Rewriting Classical Myths: the Case of Penelope

Serena Alessi

MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities (2013), pp. 42-53, doi:10.59860/wph.a47ce0b

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A contribution to: Fame and Glory

Edited by Jessica Goodman and Elizabeth Benjamin

MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities 8

Modern Humanities Research Association


Abstract.  The Odyssey is the classic par excellence of Western literature. Every epoch that needs to validate its roots comes back to Ulysses, whose story has been rewritten endless times and brought back to life by as many authors. James Joyce, Constantine Cavafy and Derek Walcott are just some of the best-known re-tellers of the Homeric poem. The Odyssey’s plot is particularly well suited to reproduction and retelling in different times and different cultural contexts. To its linear story – a man wandering over land and sea for many years and his fight to re-conquer his kingdom and his wife – a variety of subplots can be added, for example digressions on the characters encountered by Ulysses in his adventures, or parentheses on life in Ithaca in the absence of the King. The twentieth century is perhaps the time during which the most interesting developments involving the Odyssey, its plot and its symbols, take place. Authors of rewrites are attracted by non-dominant characters, by what has not been said by the canon, by marginal stories and consequences taken for granted; sometimes the new versions they produce even enter the canon and become ‘modern classics’, as is the case with James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Among all the characters of the Odyssey who undergo such rewriting, one in particular stands out in modern times for her strong contrast with the image assigned to her by tradition, and as a particularly fruitful example of the metamorphosis of Homeric character: Penelope.

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