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animus_wyrmis [userpic]
look at me, posting this essay hours before it is due!
by animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
at August 8th, 2011 (09:47 pm)

Title: Child of a Distant Father: Sam and Dean as Telemachus and Penelope
Author: animus_wyrmis
Summary/Abstract/Thesis Statement: Through clever use of misdirection, coyotesuspect obscures a reading of her Odyssey, American in which Dean is Penelope and Sam is Telemachus and there is never any Odysseus.
Recipient and links to original fic: coyotesuspect's Odyssey, American.

1300 words. With thanks to twoskeletons for looking it over.

Since Odysseus, American begins with an obvious reference to Odysseus in the title and in the opening quote, readers are primed to see Odysseus reflected in the characters. We see him first in Dean, who is “wandering the desert” (Odysseus, American, henceforth cited as OA)—a clear parallel to Odysseus, who is described in the beginning of the Fitzergerald Odyssey (also the opening quote of the fic) as “the wanderer” (Odyssey 1.1, trans., Robert Fitzgerald, quoted in OA). Of course, Dean also bears elements of Penelope’s characterization: he is described as “shrewd,” “long-suffering,” and “faithful,” and he laments that “[h]is family is coming apart….[E]veryone’s shuttling off, leaving him to follow his own shadow” (OA). This shift in Dean’s characterization is accompanied by the introduction of Sam, separated physically from Dean as well as emotionally. The astute reader shifts to identifying Sam with Odysseus, and this connection is only made stronger when a siren quite literally takes Sam from Dean; by pretending to be Sam and then revealing itself, the siren keeps Sam away from Dean. Because of the initial connections of Dean to Odysseus and then to Penelope and of Sam to Odysseus, readers are primed to see Odysseus, American as a straight retelling of the Odysseus/Penelope love story. Sam and Dean, like Odysseus and Penelope, are separated by circumstances and must endure apart until they can reunite. But this interpretation ignores another, more interesting parallel between Odysseus, American and the Odyssey. I will argue that while Dean’s characterization does most closely parallel Penelope’s, Sam’s most closely parallels Telemachus. This interpretation makes this fic a story about a parental figure waiting the return of a child who is asserting his independence, not about a wife waiting for the husband who wishes desperately to return.

Dean’s characterization is easiest to explore, so we’ll start there. The parallels to Penelope are clear from the start: Dean is described as being left behind, and he is left alone and attacked on all sides by monsters, similarly to Penelope’s situation on Ithaca. Unlike Odysseus, he does not have a goddess to provide help; Madame Augustine is a powerful figure, but she is a more typical Sybil (a blind prophetess who interacts with the shades of the dead) than an Athena figure. Tellingly, she does not show any great desire to help Dean out of any altruism or favoritism, and she does not show any virginal or militaristic qualities.

Similarly, while Dean does wander in the literal sense of the word, he wanders without a purpose or a destination. Where Odysseus has a clear goal (Ithaca, the reunion with his wife and son, and the vengeance on the suitors), Dean is simply holding Sam’s place in the Impala until he can return. Like Penelope, he does not try to move on with his life. He does not seek a replacement for Sam, and he does not have much forward momentum—indeed, he is described as “following his own shadow” (OA). I think the clearest example of this is the fic’s use of the Odyssey itself. Dean accumulates translations on his way “whenever he’s missing Sam more than usual,” reading and re-reading the same passages over and over again in a way that is very reminiscent of Penelope’s weaving and re-weaving of her father-in-law’s shroud (OA). In both cases, these are delaying tactics. Neither character wants to make a decision about how to deal with being alone (in Dean’s case this is due to internal factors, while Penelope faces external pressure), so they turn to activities that allow them to be busy without dictating an ending point. Penelope can unravel and reweave the same patch of cloth for eternity; Dean can collect an infinite number of translations of Homer.

