ARTSSCI 3A06: Literature
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, our work and our academic lives have intruded into our homes in unprecedented ways. In many ways, this intrusion is but an intensification of the ways in which our homes—whether they be our houses, our cities, or our nations, among others—have increasingly become laid bare to outsiders as our world becomes ever more interconnected. Being confronted by outside forces within these spaces calls on us to re-examine the ways in which we exist in, interact with, and conceptualize our homes. Critically, they demand that we consider the question of justice in the home: what does a just home look like? What does it mean to treat outsiders justly when they come to exist within the realm that we consider to be our home?
These struggles of cohabitation between people and outside presences in their homes permeate both ancient and modern literature. In the Homeric epic The Odyssey, widely regarded as a foundational text in Western literature, the family of the protagonist, Odysseus, find themselves at odds with a group of suitors who have infiltrated their home, hoping to wed Odysseus’ wife Penelope. The suitors are mostly wealthy and powerful men from the surrounding lands. After Odysseus’ disappearance, they start living in his hall in Ithaka. Operating under the assumption that Odysseus is dead, they live in his home, eating his food and drinking his wine, trying to win Penelope over—or wait until she eventually gives in to their demands (Homer I). From the start of the text, we can see that these suitors are a burden to Odysseus’ family and advisors, and in many ways are constructed as adversaries to the family. A more modern rendition of the archetypal struggle, “Loulou: or the Domestic Life of the Language” by Margaret Atwood (“Loulou” from now on) tells the story of Loulou, a potter, who struggles with the daily presence of the male poets who live in her home. While these poets were once Loulou’s lovers—and one still is—in many ways they have become a nuisance to Loulou, and it’s not clear whether she still wants them there at all (Atwood 45-47).
Both texts show us that these unwanted outsiders in the home can work to shape and reshape us, stopping us from expressing our true selves and thus preventing us from feeling “at home”. However, these stories present radically different ways of grappling with outside forces in the home—offering different ways of reconceptualizing and reifying the just home in the presence of. Ultimately, I argue that “Loulou” gives us a more compelling account than The Odyssey for how we can conceptualize and create just homes when in the presence of outsiders.
Before we delve into the texts, we must spend a moment on the topic of justice. Being a nebulous concept, ideas of what constitutes justice can vary wildly across time, borders, and even from person to person. In the context of the home, it is worthwhile that we consider justice through a capability approach. The capabilities approach to justice, in effect, stipulates that a system is just inasmuch as it allows those within it to fulfill certain basic capabilities. In her landmark 1992 paper on the capability approach to justice, Martha Nussbaum outlines some of these capabilities. A few of these capabilities can be directly tied to the home:
“3. Being able to avoid unnecessary and nonbeneficial pain and to have pleasurable experiences (…)
7. Being able to live for and with others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of familial and social interaction (…)
10. Being able to live one’s own life and nobody else’s; being able to live one’s own life in one’s very own surroundings and context. (Nussbaum, 222)”
These last two capabilities are of particular relevance to the idea of the just home, as the home is one of the principal contexts through which these capabilities can be realized. Understanding it through the lens of these capabilities, a just home is one that allows for individuals to live in meaningful relationships, while at the same time having the capability to self-determine and express one’s true self. Each of these texts present different conceptualizations of the conditions necessary for a just home and the methods through which we can create such places for ourselves when they are made party to outsiders. In this paper, I am contending that “Loulou” offers us the more compelling conceptualization of the two texts. I am not attempting to argue here why one conceptualization would better fulfill these capabilities in a sort of idealist or philosophical sense, but rather I am trying to make my account as grounded and as self-evident as possible.
