In his discussion of Helen, Symonds had argued that a lost trilogy about her by Sophocles would have presented her as “a woman whose character deserved the most profound analysis”—an assumption wholly in keeping with the contemporary assessment of that playwright as the master of character. To this Wilde retorts, startlingly but with some justice, that “profound analysis” is not necessarily to be expected of the great Athenian dramatist in the case of Antigone: “I hardly think that the drawing of Antigone in the play of that name justifies the expression ‘profound analysis.’” And he is right: the Theban princess, while a powerful figure, is not a subtle one. The Women of Homer offers a number of such bracing zingers.

By far the most arresting observation that Wilde makes in his response to Symonds’s catalog of Homeric women is one concerning Penelope, the character about whom Symonds shows himself to be the least perceptive. Wilde remarks on what he calls an “extremely subtle psychological point” that Homer makes about her personality, one that “shows that Homer had accurately studied the nature of women.” Rather than being the placid homebody that Symonds insists she is, Penelope, Wilde understands, is in fact strangely liberated by her famous dilemma: the interminable courtship of her by the suitors during Odysseus’ absence awakens and sharpens in her the very qualities that make her an ideal mate for her husband. (Symonds simply finds her acts of cunning irritating: “provocative of anger.”) Those twenty years without Odysseus may have been lonely, but by the same token they place Penelope squarely at center stage. “Though his return was the consummation,” Wilde writes, with a psychological insight that would be remarkable in someone much older and more experienced than an undergraduate in his early twenties, “yet it was in some way the breaking up of her life; for her occupation was gone.”

Homer, if not Symonds, clearly recognizes this, giving Penelope a number of scenes that show that she is in many ways ambivalent about the suitors—whose attentions, the poet hints, she unconsciously enjoys. In Book 19, for instance, Odysseus’ queen famously takes the mysterious beggar—actually Odysseus in disguise—into her confidence, telling him about a dream she has had in which a mountain eagle attacks twenty tame geese she has lovingly kept: there is no question that the geese are meant to represent the suitors, and the eagle, Odysseus.

Wilde bewails the failure of Symonds and so many other contemporary critics to recognize this conflicted aspect of Penelope’s character:

It is entirely misunderstood, however, by Mr Symonds and, indeed, by all other writers I have read. It shows us how great was her longing, how terrible the anguish of her soul, and it makes her final recognition of [Odysseus] doubly impressive.

The private desire behind the public repudiation, the anguished dissolution triggered by a long-awaited “consummation”: Wilde’s ability to discern, beneath the attitudes imposed on women by society, the sharp and surprising contours of unexpected emotions is what would make The Importance of Being Earnest the most original and most artistically successful of his works.