Dreams pp 223-231 | Cite as

Penelope as Dreamer

The Perils of Interpretation
  • Kelly Bulkeley


No matter where it is practiced, the interpretation of dreams is fraught with difficulties, uncertainties, and ambiguities. In contemporary Western society the most common location for dream interpretation is private psychotherapy: A client suffering some kind of mental distress tells a dream to a professional therapist, whose job it is to discover what the dream might be saying about the client’s life situation. The methods used by most psychotherapists are drawn in one way or another from the clinical practices of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. These methods include asking for personal associations, identifying puns, metaphors, and wordplay, and seeking homologies between particular dream images and broader cultural symbolism. Although some psychotherapists report great success in the use of dream interpretation to treat their clients,1 many other healthcare professionals remain wary. One of the major reasons for this wariness is a lack of uniform standards and guidelines to use in the practice of dream interpretation—Freud said one thing, Jung said another, and their followers have gone on to say a thousand other things. With no settled, commonly accepted method for determining how exactly dream image “A” is related to waking life situation “B,” dream interpretation appears inherently unstable, unreliable, and therapeutically suspect.


Mental Distress Good Interpretation True Meaning Dream Interpretation Dream Image 
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  1. 1.
    See Jane White-Lewis, chapter 10, this volume; Clara Hill, Working with Dreams in Psychotherapy (New York: Guilford Press, 1996);Google Scholar
  2. Alan Siegel, Dreams That Can Change Your Life (Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher, 1990);Google Scholar
  3. Walter Bonime, The Clinical Use of Dreams (New York: DeCapo Press, 1988);Google Scholar
  4. Marion Cuddy and Kathryn Belicki, “The Fifty-Five Year Secret: Using Nightmares to Facilitate Psychotherapy in a Case of Childhood Sexual Abuse,” in Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society, ed. Kelly Bulkeley (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Defenders of this basic line of interpretation include F.M. Combellack, “Three Odyssean Problems,” California Studies in Classical Antiquity 6 (1973): 17–46;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bernard Fenik, Studies in the Odyssey, in Hermes Einzelschriften, no. 30 (Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH, 1974);Google Scholar
  7. John H. Finley, Jr., Homer’s Odyssey (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. C. Emlyn-Jones, “The Reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, Greece and Rome 31 (1984): 1–18;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Sheila Murnaghan, Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987);Google Scholar
  10. M. A. Katz, Penelope’s Renown (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991);Google Scholar
  11. R. B. Rutherford, Homer’s Odyssey: Books XIX and XX (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992); andGoogle Scholar
  12. Nancy Felson-Rubin, “Penelope’s Perspective: Character from Plot,” in Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretive Essays, ed. Seth L. Schein (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). Katz has usefully summarized modern scholarly debate on this section of The Odyssey into three groups. One group takes an “Analytic” approach, arguing that the combination of at least two different story traditions in Book 19 is the cause of the narrative inconsistencies and contradictions. Another group uses an “Aesthetic” perspective to argue that the importance of plot structure made it inevitable that plausible character development in Book 19 (particularly regarding Penelope) would suffer as a by-product. The third group draws on “Psychological” thinking to seek deeper motivations in the characters that would help to account for otherwise problematic or inexplicable events in Book 19. My approach in this essay is, in Katz’s categorization, psychological. However, I come to very different conclusions from those offered by the other primary exponents of the psychological view and I thereby avoid the biggest problems that critics have identified in their treatments of this scene.Google Scholar
  13. 8.
    See Frederick Crews, ed., The Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend (New York: Penguin, 1998) andGoogle Scholar
  14. Richard Noll, The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung (New York: Random House, 1997).Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    See J. Allan Hobson, Dreaming as Delirium: How the Brain Goes Out of Its Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), p. 93.Google Scholar

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© Kelly Bulkeley 2001

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  • Kelly Bulkeley

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