In the Odyssey, the suitors in the home work to fundamentally shape and re-shape the characters that can be found in the hall at Ithaka. The most obvious example of the suitors’ aims to shape the residents of Odysseus’ home is their pursuit of Penelope, attempting to marry her—and thus construct her as their wife, making her a part of their families and conquests (Homer II.187-217). In doing so, they are directly attempting to shape her identity, making it conform to their desires. They also attempt to shape Telemachos, Odysseus’ son by Penelope, by mocking his plans to “bring black doom upon them” (Homer II.334), thereby contesting his conceptualization of himself as a potential hero. Similarly, the poets in “Loulou” construct their own images of Loulou, both through their daily interactions with her and what they write about her in their journals and poems (Atwood 45). They construct her as a woman who is “subdued”—a predictable, dependable caretaker (Atwood 53-54). They tell her that she is very different from who a “Loulou” should be: Loulou is a French girl in a can-can outfit, not an “earthy,” “firmly built,” potter (Atwood 49). Through this, and also through their daily treatment of her, we can see how the poets’ presence in the home works to shape Loulou and her image of herself.
This conflicting influence prevents the characters from feeling “at-home” in these spaces, and infringe on their basic capabilities for self-expression and self-determination. Odysseus is forced to enter his home disguised as an elderly peasant, so that the suitors do not recognize and immediately assault him (Homer XVII.360). He is not even able to reveal his identity to Penelope, the love of his life, while the suitors are in the home—instead being forced to interact with her under disguise (Homer XIX). In fact, he does not reveal his true identity to anyone within his hall until the moment he enters into direct combat with the suitors (Homer XXII.1). For her part, Penelope spends all day shut in her room, and is forced to feign compliance with the suitors by pretending to weave a shroud for Odysseus’ aging father, Laertes (Homer II.192). Similarly, Loulou feels as though she cannot use her home, as “the poets are always using it” (Atwood 58). She feels as though she is forced to be solid, predictable, and to make the poets feel safe—and yet she is beginning to question whether she feels safe in her home (Atwood 52). These characters feel unable to be their true selves in their homes. Instead, they must conform to the demands of the structures of power that now seemingly reign over the spaces. Thus, we can see that the home can become perverted by these intrusions, no longer functioning as any sort of “home” as we understand it.
Despite the long-term presence of the outsiders and their influence over his hall, Odysseus still feels as though this space is his home, proclaiming, “Here is Odysseus’ hall: no hall like this!” (Homer XVII.341). This posits both a notion of the home as carrying an identity that is resistant to time and change, but also the idea that this is someone’s home—that it belongs to Odysseus. This conceptualization of home as needing a master is reinforced by the actions of other characters in the epic. Notably, both Penelope and Telemachos feel as though they are unable to contest the outsiders for agency over the home, instead waiting for a “champion like Odysseus” (Homer XVII.705) to regain control of it and save them from what is portrayed as the near-tyrannical presence of the suitors. Interestingly, the condition of Odysseus’ dog is perhaps the best example of the way in which the home-master dynamic is reinforced through the text. Odysseus’ old dog had “grown old in his master’s absence…Treated as rubbish now” (Homer XVII.382). The slaves, their master absent, did not take care of him, as “without a master they have no will to labor, or excel” (Homer XVII.415). The dog’s placement immediately outside of the main hall symbolizes what has happened in the home beyond it. Through the example of a dog, the text suggests that without a master, a home will rapidly fall into disrepair. In essence, the home needs a master to survive.
To Odysseus, the only option to restore his home is to destroy the suitors. Their presence within the home is conceptualized as “treachery [that] had filled that house with pain” (Homer XX.439)—an injustice that needed to be punished, in Odysseus’ eyes. After slaying the suitors, Odysseus calls for “fumes to purify my hall” (Homer XXII.536). In doing so, he implies that the home is a place that must be made pure, completely free of outside influence. Once rid of the suitors, he is able to be himself, no longer having to be disguised within his halls—a nurse reminds him that he “must not wrap [his] shoulder’s breadth again in rags in [his] own hall” (Homer XXII.543) ever again. He also re-forms his relations with Penelope, able to love freely with her once again (Homer XXIII.337)—showing that he is finally “at home” here. Thus, the Odyssey reifies “home” as a place of purity, one that needs to be free of outside influence. Odysseus is not able to feel at home until he has completely rid this space of these antagonistic forces and reasserted his agency over the hall. The just home, according to The Odyssey, is a place that needs a master to control it, protect it, and ensure its purity from outside influence in order to allow the fulfillment of its resident’s basic capabilities for self-expression and self-determination.
