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Moral Perfidy in the Odyssey
In The Odyssey, Homer utilizes the lie as a motif, and in so doing, he establishes a moral dichotomy. The Odyssey is populated with lies and with liars, but the liars operate differently from one another. Indeed, when vocalized by some liars, the lies become virtuous necessities or demonstrate superior intelligence. Other liars prove themselves to be base and without morals as they lie to manipulate, to increase their own wealth or to take advantage of hospitality.
The lies themselves act as methods of characterization. In particular, Odysseus' lies contribute to Homer's characterization of the hero as wily and cunning. Ironically, when Odysseus uses lies strategically, they become weapons, and he is often able to establish important truths about the individuals to whom he lies. In total, Odysseus' use of lies in the second half of The Odyssey, while seemingly cruel to his wife and to his faithful servant, both allows him to reclaim his rightful place in his home and illustrates the inherent, ironic morality in some lies, namely that if a lie is told for the correct motives, it may be more moral than the truth.
Before addressing Odysseus' "virtuous" lying, the immoral perfidiousness of the suitors should be presented as a contrast. As Odysseus struggles to return home after the Trojan War, opportunistic suitors attempt to seduce Penelope and to take possession of Odysseus' home. A key Greek value is that of hospitality to the guest, and to violate this cultural virtue is to incur the wrath of the gods. Penelope is in an untenable position: technically, the suitors are guests to whom hospitality is owed, but she must also courageously preserve herself and Odysseus' home for him until he returns. The suitors foist themselves upon Odysseus' household and upon Penelope, demanding that she select one of them for a husband. Penelope, who exhibits another Greek virtue, that of wifely loyalty, initially refuses, but the suitors refuse to leave and "persist in eating up any number of his [Odysseus'] sheep and oxen" (1.49). Penelope clings to the hope that Odysseus is alive, and to protect their chances for future happiness, she concocts a lie, the analysis of which belongs more appropriately in the descriptions of "virtuous" lies. As characters, the suitors themselves are not good guests, and therefore, they are not good Greeks.
As a method of characterization, the suitors' lies indirectly reveal their bad natures more fully than their unmitigated gluttony. Telemachus, Odysseus' son, is enraged by the suitors' behavior toward his mother and by the plunder of his father's house. Telemachus appeals to King Menelaus for assistance, and in Telemachus' absence, the suitors plot to murder him. The suitors present a veneer of concern and familial care toward Penelope and Telemachus, but this facade of civility is a poorly concealed lie and a violation of one of the chief Greek virtues of hospitality. In The Odyssey, the suitors are presented as bumbling, immoral liars, little better than common thieves. The suitors' lies are motivated by their avarice, and these men are punished severely (by Odysseus) for their perfidy. The suitors' lies present quite a foil to the lies perpetrated by Odysseus, as well as those committed by Penelope. The suitors' immorally motivated lies are juxtaposed against. Odysseus' (and Penelope's) morally motivated lies to present an interesting perception of truth as a concept: in The Odyssey, what matters most is motivation, not action. In other words, Homer's tale seems to suggest that the ends do indeed justify the means.
The blatantly immoral and self-serving lies of the suitors contrast sharply against the comparatively moral lies of Penelope and Odysseus. Nevertheless, the lies that Penelope tells and the lies that Odysseus tells are different in both execution and intent. Odysseus' lies possess a more complex motivation, and are expressive of a seemingly paternalistic belief on Odysseus' part that only he is able to discern truth in the tangled situation, and only he will be able to put things back in order. Penelope's lies seem to be motivated by love and by preservation of her family and home.
Penelope lies only to her enemies, who in this case are her numerous, persistent suitors. Penelope's lies also form a metaphor. To protect herself, her home, her marriage, and her family, Penelope literally "weaves" a series of lies, one of which takes the form of a woven cloth that is continually altered to give the appearance of truth, while preserving the lie. The suitors claim that Odysseus must be dead because he has yet to return from the Trojan War. Penelope, feeling otherwise, has faith that Odysseus will one day return to her and remains faithful to the reality of her marriage (the same cannot be said of Odysseus, as he engages in several dalliances with lovely supernatural females, as well as what might be described as a flirtation/attraction with a young and attractive mortal woman). Penelope promises the suitors that she will eventually satisfy them by selecting one of them as a husband, a replacement for Odysseus. This is a lie. Penelope will never succumb to the alleged charms of the suitors. She is tired, and she is frustrated, but her strength of character and of purpose is unshaken by the constant pressure of the hungry suitors. Penelope fabricates an elaborate lie to purchase time for negotiation and for Odysseus to finally make his way home. She promises the suitors that she will marry one of them when she finishes weaving an elaborate burial shroud for her much-loved father-in-law, Laertes. Unbeknownst to the suitors, Penelope weaves each day and unweaves her day's work each night. The funeral shroud will never be completed. This temporal device is effective for quite some time, which is another testament to Homer's characterization of the suitors as gluttonous, immoral dolts. To another observer, the funeral shroud's failure to grown any larger, even after much time and effort, would sound alarm bells. The suitors do eventually catch on to Penelope's lie, but not until they become comic in their foolishness. The suitors seem to lack the ability to analyze the world or to use their powers of observation to protect themselves. Again, the suitors present a dramatic contrast to wily Odysseus and long-suffering, faithful Penelope.
As portrayed by Homer, Penelope's lies do not seem immoral. They are gutsy acts of love, motivated by her devotion to her husband and family. She also exhibits extreme filial piety toward her father-in-law, which ironically assists her in the fulfillment of her ruse.
The suitors believe Penelope entirely when she claims to have such love and devotion for Laertes that she must finish his funeral shroud before she marries again, and Penelope does, in fact, possess love and devotion for Laertes. With great skill, Penelope is able to use her sincere love of Laertes to deceive the deceiving suitors. If Penelope were to have been completely truthful, were she to have presented the bare, honest facts to the suitors, she surely would have lost Odysseus' home for him. Penelope's manipulation of the suitors, while dishonest, was more moral than to have acted otherwise. Her lies extracted courage from her, and they required great skill, intelligence, and finesse in their perpetration. Their outcome, as is apparent from the ending of The Odyssey, included the favor of the gods. Penelope and Odysseus are reunited, the suitors are punished, and the home is persevered for its rightful owners. Odysseus proud of Penelope's perseverance, as well he should be: she lied to protect him.
As stated, in The Odyssey, Homer creates a dichotomy of lies. This dichotomy is rooted in the motivation of the liar. Immoral lies are motivated by greed, selfishness, covetousness, and fear. The suitors lie in their attempts to gain Odysseus' property and wife. The suitors present one truth to the world, but they are in actuality quite different. They fear Telemachus as he enters manhood and expresses his contempt for their unrighteous presence in his home, and the suitors respond by using subterfuge to plot the murder of the young man. The suitors are unredeemable in their lies, and they receive just punishment. Penelope also lies, but she is motivated by pure love and devotion, and Penelope only lies out of necessity and only to her enemies. She is rewarded for her efforts, and her family is preserved.
But what of Odysseus?
Odysseus lies quite consistently throughout The Odyssey. He lies to his men about the dangers they will face from Scylla and Charybdis, knowing full well that they will not perform their duties as he wants them to perform if they know the truth. He lies to Polyphemus, the Cyclops, to deceive his way out of trouble. Odysseus also tells various lies to people as he travels, painting himself in the best light possible. Odysseus uses lies as tools to achieve goals, to conquer enemies, and to escape danger. Why, however, does he lie to his devoted (and long-suffering) wife and to his…[continue]
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