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The Odyssey


Books 19–20

Summary Books 19–20

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.