Loulou takes a very different approach to contending with the outside forces in her home. Rather than choosing to confront the poets directly, she decides to grapple with their conceptualizations of her. As previously explained, the poets have played a significant role in shaping Loulou’s image of herself. As she walks to the accountant, we are reminded of many of their conceptualizations of her that she has come to internalize. They call her “subdued” (Atwood 53) and make her feel as though she must be a dependable caretaker—“everyone depends on her, but when she needs help (…) nobody’s within call” (Atwood 54). They also feel as though they know her actions, and that she is predictable to them as evidenced by the conversation about the accountant at the dinner table (Atwood 57). In seeking an encounter with the accountant, she is contesting all these images of herself. She dresses as fancily as she can (Atwood 53) trying to appear less subdued. In direct contrast to what the poets see her as, she is looking to be taken care of, “to be able to turn her two plastic shopping bags over to some man (…) who could make sense of their contents and tell her that she has nothing to worry about” (Atwood 54). She thinks that sleeping with the accountant “will change her” (Atwood 57).
The accountant that she goes to meet directly challenges the assumptions and affirmations of the poets—calling her a true artist, rather than simply an “earthy” caretaker (Atwood 56) and even boldly asserting that Loulou is being taken advantage of and should remove the poets from her home (Atwood 59). He directly questions their place in her home and their power over Loulou, helping her to reflect on these aspects of her life (Atwood 59). Yet, through her interactions with the accountant, Loulou realizes that she would not be able to exist in the same way without the poets, saying that considering life without them would be “painful” (Atwood 59).
After this experience, Loulou is able to understand the fragility of the constructions that the poets have imposed on her. “It’s as if all those words which the poets have attached to her over the years have come undone and floated into the sky, like balloons” (60), Loulou thinks. Not only does she see the impermanence of their ideas, but she also sees for the first time that the poets are also fragile. Whereas she once thought they would endure forever, she now notices that Bob is “showing signs of age, they all are” (Atwood 61). Here, she realizes how much the poets need her and her home to survive and thrive. Although she has said that they depend on her before (Atwood 52), she seems to truly recognize their fragility here. As such, she comes to terms with the presence of the poets in the home, recognizing for the first time that they play an important role in her identity, but do not completely define who she is: “Nobody invented her, thank you very much. They make things up about her, but that’s a whole other story” (Atwood 62). In other words, by looking outside of the home for experiences that contest the implications of the present power structures (the poets in this case), Loulou is able to adequately understand the poets and accept them into her life in a formative way. From this, she recreates her home as a shared space, recognizing that she can exist as her true self while simultaneously being subject to these outside forces. She accepts her home as being shared with others, recognizing the home as a fundamentally relational space, defined by the interactions and power dynamics within it.
This reading of the depictions of home in each story is further supported by the way homes are presented more generally in each text. Throughout his journeys, Odysseus visits many other homes, including those belonging to Kirke, the cyclops, and Calypso. Each of these three homes is on its own island, cut off from the rest of civilization: Kirke owns the island of Aiaia (Homer X.150), the Kyklopes rule an “isle, unplanted and untilled,” (Homer IX.133), and Kalypso inhabits Ogygia (Homer, I.110). In addition to being cut off from the rest of civilization, each place is completely ruled by their hosts. In fact, with the exception of Odysseus, those that intrude on these islands are often killed, whether it be through Kirke’s magic or the Kyklopes’ appetite. Through these depictions, the text reinforces the notion of a home as some place that exists as a separate realm from the world around it, where the master can assert their dominance and defend its purity. On the other hand, Loulou’s own home is not only home to both her and the poets, but it is also where she works; her workshop is directly beside it (Atwood 51). The accountant’s office is placed within a dry-goods store, just as the poets occupy Loulou’s home (Atwood 59). Spaces are messy in “Loulou”, nesting multiple different people and uses within them, and borders between these spaces are unclear. Where The Odyssey repeatedly depicts the home as a place to assert agency over, and ensure purity of, Loulou shows us that creating a just home is about finding ways to fit in and mesh with your surrounding environments—how you determine your place as a piece of a broader relational context that you invariably share with others.
