onstruction of Identity in the Odyssey
Marylin A. Katz
At the end of book 23 of the Odyssey, after Odysseus has slain the suitors, Penelope is called forth from her room upstairs to welcome her husband home. But upon entering the megaron ("great hall"), Penelope withholds her recognition of Odysseus until she has prompted him into revealing the secret of their marriage-bed's construction. Only then does she rush to him, throw her arms around him, and shower kisses upon his head (23.205ff.). Few listeners or readers, ancient or modern, can fail to respond to the emotional impact of this affecting moment, and to its strongly romantic coloration. It seems in every way to represent, in one narrative act, the culmination of the theme of homophrosynê ("like-mindedness") between Odysseus and Penelope which has developed over the course of the poem. And this prompts us to regard their special moment of reunion as the final expression of a unique personal bond which has persisted through twenty years of separation.
Critics have also been perplexed, however, by Penelope's immediately subsequent apologia (23.209–30), to which Odysseus does not respond. There, Penelope explains her earlier reluctance to welcome her husband (214) on the grounds that she was afraid of being seduced by the facile arguments of some man with evil designs (216–17). Then, in referring to the example of Helen, Penelope insists