Penelope know her husband has come home and greet him as a loving wife.
Hands-down, I think she’s one of the most extraordinary female characters ever written. She's smart, strong, passionate, and faithful.
Anyway, this is getting long. I’ll continue my observations about my current reading in my next post. Because this time, I’m noticing a lot about how the story is constructed, and it’s amazing me all over again.