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  • Prophecy and Persons:Reading Character in the Odyssey
  • John Peradotto

But for its outrageous alliteration, this essay should perhaps be titled "Prophecy, Persons, Plot, Penelope, and Postmodernism." I shall indeed be touching on all these topics, and the real focus of my remarks will be Penelope; in particular, why we don't know what she will do until she does it-in a story where everyone else's moves are forecast long before the event. But in what sounds paradoxical, but is only apparently so, I shall not have much to say about Penelope in detail. That is largely because a number of people have done that admirably and in considerable detail, three of whom are contributors to this volume: Lillian Doherty (1995), Nancy Felson (1997), and Sheila Murnaghan (1987, esp. 118-47).1 My remarks here are but modest reflections on theirs, what I would call a frame designed to set off their work with some more general considerations about the way we read character in and into fiction. And that will allow me to make another quick pass at a topic that has haunted my entire scholarly life, the relation between fiction and so-called real life, that is, the relation between literary text and non-literary context, both at the front end-the context of verisimilar constraints on the artist's production, and at the back end-the context of belief, behavior, and worldview shaped anew by the text as model. In my study of the way in which prophecy is used in Greek narrative, what has become a dominant theme is the intimate connection between prophecy and character. There is, first of all, the obvious way in which people's responses to omens and prophecies become keys to their characters, as, for fairly obvious [End Page 3] instances, with Aegisthus and Polyphemus in Homer, Croesus in Herodotus, and Oedipus and Jocasta in Sophocles (Peradotto 1974, esp. 823f.). There is, further, the way that character is inferred backward from action, just as prophecy in literature is, in composition, produced backward from outcome to prediction, though in performance it is presented forward from prediction to outcome (Peradotto 1992.10-11 and 1993.97-98). However, what I am mainly concerned with here is the way in which, whether in what we call "real life" or in our reading of fiction, we infer character, which is to say, make predictions about how a person may be counted on to act, from present or past signs (sometimes precious few of them) at our disposal. Now prophecy, as we find it in Greek literature, tends for the most part to operate the same way, reading the future, less by a direct vision of it than by making inspired inferences from its seeds or signs. In the words of Heraclitus, , "The lord [Apollo] whose oracle is in Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign" (frag. 93 DK). A Euripidean fragment suggests the same thing: , "The best seer is one who makes competent inferences" (frag. 973).

What are the seeds or signs that we read in judging character? Basically they are of two kinds. One, the simpler but more precarious, is the summation someone else provides us with. The other is a set of acts that we ourselves have witnessed or, in the case of fiction, that we have seen dramatically presented by a more or less objective narrator, presumed to be trustworthy.2 In the simplest folktales of the kind analyzed by Vladimir Propp in his well-known study (1968), where character is superseded by function, characters are simply what the narrator says they are categorically, without explanation, motivation, or development. Now, in the Odyssey, as close as we get to this kind of character presentation is the case of Elpenor. The narrative function of Elpenor's death is clearly to provide a reason for Odysseus's return from the realm of the dead to Circe, who will then give him directions and warnings in Book 12 regarding the next several stages in his journey home.3 As for Elpenor's characterization, Odysseus, whose [End Page 4] veracity we have little reason to distrust (at least on this particular point...


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