Butler’s Authoress of the Odyssey: Gendered Readings of Homer, Then and Now
Butler feels himself to be superior to the scholars who oppose him and in opposition to whom he positions himself because, unlike them, he sees the simplicity of the Odyssey in dealing with the Greek text and because he came to the text without any preconceived notions, with his “fresh eyes.”
Although Butler displays some self-awareness about his disdain for professional Homeric scholars, he nevertheless insists that it is the straightforward and uncomplicated nature of his approach to the text that allows both for the best interpretation and for his conclusions in particular to shine through. Immersing oneself in the text as he has done is the only useful approach, according to Butler, and he has not met a scholar in England (although he has in Sicily) who has “saturated themselves with the poem, and that, too, unhampered by a single preconceived idea in connection with it. Nothing short of this is of the smallest use” (Butler 1897:209).
Butler thus presents his analysis as beginning from a sense that he was missing something as he read the Odyssey while working on his translation of it. The feeling that there was something different about the Odyssey, Butler says, urged him to consider what could be the cause. Once he discovered and accepted the idea that the author was a woman, he felt that the riddle was solved (Butler 1897:8). The gender difference, according to Butler, accounts for the peculiarities of the Odyssey, and, in turn, calls for a distinct understanding of the poetry. But his search for the answer to this riddle began with what he considers the most basic and central question of literary analysis: Who authored it?
In other words, women will write what they know, and what they know is different because their life experience and perspective as women will necessarily be different from those of men. In particular, and this is one of Butler’s main points in favor of female authorship of the Odyssey, women’s literature will naturally portray female characters favorably while exhibiting relative disregard for male characters. This rule of the author favoring his or her own sex works both ways according to Butler. In several of his points a contrast between the Iliad and Odyssey serves as a prime example of the rule, for to Butler’s mind “there can be no doubt about the sex of the writer of the ‘Iliad’” (Butler 1897:6). Thus the “preponderance of woman in the Odyssey,” as Butler calls his third chapter, is the defining attribute of a female-authored work.
The portrayals of Minerva (as he calls her), Penelope, Eurycleia, Helen, Calypso, Circe, and most especially Arete and Nausicaa expose the gender and gender interests of the author. Women are in charge in the Odyssey (Butler 1897:107). According to Butler, Odysseus and the other male characters (namely, Alcinous, Nestor, and Menelaus) are made ridiculous and are basically all the same character (Butler 1897:115). In his argument, favor is shown to women throughout the Odyssey, from being depicted as the “sensible” characters, to the author’s passion for putting women first, such as in the description of the shades Odysseus saw in the Underworld (Butler 1897:109–113). But Butler also argues that the authoress knew the Iliad well. She borrows from it often (not directly, he says, but from “unconscious cerebration”) and so her epic displays a “veneer of virility” that can conceal at times the sex differences between her and the author of the Iliad from whom she was borrowing (Butler 1897:247).
Gender is their key to understanding the poetry, and for both Butler and Farrington, attributing mistakes or otherwise bothersome passages to a woman author provides a kind of critical relief and explains what they see as the riddle or the strangeness of the Odyssey. Moreover, the change in the gender of the author leads to a greater appreciation of the poetry, since the evaluation of the poetry will differ accordingly.
Kolodny is arguing that the historical circumstances of women must be properly understood to interpret correctly the literature that portrays it, but she is also reinforcing an idea that you can recognize women’s literature by the places and activities included in the narrative (similar to the way Butler argues that the Odyssey’s emphasis on the “domestic” indicates a female author) and asserting that women’s literature must be evaluated differently as a result (also similar to Butler’s distinction that the much of the Odyssey is “charming” if written by a woman but ridiculous if by a man). Kolodny also argues that male readers will misinterpret “women’s ‘values’ or conceptions of the world,” which are also necessarily different (Kolodny 1994:282). With all of these inherent and stark differences, should we, then, along with Butler, assume that we can tell the gender of the author by the content and style of the text?
In Felson-Rubin’s reading, there are multiple interpretations of gender roles within the narrative, but it is through that multiplicity that the prevailing cultural norms are challenged. She ascribes this challenge to Homer, whom she later defines as an “inseparable whole” of the poet both as creator and as performer, who then takes on the role as narrator (Felson-Rubin 1994:11). This poet/performer/narrator seems to be male in her description, and yet his challenge to gender roles is similar to what Skinner described as Sappho’s different-because-feminine voice. In these three examinations of gender within the narrative, the Odyssey is figured as feminine in its narrative techniques but also in its portrayal of women.
Felson-Rubin uses an example from within the narrative, that of Athena taking on the appearance and roles of men, to explain how the audience can respond in a cross-gendered way to the narrative. Skinner argues for a similar cross-gender appeal or ability in the poetry of Sappho. She notes that Sappho’s poems (or songs, as she calls them) “would not have gained fame in the wider world, or eventually circulated as written texts, had they not offered something to men as well as to women” (Skinner 1993:136). What the poetry offered to men, according to Skinner, was an emotionally accessible articulation of female desire, which allowed male listeners and readers “a socially permissible escape from the strict constraints of masculinity” (Skinner 1993:137). In these views, gender is fluid in the interaction between author, text, and audience. A listener/reader is able through literature to try on other gender roles, regardless of the gender of the author.