Butler’s Authoress and gendered readings of the Odyssey
How do or should considerations of gender affect our interpretation of Homeric poetry? This is the central question in my article. I explore it by examining Samuel Butler’s 1897 book The Authoress of the Odyssey and then various interpretations of the Odyssey from the past 15 years that also focus on gender. I begin with Butler for two reason: (1) for historical perspective, which also provides critical distance on the subject, and (2) because his conclusions have been considered so extreme and have provoked strong reactions that run the gamut from complete acceptance to utter ridicule—not unlike reactions that feminist criticism also provokes. Butler claims in his book that from reading the Odyssey closely he could deduce not only the location where it was written (Trapani, in Sicily) and its approximate era (1000 B.C.), but also, and more important for my purposes, that the author was “a woman—young, headstrong, and unmarried” (as the title to his chapter VII phrases it). Butler’s book seems to have sold well and been widely read in his time, but the idea of female authorship of the Odyssey did not gain acceptance. Today the book is mainly a curiosity. My use of it was not to revive or refute his conclusions, but rather to examine how assumptions about gender, authorship, and texts are used in his arguments. These assumptions, once uncovered, are what I compare to the more recent gender-focused scholarship on the Odyssey.
Butler presents his analysis as beginning from a sense that he was missing something as he read the Odyssey while working on a 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. The gender difference, according to Butler, accounts for the peculiarities of the Odyssey, and calls for a distinct understanding of the poetry. In Butler’s argument, the gender of the author is the primary consideration in interpreting and evaluating literature, and the text itself will reveal the gender of the author— according to Butler, an astute reader can tell whether an anonymous work was written by a woman or a man.
In what ways does Butler claim a text reveals the sex of the author? The way the characters are drawn, the details included or omitted from descriptions, and other choices made by the author will be based in his or her experience and perspective, which will necessarily be different according to gender. Butler states a belief that gender differences between men and women are innate, profound, and unbridgeable in the end, even as he champions the idea that a woman could compose a major epic. Authors write best when they write from experience, Butler says, and therefore texts authored by women must be judged with these differences in mind. What is out of place in a male-authored text, such as the inclusion of domestic details or not knowing which end of the boat the rudder is on, is to Butler “charming” in a female-authored text.
Some of the identifying marks of female authorship, according to Butler, include “a preponderance of female interest, and a fuller knowledge of those things which a woman generally has to deal with” (1897:105). If in a given text the women characters are more sympathetic, while the men are “perfunctorily treated,” Butler feels safe assuming that the author is a woman, and he sees just that treatment of men and women within the Odyssey. The epic genre and what Butler considers the author’s thorough familiarity with and use of the Iliad gives her poetry a “veneer of virility,” but Butler sees female interests and concerns come through in the text eventually and, in his view, inevitably. The portrayal of Penelope as both desirable and virtuous is highlighted as one that only a young, unmarried woman could create.
Gender therefore is involved in Butler’s interpretation of the Odyssey in several interconnected ways. The gender of the author affects the composition, including how characters of each gender are portrayed. In Butler’s argument, such details within the text reveal the gender of the author, and literature can only be interpreted and evaluated correctly by considering the author’s gender. Butler also demonstrates a gendered response as reader and critic, although he does not describe it as such himself. His repeated statements that the male characters are made ridiculous and are all the same negligently drawn character could be read as a personal reaction based on his own gender.
Obviously literary criticism that focuses on gender has changed and grown in sophistication in the century since Butler published his theory. But the Odyssey seems still today to be thought of as “different” from the Iliad in feminist or gender-based criticism of Homeric poetry, and the difference lies in what are seen as the “feminine” qualities of the Odyssey. If Butler’s argument for female authorship had been accepted, the Odyssey would be interpreted and evaluated on different terms, according to one major approach of feminist criticism. In this view, too, women write what they know, and their perspectives (shaped by life experience) will differ because of gender. Women authors’ differences are valorized by these critics (as opposed to Butler’s condescending notion of being “charming”), in a fundamental reaction against centuries of neglect and negative reception.
But because both the Iliad and the Odyssey are both generally thought of as male-authored texts (whether by one man or several), the differences between them are not stated in terms of the author (as Butler attempted). Instead, it is the text itself that is considered “feminine.” Calling the Odyssey “feminine” implies that it is multiple in meaning, or indeterminant in meaning, open to multiple interpretations. Often these kinds of studies of the Odyssey focus on Penelope, relating gender within the story to the gender of the text.
Seeing how the same kinds of assumptions used in feminist criticism to valorize works by women or “feminine” texts that focus on or show women in a positive light are present in Butler’s work (which would be considered either sexist in its assumptions or some kind of parody of gender-based criticism) causes me concern that this recent criticism leaves itself vulnerable to being discredited on the basis of the gender differences it promotes and relies on. In other words, arguing from the idea that women as authors and readers or texts that are “feminine” are different in a good way leaves the door open to the same sort of disdain and even ridicule that Butler’s more extreme conclusions met with. As long as the terms of evaluation are framed differently according to gender, different can also be thought of as inferior. The Odyssey is different from the Iliad in many ways, of course, but it seems that defining that difference exclusively or mainly with regard to gender makes those conclusions too easy to discount. The terms need to be changed so they can be applied to both epics.
I also discovered through this research that the inculcation of women Classicists (and I include myself) with the ideas about gender contained in these texts and in the field of Classics and their own complicity in reinforcing those ideas, even if unconsciously, are also problems that need explicit attention to change those ingrained patterns. As I read these many studies of the Odyssey, I found myself desiring a genderless Homer—wouldn’t that be easier? And it is all too safe and easy to ignore gender in Homeric studies even today. Examining Butler carefully allows us to see how assumptions about gender and texts that can be used to promote women’s literature can also be used to deride it or make it ridiculous even while praising its differences as “charming.” A new way to use what we know about gender is needed for Homeric poetry in particular. An approach that does not divide the Iliad and the Odyssey into “masculine” and “feminine,” as Butler and Homeric scholars such as Bentley before him also did, may allow gender-focused and feminist approaches to illuminate all of Homeric poetry.