Now, one could contend that I am not accurately representing the way The Odyssey conceptualizes the home, saying that the idea of hospitality—the opening of the home to outside influences, and the accepting of such influences and people in need of care and tending to—is an idea that is held as the highest moral standard by many of the lords in the epic. As such, the just home in the presence of outsiders in The Odyssey would be quite different than what I have portrayed here. However, this counterargument falls short. First, it must be understood that hospitality entails duties of both the host and the guest: the guest must be a good guest, respectful of the host, while the host is a good host to the guest. Guests must wait to be invited in, to be let in on the host’s terms (Hefferman 18). The agency of the “master” must not be undermined by the guest. In fact, when the guest does violate the master in this way, the master is able to retaliate (Hefferman 18). This is precisely what Odysseus does to the suitors, “guests” who have violated the agency of the host and the code of hospitality. Under this reading, the principles of hospitality throughout The Odyssey are in support of my conceptualization of the just Odyssean home: they still call for the home’s master to assert agency over the space and ensure that outside forces who become unwanted are expelled. The home-with-master dynamic in hospitality is further made apparent in Odysseus’ arrival in Phaeacia. Upon his arrival to the island, he meets Nausicaa, who offers him hospitality, but gives him specific instructions on how to go about obtaining it (Homer VI.300-350). In her speech, she tells him to “cast yourself before my mother, embrace her knees (…) On Mother’s feeling much depends; if she looks on you kindly, you shall see your friends under your own roof in your father’s country” (Homer VI.329-334). In other words, she is explaining to him that his fate will be completely decided by her parents, the masters of the home—he will receive hospitality if they look favourably upon him, and death if they do not. In this, we see the way in which offers of hospitality in The Odyssey operate on the implicit assumption of the home as a place that has a master who exerts their agency over the space to protect it and ensure its purity from unwanted others.
In a modern context, we as individuals and as groups can find “home” in a multitude of settings. For us, home can be our physical houses, our close friend groups, or our most familiar relations; on a broader scale, it can be our neighborhoods, our towns, our countries, or an ideology or set of ideas. As we grow into an increasingly liquid and interconnected world, we often find these spaces becoming host to new outside forces. Our physical homes have been encroached on by our work and academic responsibilities throughout the pandemic, new people and “friends of friends” appear in our social circles frequently— and through social media, our relations are constantly subject to the power of outside normative influences and to free intrusion by others. These texts show us that such intrusions inevitably shape us and can threaten our sense of home—leading us to feel as though it is no longer our home at all.
These texts show us two different ways for us to grapple with this issue and create just homes. The Odyssey indicates to us that, to create “just” homes, we must drive out these outside forces and reassert ourselves as the masters of our homes. The just home, in Odyssean terms, is one that is ruled completely by the “just” leader, or at least the one who laid claim to the space first and has the power to defend it. This is an idea that we have seen increasingly adopted by political leaders around the world when defending the “home”-land. Whether it be “Make America Great Again” or “Brexit,” notable political movements have adopted this Odyssean approach, seeking to restore the home to “better days,” forcibly removing the outsiders that are perceived to be harmful to the home. Principally, this instinct is directed at immigrant or refugee populations, who are depicted eerily similarly to the suitors in Homer’s text. At the beginning of The Odyssey, one of Telemachos’ advisors says “These men spend their days around our house killing our beeves and sheep and fatted goats, carousing, soaking up our good dark wine, not caring what they do. They squander everything” (Homer II.59-61). This language is remarkably similar to Donald Trump’s 2015 campaign trail declaration on immigrants, saying that “They’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our manufacturing jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re killing us.” These statements play on a notion of ownership of the home and everything found within it, saying that outsiders take what is rightfully “ours,” and thus their presence represents a continuing injustice against the home. The only solution is to remove them.
