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The Odyssey 23.183-204: Even the Strongest of Men Has a Weakness

In lines 23.183-204 of the Odyssey Odysseus is trying to prove to his wife that he really is himself, and that he is not a manifestation of a trick being played on her by the gods. Penelope has tricked Odysseus into betraying himself to her by telling a servant to move Odysseus’s bed outside of the room. Odysseus becomes angered at this command because he constructed the bed himself and knows that the bed cannot be moved easily. Homer then has Odysseus give a monologue that describes how he constructed the bed. In these twenty-one lines Homer uses Odysseus’s description of the construction of the bed to parallel the constitution of Odysseus’s character and the events of his life. Homer’s diction contributes to the allegorical characteristics of this passage while the tone of the passage portrays an Odysseus who is much different from the Odysseus of previous chapters.

From the very beginning of the passage, the tone in which Odysseus speaks reveals a more sensitive side to the brave warrior that Homer has written about in the Iliad and the majority of the Odyssey. When Odysseus says “What you have said, dear lady, has hurt my heart deeply” it is the first time that Odysseus proves that he really has missed his wife and that he loves her dearly. In previous chapters Odysseus has mentioned that he misses his wife and wants to go home: when he is on Kalypso’s island he misses his wife so much that he chooses his freedom over immortality. But it is only in this first private conversation between Odysseus and Penelope that Homer reveals the depth of Odysseus’s love for his wife.

When Odysseus is describing how he built the bed, Homer has him speak in a tone that is nervous and pleading. He meticulously describes every detail of the bed’s fabrication, as if Penelope will doubt him if he leaves something out. At the end of the passage Odysseus’s tone returns to the loving tone he used in the beginning. In the last three lines, the tone of Odysseus’s speech reflects the longing he feels for his wife. The monologue ends on a painful note, and the reader is convinced that Odysseus is overcome with emotion, that all of Odysseus’s soul is pivoted around what Penelope will say next. Homer develops the tone throughout the whole passage by carefully choosing words that give an aura of painful pleading. For example, when Odysseus says ” there is no mortal man alive, no strong man” his redundancy shows that Odysseus is very distracted by the thought of another man moving his bed; Odysseus is almost trying to convince himself that the act would be impossible. Homer has Odysseus speak in this distracted, imploring manner in order to show how important Penelope’s faithfulness is to Odysseus.

As mentioned above, Odysseus’s entire monologue parallels the essence of his character as well as the events of his life. Homer’s diction helps to create this allegorical aspect in the passage. When Odysseus says “it would be difficult…change its position” (l. 184-186) Homer is using the sturdiness and steadfastness of the bed to represent the strength and uprightness of Odysseus’s character. Odysseus has suffered many trials and tribulations yet he has arrived at his goal with his mind intact, and has never abandoned the ideas and things that are important to him. Throughout all of his journeys nothing was able to sidetrack him or change his position. Next, Odysseus states that “There is one particular feature…made it” (l. 188-189). Here Homer is saying that like the bed, Odysseus has constructed his character and intelligence by himself, and that no other man had a part in making him who he is. This trait of Odysseus is very important; since he never let anyone influence him when he was still constructing his own character, it is not hard for him to stay true to himself and his goals. Homer’s diction in this phrase is very forceful; he uses the word “particular” and the redundant phrase “I myself, no other man” to emphasize how Odysseus’s construction of his own character has made him an especially intelligent individual. This phrase stresses that all of Odysseus’s intelligence and morality come from within him.

Odysseus’s description of the actual construction of the bed (l.190-194) is also a parallel to the construction of his character. He starts out describing the “bole” or trunk of an olive tree. This trunk represents Odysseus’s body. It was “growing strongly” and “it was thick, like a column”. Homer’s choice of the word “column” creates an image of a colossal Odysseus who is as strong and beautiful as a Greek marble column. When Odysseus says “I laid down my chamber around this” it parallels Odysseus laying his character and intellect around his body to guard it. “And built it until I finished it” means that Odysseus perfected his body and soul until he was a man. The “close set stones” represent Odysseus’s mental coherence while the “compacted doors” represent the connection between how Odysseus thinks and how he carries out his intelligence physically. One example of how Odysseus opened the “compacted doors” between his body and mind was when he conjured up the scheme to blind the Cyclops and then had the physical strength to execute his plan.

Odysseus says that after he constructed his bed (and his character) he began to perfect it (l. 195-201). He “cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive, and trimmed the trunk from the roots up”; metaphorically he started to put the finishing touches on his mind and body. The tool Homer chooses to include in this passage for the “planing” of the bed, the “brazen adze”, is a symbol of perfection. A brazen adze is an ax-like tool, made of brass, which is head-mounted at a perfect ninety degree angle. Odysseus uses this tool to “true it [the plane of the bed] straight to a chalkline”. Homer’s use of the word “true” emphasizes Odysseus’s fidelity to himself. Then, the construction is summarized by the line “I began with this and built my bed, until it was finished” which symbolizes how Odysseus began with a natural intelligence and built his mental and physical capacities until they could rival the physical and mental talents of the immortals. The “gold, silver, and ivory” he uses to decorate the bed represent the honor, affluence, and attractiveness that he has achieved by having such a strong mind and body.

At the end of the description Odysseus states “there is its [the bed’s] character…moved it elsewhere” (l. 202-204). This statement undermines all of what Odysseus has previously said about the strength and immutability of the bed. Homer is showing the reader that for the first time in Odysseus’s life he is doubting himself. The phrase “I do not know now” shows that Odysseus is unsure if his character can withstand his wife’s rejection, even though he is has the most mental strength of any mortal. Odysseus thinks that if some man has “cut underneath the stump of the olive, and moved it [the bed] elsewhere” it will be the equivalent of someone uprooting all of the physical and mental strength from his body and disposing of it. After a greatly detailed monologue about the greatness of his strength, the acknowledgement of how his wife’s love makes him weak is a passionately strong conclusion.

There is a striking contrast between Odysseus’s description of his strength and his revelation of weakness, but Homer makes the entire passage credible by using words that give Odysseus an anxious, pleading tone. Homer’s diction also makes it possible for a passage about a bed to represent the construction of a character’s mental strength. In these twenty-one lines, Homer has given the reader a message: even the strongest of men has a weakness, and this weakness will be the cause of the journeys and sufferings of his life. In Odysseus’s case, his weakness is his love for Penelope, and this love causes him to return home and recapture his household.

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