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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D. Snider
A Commentary on the Odyssey of Homer - Part II

From, Homer's Odyssey: A commentary
[Please note that the Table of Contents here published, is created by Elpenor and is not to be found in the print version]

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Page 55

Book Nineteenth. This is a strong Book of its kind. Penelope is the center, her difficulties are shown anew, moreover they are about to reach their culmination. The husband disguised here tests the wife, and finds out by his own personal observation her fidelity. Her womanly instincts are still intact, in spite of the dissolute surroundings. Ulysses discovers that he is not to meet with the fate of Agamemnon on his return home.

From the preceding Book, which was occupied with the external conflicts in the palace, we move in the present Book more and more to the heart of the business, which is the union in the hearts of husband and wife. The oneness of the Family after long separation of its two members is the ethical theme, showing that such union is eternal, as far as the eternal can be shown in Time. Two divisions we shall mark: Ulysses and his son Telemachus first, then Ulysses and his wife Penelope.

I. The two men, father and son, are seen preparing for the conflict which is drawing on—just that being the duty of men. The weapons which were hanging on the walls of the banqueting-room are removed in the absence of the Suitors and of the servants. Also a pretext is framed for their removal. Moreover "Pallas, holding before them her golden lamp, made very beautiful light." Certainly the Goddess was there, the scene shows her in every part; "Such is the wont of the Olympians," says Ulysses; divine illumination descends upon a work of this kind.

II. But by far the longest portion of the Book is devoted to the interview between Ulysses and Penelope. Telemachus goes off to his chamber to rest for the night; Ulysses is now received by his wife at the hearth. The various turns of this lengthy account we shall throw into four divisions.

1. By way of introduction, the faithless handmaid Melantho again shows her character in a harsh speech to Ulysses, "Get out, you beggar! Will you still keep sneaking through the house by night to spy out women?" So she reveals plainly what she is, and even mentions the test which she cannot stand. Ulysses in his reply enforces charity: "I was once rich, but I gave the poor wanderer alms." Beware of the day of reckoning: such is his repeated warning to all these people.

Penelope also gives a sharp reproof to the shameless handmaid, and intimates the fate impending: "Thou hast done a deed which thy head shall atone for." It is again to be noted that the guilty are the inhuman, while the faithful have charity. Penelope specially shows this trait in the present Book, though her threat to Melantho is not gentle. Quite as Ulysses served Irus, Penelope is ready to serve Melantho; both can become uncharitable toward the uncharitable; both can meet evil with evil, and fight the negative with negation.

2. The main purpose of this portion of the interview is to furnish Penelope with hope. She seems on the point of giving up the long contest, she has played her last stratagem against the Suitors. Now she must choose one of them, her parents urge it, her son demands it; there seems no escape, though she hates the marriage like black Death. In such a frame of mind, the disguised Ulysses is to divert her thoughts with a story, to gain her confidence in his honesty, and to give a strong promise of her husband's speedy return. The manner in which he puts these three points in succession is worthy of study.

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Cf. Pharr, Homer and the study of Greek * Odyssey Complete Text
Iliad Complete Text * Homer Bilingual Anthology and Resources * Livingstone, On the Ancient Greek Literature
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