Sheila Murnaghan, Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey: Preface

Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey: preface to the 2nd edition

This book is a study of how the plot of the Odyssey works. It represents an effort to uncover the particular significance in this poem of recognition, a plot device so common that it figures as one of Propp’s thirty-nine functions of the folktale and plays a key role, under the name of anagnorisis, in Aristotle’s analysis in the Poetics of successful tragic plots. In writing it, I was pursuing one of the fundamental objectives of literary analysis, trying to understand how a work’s meaning is bound up with its form. I was also asking one version of a central question in Homeric studies, how these highly traditional poems give distinctive connotations to elements that are familiar and widely repeated.

In the Odyssey‘s many scenes of recognition, I found a form of action that dramatizes the cardinal values of an heroic, aristocratic society organized around recognition in the broader senses of honor, privilege, status, and fame. The series of episodes in which Odysseus’ identity is acknowledged (or denied) reveal that identity as far more than the connection between a particular body and a particular name; it represents a place in the world determined by glorious action, family heritage, control of property, personal authority, and a permanent legacy that takes two forms: the hero’s worthy son and heir, and the poetic tradition that records and perpetuates the hero’s achievements. Through a plot structured as a series of recognition scenes, the Odyssey lays out in detail what it means for someone to be a leading figure in Homeric society and a fitting subject of epic song. And it affirms the practices and institutions of that society by showing how they promote the appropriate recognition of entitlement and merit.

The book’s methodology is largely implicit, but reflects the influence of several developments within Homeric studies at the time it was written: investigation of the type scene as a resource of oral poetry (for example, by William Hansen, Barry Powell, and Bernard Fenik); the use of anthropology to illuminate Homeric values and institutions (for example, by James Redfield, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet); and attention to Homeric poetics and especially to the epics’ representation of their own medium (for example, by Gregory Nagy, Charles Segal, and Pietro Pucci) — approaches that have been extended, refined, and combined with many others during the intervening boom in Odyssey criticism (the most relevant titles are listed below).

In its stress on the intersection of literary form and social institutions, the book participated in the emergence of approaches known as “new historicism,” or “cultural poetics,” within the study of Greek literature. Since it appeared, there have been notable attempts to understand the Odyssey‘s narrative as either shaping or shaped by the historical conditions of the early archaic period, such as the growth of colonization (for example, by Irad Malkin and Carol Dougherty), or of sixth century Athens, where the epics may have received their final form (for example, by Erwin Cook, Richard Seaford, and Johannes Haubold). Like most studies of Homer, however, this one takes its understanding of the society in question from the poems themselves and from the insights of anthropology rather than history, in view of the difficulty of connecting the Homeric world to a single, well-documented historical period.

A plot organized around repeated acts of recognition is a natural vehicle for the exploration of social relations. Odysseus’ identity does not rest solely on his own assertions, but also on the active assent of relatives, dependents, allies, and rivals. Returning to Ithaca, he must enter into negotiations with other characters who have their own stake in his presence or absence, and whose willingness to acknowledge him goes beyond agreement to a simple fact; the details of those episodes and their placement within the narrative helps to define the various relationships that are being reconstructed. Telling Odysseus’ story, the poem must also pay attention to the perspectives and interests of those who allow his claims and so becomes something more than the straightforward celebration of one man’s preeminence. This is one sign of the breadth of vision that allows the Odyssey to incorporate alternatives to its main plot; hints of other stories and other viewpoints have, in turn, helped to foster the poem’s vigorous afterlife, itself now an increasing focus of study (see the works of Clayton, Hall, Graziosi and Greenwood, and Murnaghan and Roberts).

The expressiveness of this plot motif is deepened by the necessary coupling of recognition with disguise, of illumination with misunderstanding. Odysseus’ success depends as much on making people believe what is not true as on surprising them with the truth. His mastery of disguise fills the poem with plausible falsehoods, lies that are easily believed, often because they are more believable than the truth. Odysseus’ long absence, false appearance, and lying tales construct a realistic version of his story, which incorporates the predictable effects of long years and wide travels and end in his eventual replacement by his son rather than his triumphant return. But the truth hidden behind his disguise supports a more fantastic version in which he defies the passage of time and returns unchanged to pick up the threads of his former life. The duplicity of disguise, which is at once true and false, creates the mixture of realism and fantasy that gives the Odyssey its distinctive texture. This is related to the poem’s self-conscious depiction of story-telling and plot-making, as can be seen in Athena’s role as both contriver of Odysseus’ disguise and architect of the Odyssey‘s plot.

