The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey

By Beth Cohen | Go to book overview

pretation. 68 Penelope may be the first to launch this long literary and rhetorical tradition, but in context she raises these questions before returning to the all-too-visible sĒmata of the bed and to accept Odysseus who, in identifying them, has "persuaded her thumos" of his identity.

In conclusion, this entire scene of recognition that revolves around the ruse of the bed continually loops back on itself, like the infinite turnings of a Möbius strip, as it plays off the entwined but also divergent issues of Odysseus' identity and Penelope's fidelity. It does so, as we have seen, through the device of an object that can be minutely described, located in space, and recalled to its functions and emblematic status through the opportunity given to Odysseus to reclaim it in the act of narrating how he first made it. This is an ekphrasis, after all, that describes a work of art. Its function is to transform representation into narration, and it stands in an intermediate space "between the outward force of perceived events and the inner ability to perceive them," so it may finally turn into a convincing sign-symbol of recognition. 69

But there is one last paradox. The conditions of its representational function ensure its unrepresentability. No blueprint can be extracted from the details of the bed's manufacture, and in the long tradition from antiquity to the present day, no artist seems to have taken up the challenge to translate its presence into a visual reality that we may view with our own eyes. It is precisely the vivid and concrete reality of its material existence that ensures its efficacy as the double-sided sign it was meant to be, but, to retain its powers of persuasion, it must remain what it always was: a mental construct, an image in the mind's eye. 70


Notes

Heartfelt thanks to Daniel Mendelsohn and Deirdre von Dornum for expert editing and invaluable counsel.

1
These cover a range of categories: cosmic phenomena, bodily marks, elements of a landscape, or some specimen of artisanal handiwork.
2
Finley, 1965, 122. See also Gernet, 1981, on "pre-monetary signs."
3
Griffin, 1980, 24.
4
Atchity, 1978, 1.
5
On the phenomenology of these objects, signs, and symbols and how they are viewed and received in Archaic poetry,see Prier, 1989.
6
For documentation and discussion of the relevant sources, see, most recently, Russo, Fernandez-Galliano, and Heubeck, 1992, at xxiii, 297.

-146-

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The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents xi
  • Contributors xiii
  • Abbreviations xvii
  • I - Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Odyssey, History, and Women 3
  • Notes 14
  • 2 - Female Representations and Interpreting the Odyssey 17
  • Notes 26
  • 3 - Between Skylla and Penelope: Female Characters of the Odyssey in Archaic and Classical Greek Art 29
  • Notes 50
  • II - Female Representations in the Odyssey 59
  • 4 - The Plan of Athena 61
  • Notes 78
  • 5 - Sirens, Muses, and Female Narrators in the Odyssey 81
  • Notes 89
  • 6 - Penelope as Moral Agent 93
  • Notes 109
  • 7 - Figuring Fidelity in Homer's Odyssey 117
  • Notes 146
  • III - Representations of Female Characters from the Odyssey in Ancient Art 153
  • 8 - Coming of Age in Phaiakia: The Meeting of Odysseus and Nausikaa 155
  • Notes 161
  • 9 - Kirke's Men: Swine and Sweethearts 165
  • Notes 173
  • 10 - Les Femmes Fatales: Skylla and the Sirens in Greek Art 175
  • Notes 183
  • 11 - The Intimate Act of Footwashing: Odyssey 19 185
  • Notes 196
  • References 201
  • Index 219
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