This Odyssean instinct is present in “Loulou” as well. When she meets with the accountant, a piece of advice he gives her is to “get herself out of this situation” (Atwood 58), implying that she should remove the poets from her home. However, it is worth noting that while Odysseus is able to feel at home once again by driving out the suitors, his approach ultimately causes further harm, eventually spurring a much larger conflict with the suitors’ relatives and allies (Homer XXIV.520). As we can see from The Odyssey, while such actions may allow us to restore “justice” to our homes in the moment, they are often driven by a desire for control and a fear of change that may create further conflict outside of it (Homer XXIV.520). This insight is even more prevalent in modern times. When we consider the different “homes” we inhabit today, particularly the physical spaces, it is almost impossible to maintain absolute control over them when we are more interconnected and intertwined with one another than ever. While the home as “island” may have been a realistic conceptualization thousands of years ago, it is simply not realistic to think of our own homes in that way anymore. Chasing this Odyssean ideal may be a sort of red herring, completely unattainable in modern times. When we take action within our homes, we undoubtedly affect the world outside of it as well. What good is creating a “just” home if it creates further injustice elsewhere? After all, creating further injustice elsewhere may perpetuate future injustice within the home itself, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (King Jr. 1)
What’s more, this approach seems to be inherently violent. In the text, it necessitates gory conflict within the halls at Ithaka (Homer XX-XXII), perhaps indicating that it is not an easy task to remove someone from your home once they begin to feel at home there as well. Not only does it encourage violence against the outsiders—it encourages violent acts between those that have always been in the home: Odysseus turns people within his home against one another, having maids expose the wrongdoings of other maids that have formed relations with the suitors (Homer XIX.575-580). Finally, in Odysseus’ sole focus on reasserting his agency over the home, he fails to consider the needs of all the others in “his” home. By establishing himself as the home’s master and subjecting all those within in it to his rule, how might he affect the others living there, like Telemachos and Penelope? They are by no means outsiders to his home, and yet Odysseus’ mission undoubtedly affects their home as well. He reifies home for himself and creates a space that he considers just—but in the same breath may be perpetuating injustices against the others that live there by restricting their capabilities.
In contrast, Loulou’s approach of searching for experiences and ideas that contest the assumptions and forces of power in our homes presents an alternate model for approaching outsiders in our spaces. In taking these actions, Loulou is able to gain a better understanding of both herself and the outsiders that occupy her home—recognizing their fragility and understanding the true extent of their power over her. Loulou reconceptualizes her home as a relational, shared space that is equally a home to the poets as it is to her: her home is not merely hers but is a product of these unique relational contexts within which she finds herself. By reconciling the presence of outsiders in her home with her own desire for self-expression, she is able to move forward with the poets in a way that enriches her life and enhances the life of the home (Atwood 62), rather than creating further conflict. Recognizing the home as a relational and dynamic space, as Loulou does, not only helps us re-imagine what a home can be but also helps us understand how we play a role in the formation of a just home for others—and thus helps us do justice not only to us, but to our relations as well. What’s key here is not only that the end result is what could be conceived of as just. Importantly, achieving the just home follows a process of unfolding justice outside the home. It necessitates critical examination of structures of power and preconceptions that can cloud our perception of these outside forces—helping us understand the roots of injustice and work towards implementing real, meaningful change that enables long-lasting justice.
Both The Odyssey and “Loulou” show us that the presence of outsiders in the home works to shape and reshape us, which can prevent us from feeling “at home” in these spaces. However, each text presents us with different ways of grappling with these forces, and in doing so offers different conceptualizations of what a “just” home can be in the presence of outsiders. Ultimately, we should learn from the conceptualization proffered by Loulou when determining for ourselves how to grapple with outsiders in our own homes. Conceptualizing the home as an “island,” a pure space over which we must be the master, is not only unrealistic in a modern age, but is an ultimately harmful, violent approach. Instead, we need to listen to Loulou and see the home as a brilliantly messy, dynamic nexus of relations that offers great potential to foster deeper connections and richer, more human lives.
Atwood, Margaret. “Loulou; or, The Domestic Life of The Language.” Bluebeard’s Egg. Anchor Books, 1983. pp. 44-62.
Hefferman, James A. W. Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature. Yale University Press. 2014
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998.
King Jr., Martin Luther “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 16 April 1963. The Estate of Martin Luther King Jr.
Nussbaum, Martha C. “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism.” Political Theory, vol. 20, no. 2, 1992, pp. 202–246. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/192002. Accessed 20 Mar. 2021.
Trump, Donald. (2015, July 11). Phoenix rally speech. Phoenix, AZ. Youtube, https://youtu.be/HwRzPQAFNiM