Organized into a plot, the motifs of disguise and recognition bring to the Odyssey‘s Ithacan narrative a combination of indeterminacy and clarity, of openness and hierarchy, that mirrors the embedded story of Odysseus’ journey, which combines wandering and distraction with the determined pursuit of nostos. The resulting interplay of perspectives and values has inspired much of the scholarship that has appeared since this book was first published. Because its central motif of recognition brings together and highlights issues both of cognition and of social relations, the Odyssey has been a natural testing ground for the new methodologies of the last three decades, for post-structuralist approaches with their concern for the limits on communication and sense-making and for new historicist approaches with their concern for the construction and representation of social relations.

Some studies (notably those by Peradotto, Felson, Katz, Dougherty, Buchan, and Van Nortwick) have explored from different methodological positions the Odyssey‘s embrace of indeterminacy and its openness to new ideas and challenges to its own teleology, while others have placed more stress on its assertion of a hierarchy of values aligned with Odysseus’ ambitions, even at the expense of characters portrayed as sympathetic, including some of the slaves (Thalmann) and women (Doherty) who play important roles in the story. But sensitive critics in both camps inevitably register the pull of the opposite perspective. Suspicious probers of the Odyssey‘s aristocratic and patriarchal ideologies nonetheless acknowledge its more subversive strands, sometimes explicitly and self-consciously, as in Lillian Doherty’s analysis of the poem’s susceptibility to both open and closed readings. And the most sophisticated fans of indirection and ambiguity end up noting and marveling at the cogency of the poem’s ultimate affirmation of a core set of truths. However open-minded and skeptical the Odyssey encourages its readers to be, they yield in the end to the persuasiveness of Odysseus’s recognition by his many supporters, and above all by Penelope. So cunning is the poem in engaging for its purposes our stubborn belief in the stability of both individual identity and willing fidelity.

The Odyssey‘s conjunction of recognition with homecoming aligns the identification of Odysseus with the entitlements of birth and possession. This gives a moral dimension to clear-sightedness, reinforcing the poem’s stress on heroism as a certain cast of mind (another feature that has made it especially congenial for modern retelling). The suitors’ failure to see through Odysseus’ disguise compounds their error of daring to challenge him in his own house; the many episodes involving their blindness help to justify their wholesale punishment. The link between recognition and virtue also complicates the characterization of Penelope, since it is only very late in the plot that we know for sure that she does recognize Odysseus. The study of recognition raised a challenging set of issues surrounding Penelope and the Odyssey‘s portrayal of women that were fast becoming a focal point for feminist approaches to Greek literature, addressed in a wave of distinguished books (Doherty, Felson, Katz) and essays (Winkler, Wohl, the contributions collected in Cohen).

The long-standing debate about when Penelope recognizes Odysseus stems from a striking feature of the poem, its extended silence about the private thoughts of a character who plays a vital role in the plot. The Odyssey gives its audience a taste of the uncertainty about the desires and motives of others, particularly women, with which Odysseus must contend. The element of indeterminacy that recent criticism has highlighted in the poem is not just a form of playfulness, but a way of evoking the anxiety inspired by the far-traveling hero’s dependence on his stay-at-home wife. Many readers and critics have found it hard to accept what the text appears on the surface to offer: a heroine who operates in the dark and makes the key move of setting the contest of the bow while thinking it will lead to the opposite of what she wants. More is at stake in this question than the answer to a literary puzzle, as can be seen in the title of John Winkler’s essay arguing that Penelope knows or suspects the stranger’s identity before she lets on: “Penelope’s Cunning and Homer’s.” A scenario in which Penelope recognizes Odysseus sooner rather than later can be seen as affirming her cleverness and her ability to control her fate as well as Homer’s subtlety and appreciation of female agency, in accord with broader views about the virtues of both women and poets, even under the very different circumstances of the past.

The questions surrounding Penelope’s recognition of Odysseus are tricky enough that most thoughtful discussions avoid falling into clear camps, but on the spectrum of opinion I find myself still inclined to the darker, more straightforward reading according to which Penelope presents us with the portrait of a woman forced to choose against her heart’s desire without full knowledge of her situation. It seems important to acknowledge that a woman can be intelligent without being able to see what is deliberately hidden from her or to control her circumstances, and that a poet can be sophisticated without being occult. There is still much to admire in a vision of Penelope as negotiating with dignity what she experiences as a wrenching choice between allowing Telemachus and Ithaca to move forward and waiting longer for Odysseus to return, a choice that Helene Foley has aptly compared to those faced by characters in tragedy. In this way, Penelope’s story serves, along with her consistently realistic words, to balance the fantastic outcome of the plot, and her ultimate happiness is thrown into the greatest possible relief. What is not in dispute is the brilliance and purposefulness of Penelope’s final move, the trick with the bed, which is at once the most stringent test of Odysseus’ identity and the surest proof of her own fidelity. As a token that identifies Odysseus and Penelope equally to one another, the marriage bed epitomizes Homer’s particular use of recognition as a double-sided event, in which both parties become known, reveal their true strengths, and reassert the bonds through which society is built.

