The Odyssey



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The Odyssey: Book 19 Summary & Analysis

That night, as the suitors sleep, Odysseus and Telemachus lock up most of the weapons as part of their plan. Telemachus goes to sleep, and soon after Penelope comes to question the strange visitor, and she and Odysseus-the-beggar sit down to have a conversation. He tells her that he once hosted Odysseus in his home. She weeps to hear her husband's name, but decides to test the stranger's honesty by asking him for details. The king describes Odysseus's clothes and his herald, and Penelope weeps again; she herself gave Odysseus the clothes in the story. He tells her that Odysseus has been at sea for a long time but that he will be home before the month is over.
Despite Penelope's grief, she has the sense to test the stranger, just as Odysseus has tested many others. Such a test is cunning pitted against cunning: a trick to separate lies from truth, appearance from reality, the outer from the inner. It is cunning used to disarm someone else's cunning, a sleight-of-hand to strip off someone's disguise – or to establish their sincerity. Only after cunning can there be sincerity.
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Penelope asks her maids to bathe the stranger, but he refuses such a luxury; instead, the nurse Eurycleia washes his feet. The old nurse cries to hear Odysseus's name and swears the there is a great likeness between her king and the old beggar. Odysseus slyly agrees. But when the nurse begins to wash Odysseus's feet, she notices a scar Odysseus received while hunting with his grandfather Autolycus. She drops his foot, spilling the basin of water, and cries out in recognition. Odysseus begs her to be silent, however, and she gladly promises to keep his secret. Meanwhile, Athena distracts Penelope from noticing the scene.
Only the dog Argos recognizes Odysseus in his disguise, and only the old nurse who knew and cared for him as a boy notes a resemblance between the beggar and the king. It is as though they are loyal and connected to the spirit of the king, and therefore are not tricked by his complicated exterior; Penelope and Telemachus, who love him for both his interior and his exterior, cannot see through the disguise. The scar connects his changed appearance to his past, just as it cuts through skin to flesh.
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When the nurse leaves, Odysseus-the-beggar resumes his conversation with Penelope. She asks him to interpret a dream in which an eagle flies down from the mountains and breaks the necks of twenty geese in her household, and then announces that it is her husband who has just killed the suitors. Odysseus tells her that the dream means certain death for the suitors, but Penelope is skeptical that the dream was a prophecy rather than mere fancy. She also tells him that she plans to announce an archery contest to finally choose a new husband. Odysseus promises that her husband will return before a single man strings the bow.
Even pious people like Penelope cannot always recognize signs from the gods: piety requires cleverness, not just obedience. Though Penelope does not want to choose a new husband, she decides that she can't keep the suitors at bay any longer. Odysseus has come home just in time to save her from disloyalty and unhappiness; his timely arrival will preserve her honor.
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