Summary: Book 19

When the suitors retire for the night, Telemachus and Odysseus remove the arms as planned. Athena lights the room for them so that they can see as they work. Telemachus tells Eurycleia that they are storing the arms to keep them from being damaged.

After they have safely disposed of the arms, Telemachus retires and Odysseus is joined by Penelope. She has come from the women’s quarters to question her curious visitor. She knows that he has claimed to have met Odysseus, and she tests his honesty by asking him to describe her husband. Odysseus describes the Greek hero—himself, capturing each detail so perfectly that it reduces Penelope to tears. He then tells the story of how he met Odysseus and eventually came to Ithaca. In many respects, this story parallels those that he told to Athena and Eumaeus in Books 13 and 14, respectively, though it is identical to neither. He tells Penelope that, essentially, Odysseus had a long ordeal but is alive and freely traveling the seas, and predicts that Odysseus will be back within the month.

Penelope offers the beggar a bed to sleep in, but he is used to the floor, he says, and declines. Only reluctantly does he allow Eurycleia to wash his feet. As she is putting them in a basin of water, she notices a scar on one of his feet. She immediately recognizes it as the scar that Odysseus received when he went boar hunting with his grandfather Autolycus. She throws her arms around Odysseus, but he silences her while Athena keeps Penelope distracted so that Odysseus’s secret will not be carried any further. The faithful Eurycleia recovers herself and promises to keep his secret.

Before she retires, Penelope describes to Odysseus a dream that she has had in which an eagle swoops down upon her twenty pet geese and kills them all; it then perches on her roof and, in a human voice, says that he is her husband who has just put her lovers to death. Penelope declares that she has no idea what this dream means. Rising to the challenge, Odysseus explains it to her. But Penelope decides that she is going to choose a new husband nevertheless: she will marry the first man who can shoot an arrow through the holes of twelve axes set in a line.

Summary: Book 20

Penelope and Odysseus both have trouble sleeping that night. Odysseus worries that he and Telemachus will never be able to conquer so many suitors, but Athena reassures him that through the gods all things are possible. Tormented by the loss of her husband and her commitment to remarry, Penelope wakes and prays for Artemis to kill her. Her distress wakes Odysseus, who asks Zeus for a good omen. Zeus responds with a clap of thunder, and, at once, a maid in an adjacent room is heard cursing the suitors.

As the palace springs to life the next day, Odysseus and Telemachus meet, in succession, the swineherd Eumaeus, the foul Melanthius, and Philoetius, a kindly and loyal herdsman who says that he has not yet given up hope of Odysseus’s return. The suitors enter, once again plotting Telemachus’s murder. Amphinomus convinces them to call it off, however, when a portent of doom appears in the form of an eagle carrying a dove in its talons. But Athena keeps the suitors antagonistic all through dinner to prevent Odysseus’s anger from losing its edge. Ctesippus, a wealthy and arrogant suitor, throws a cow’s hoof at Odysseus, in response to which Telemachus threatens to run him through with his sword. The suitors laugh and laugh, failing to notice that they and the walls of the room are covered in blood and that their faces have assumed a foreign, ghostly look—all of which Theoclymenus interprets as portents of inescapable doom.

Analysis: Books 19–20

More and more, the suitors’ destruction feels inevitable. While portents earlier in the epic appear irregularly and serve primarily to keep hope alive among Odysseus’s family and friends, they now occur at a feverish rate and with such obvious implications that they foreshadow the suitors’ fate with increasingly grim effect. These omens are noticeably more violent than earlier ones: in Book 15, as Telemachus departs from Sparta, an eagle grasping a goose soars overhead, but the eagle flies away before killing its prey. In Penelope’s dream, on the other hand, an eagle “snap[s] [the geeses’] necks and kill[s] them one and all,” leaving them in “heaps” (19.607608). Not only are there more geese-victims of vengeance—but their slaughter, which Penelope sees in her dream, is much more graphic and, hence, immediate. Additionally, Zeus’s propitious thunderclap in Book 20 immediately precedes a maidservant’s cursing to Zeus about the suitors. This heightening of omens reaches a grotesque climax when the suitors suddenly appear deformed and bloody as they eat their final meal in the palace.

It seems unclear whether the human participants in these events are truly responsible for their own actions. The suitors react impudently to Telemachus at the end of Book 20 in part because Athena has robbed them of their wits. She manipulates them, egging on their abuse of Odysseus in order to enrage him further. Similarly, Athena’s words of encouragement to Odysseus at the beginning of Book 20 make it sound as if victory is already assured and that she, not Odysseus, will be the decisive factor. Like The Iliad, The Odyssey often depicts the gods arranging the future based on the outcomes of great debates on Mount Olympus: the gods lift their favorite mortals to success and ensure that their enemies are crushed, just as Athena does with Odysseus and the suitors. While the fatalism of The Odyssey may puzzle modern readers, it is entirely consistent with the outlook of Homeric poetry. Again, Homeric audiences would have been familiar with the poem’s plot; it is Odysseus’s internal struggle and consequent development that would have kept the audience riveted.

The second half of The Odyssey has been criticized for its long and largely uneventful account of the time that Odysseus spends disguised on his estate. Much of this length results from repetition: the suitors plot against Telemachus over and over; Odysseus has things thrown at him again and again; his ignorant servants insult him time after time; Odysseus repeats his false story about being from Crete. Some scholars argue that the second half of The Odyssey shows signs of multiple authorship—that it looks less like a single narrative thread than several accounts of the same story sewn together.

But Homer uses repetition quite frequently elsewhere in The Odyssey and The Iliad. Indeed, repetition is a standard feature of oral poems, which, like modern songs, rely on echoes and refrains for unity and emphasis of individual ideas. Additionally, repetition in the poem often occurs with some variation from occurrence to occurrence or with a change in context that gives repeated phrases or encounters new meaning. For instance, while the suitors hurl the same insults at Odysseus more than a few times, both his and Telemachus’s reactions to them gradually change. At first, they generally respond with anger, as when, in Book 19, Odysseus launches into an extended tirade against Melantho. By the end of Book 20, however, they seem to respond with something closer to disgust or pity, as when Odysseus merely shakes his head at Melanthius’s disparaging remarks. Father and son have become less reactionary, perhaps because they now accept their antagonists’ arrogance as pathetic and their doom as inescapable.

The repeated observation that the beggar resembles Odysseus helps to build tension leading up to the final confrontation. Each remark about the resemblance raises the possibility that Odysseus’s cover will be blown, as nearly happens in the scene with Eurycleia. Since revelation of his identity would, of course, force Odysseus to take the actions that eventually bring about the resolution of The Odyssey, this repetition has the effect of bringing the audience closer and closer to the epic’s climax. Homer stalls the arrival of the climax, keeping the audience tantalized.