Updated Bibliography


Ahl, Frederick and Hanna M. Roisman. The Odyssey Re-Formed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Barnouw, Jeffrey. Odysseus, Hero of Practical Intelligence: Deliberation and Signs in Homer’s Odyssey. New York: University Press of America, 2004.

Beck, Deborah. Homeric Conversation. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2005.

Buchan, Mark. The Limits of Heroism: Homer and the Ethics of Reading. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Cook, Erwin F. The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Cohen, Beth. The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer’s Odyssey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Clayton, Barbara. A Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer’s Odyssey. Lanham, 2004.

Crotty, Kevin. The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Danek, Georg. Epos und Zitat: Studien zu den Quellen der Odyssee. Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1998.

de Jong, Irene. A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Doherty, Lillian. Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences, and Narrators in the Odyssey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Doherty, Lillian, ed. Oxford Reading in Homer’s Odyssey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Dougherty, Carol. The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination of Homer’s Odyssey. New York: Oxford University Press. 2001.

Felson, Nancy. Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Paperback reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Foley, Helene. “Penelope as Moral Agent,” in Cohen, ed. The Distaff Side, 93-115. Reworked in Female Acts in Greek Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001: 109-144.

Ford, Andrew. Homer: The Poetry of the Past. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Graziosi, Barbara and Emily Greenwood, eds. Homer in the Twentieth Century: Between World Literature and the Western Canon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Graziosi, Barbara and Johannes Haubold. Homer: The Resonance of Epic. London: Duckworth, 2005.

Hall, Edith. The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008.

Haubold, Johannes. Homer’s People: Epic Poetry and Social Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Heitman, Richard. Taking Her Seriously: Penelope and the Plot of Homer’s Odyssey. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005

Katz, Marylin A. Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Louden, Bruce. The Odyssey: Structure, Narration, and Meaning. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Malkin, Irad. The Returns of Odysseus: Colonization and Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Martin, Richard. “Telemachus and the Last Hero Song,” Colby Quarterly 29.3 (1993) 222-40.

Murnaghan, Sheila. “Reading Penelope,” in Steven M. Oberhelman, Van Kelly, and Richard J. Golsan, eds. Epic and Epoch: Essays on the Interpretation and History of a Genre. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1994: 76-96.

_______________, “The Trials of Telemachus: Who was the Odyssey Meant For?” Arethusa 35 (2002) 133-153.

Murnaghan, Sheila and Deborah H. Roberts. “Penelope’s Song: The Lyric Odysseys of Linda Pastan and Louise Glück.” Classical and Modern Literature 22 (2002) 1-33.

Olson, S. Douglas. Blood and Iron: Stories and Storytelling in Homer’s Odyssey. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

Papadopoulou-Belmehdi, I. Le chant de Pénélope: Poétique du tissage féminin dans l’Odyssée. Paris: Belin, 1994.

Peradotto, John. Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Pucci, Pietro. Odysseus Polutropos: Intertextual Readings in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

____________, The Song of the Sirens: Essays on Homer. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

Reece, Steve. The Stranger’s Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1993.

Richardson, Scott Douglas. The Homeric Narrator. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1990.

Schein, Seth L. Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretive Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Scodel, Ruth. Listening to Homer. Tradition, Narrative, and Audience. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Seaford, Richard. Reciprocity and Ritual: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Segal, Charles. Singers, Heroes, and Gods in the Odyssey. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Shay, Jonathan. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Thalmann, William. The Swineherd and the Bow: Representations of Class in the Odyssey. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Van Nortwick, Thomas. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

Winkler, John J. “Penelope’s Cunning and Homer’s,” in The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge, 1990: 101-126.

Wohl, Victoria J., “Standing by the Stathmos: The Creation of Sexual Ideology in the Odyssey,” Arethusa 26 (1993) 19–50.

Zeitlin, Froma I. “Figuring fidelity in Homer’s Odyssey,” in Cohen, ed., The Distaff Side, 117-152. Reprinted in Playing the Other: Essays on Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996: 19-52.