The authority and highly defined taste, the willingness to attack established scholars and to propose startlingly original interpretations, that distinguish “Hellenism,” the Chancellor’s Essay, and the Britannica article of 1879 are evident in The Women of Homer, which Wilde began when he was not quite twenty-two. It is remarkable, not least, for standing in refreshing contrast to the platitudinous moonings of Symonds himself, who is unable to see the preeminent female characters in Homer—Helen, Penelope, and the maiden Nausicaa—as anything but cartoon figures representing conventional types of femininity.
Wilde’s reaction to Symonds’s text reveals the same astringent rigor that characterizes his attack on Jebb. He begins with an impatient scholarly complaint, criticizing Symonds’s failure to include all the relevant texts in his discussion of Helen (not least, the speech by the classical sophist Isocrates known as the “Encomium of Helen”). What makes Wilde’s essay really fascinating, though, are the flashes of his own distinctively sharp and original interpretative acumen.
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.”