Emily R.C. Wilson: "After one of my recent 'Conversation' interviews (in Sydney), someone asked me if the hanging of the slave women in the Odyssey is 'right'...
...Summarizing my answer here on the recommendation of a friend, because it brings up a key distinction for thinking about any literary text. Literature 101: There are 3 separate questions intertwined:
Do I, Emily Wilson, personally think it's right to murder women because of any sexual behavior, even if they were 100% empowered and responsible for whatever it was? Easy question. No.
Do Odysseus and Telemachus think it's right? Yes, but let's define what kind of "right". Odysseus presents the slaughter of the suitors as just punishment. Murder of the slaves is presented differently: it's about being respected and controlling memories and (re) gaining power. Telemachus switches up the murder instrument (from swords to cable), and introduces a different kind of "rightness": he associates the killing with getting rid of dirt from the house. It's right to take out trash, but not the same kind of "right" as self-defense or vengeance.
Does THE TEXT show (consistently?) that it's right? Tough question, not skippable. Narrative shows us why Odysseus and Telemachus want them dead. It also shows us what it feels like for them to be terrified and strung up (bird simile). They don't feel their deaths as "right". Is their pain & their deaths, and the horrible torture and murder of Melanthius, presented as justifiable in the grand scheme of things—a necessary cost for the restoration of Odysseus's household in something like its original state? Maybe. Maybe not. Important grey area.
I think the capacity of literature to create these kinds of rich complex questions or fault-lines, between what this or that character thinks, and what the whole poem or story might be saying, is one of the biggest reasons why literature matters. It makes us see/feel/be more.
Scholars & translators sometimes want to skip this type of question. The Oxford commentary mostly discusses the mechanics of hanging 12 women on 1 rope. But the representation of ethics matters, for how we read/teach/translate/write/think /live.
Beyond changing the subject, another popular dodge is to appeal to supposed history or biography (if any). Use these "facts" to guess what you think the text should say or do. It saves having to read too carefully. E.g. "Ancient societies were X; therefore the Odyssey Y". This move is extra-bogus for Homer, since Homer isn't an Author, and Homeric Society is a construction from, er, the Homeric poems...
#shouldread #literature #moralphilosophy