Sam’s characterization is more difficult to analyze simply because his role in the story is much smaller. But it is important to look first at the differences between his situation and Odysseus’s and then the parallels between his and Telemachus’s. Unlike Odysseus, Sam decides to leave home; he is able to return at any time, but chooses not to. Furthermore, he puts off telling Dean about his departure until the last minute, and he ignores Dean’s attempts to contact him later afterward. These actions do not line up with Odysseus’s, but they do line up very neatly with Telemachus’s: Telemachus leaves Ithaca as a way of asserting his independence; though capable of returning home immediately, he takes his time (and indeed needs some divine nudging). And, like Sam with Dean, he deliberately refrains from telling his mother until it is too late for her to stop him. In the Odyssey, Penelope details this: “Now again squalls snatched away my beloved child…nor did I hear of his setting out. …For if I had learned of this journey, he would very much have remained here, even though very eager for the journey, or he would have left me dead in the palace” (Odyssey 4.727-734, my translation). Like Dean, we see that her reaction to Telemachus’s departure is one of grief and betrayal. And in both cases, we see that Penelope and Dean have to deal with the fact that their loved ones have left them purposefully; it’s not monsters that are keeping Telemachus and Sam away, but their own desires for independence.

Of course, Telemachus and Sam both make it back. In the Odyssey this is a literal return; Telemachus hurries back to Ithaca when he suspects that Penelope may remarry, and he takes part in the battle between Odysseus and the suitors. Similarly, Sam calls Dean for the first time when he suspects that Dean may be injured: “Where have you been?” he asks. “You hadn’t called in a while. You could have been dead” (OA). In both cases, the search for independence is shortened when it seems that home—as represented by Penelope and Dean, who are keeping that home available—is threatened.

In Odysseus, American, the addition of the Telemachus/Penelope parallel to the Sam/Dean relationship adds another layer to Sam’s complicated feelings about home, his brother, and his flight to California. It also challenges the totality of the happy ending. While Odysseus’s return home is a happy ending for Odysseus and Penelope, and Telemachus’s return is a happy ending for Penelope, the return of Odysseus to Ithaca and the restitution of Telemachus into the family unit necessitates the end of his time as head of his own household. Similarly, Sam’s return to Dean necessitates his return to John and the hunting life (as we see at the start of season one). While these are happy endings, they are not unambiguously happy endings; they come with sacrifices for Telemachus and Sam. As Dean says, the story of Odysseus is simple: Odysseus “is just a man who wants to get home” and whose family want him to come home (OA). But the story of Telemachus is the story of a boy who wants to strike out on his own and who is ultimately—although happily—thwarted in the attempt. And that, I suspect, is the more interesting ending to Odysseus, American.

Finally, all good fic says something new about the source material. Obviously Odysseus, American has a lot to say about Supernatural, but I would argue it has reframed Penelope’s character as well. Historically, criticism has frequently accused Penelope of being the quintessential nagging mother, and the Penelope/Telemachus relationship has almost entirely been interpreted in ways sympathetic to Telemachus’s plight but quite unsympathetic to the grief Penelope feels for him. This fic does some work to reframe that interpretation, presenting in Dean a Penelope who misses Sam/Telemachus and whose attempts to reconnect are not seen as nagging. It is arguable whether this reception is due to the plotting and POV of the story, or if it owes more to the initial framing of Sam and Dean as a long-lost married couple, but it certainly does suggest that we as readers are more sympathetic to men who miss their brothers than we are to women who miss their sons.


Posted by: good-bye my grim reaper prince (coyotesuspect)
Posted at: August 10th, 2011 09:17 pm (UTC)


Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 11th, 2011 12:00 am (UTC)


Posted by: good-bye my grim reaper prince (coyotesuspect)
Posted at: August 14th, 2011 02:24 am (UTC)
dean: hero (no sweeping exits)


Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 14th, 2011 02:27 am (UTC)


Basically, incest is weird?

Posted by: good-bye my grim reaper prince (coyotesuspect)
Posted at: August 14th, 2011 02:29 am (UTC)


Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 14th, 2011 02:35 am (UTC)


Posted by: jolie chèvre diable (familiardevil)
Posted at: August 19th, 2011 02:53 am (UTC)
spn - claire - angel of the lord

This was so fantastic to read! And really super interesting. I love the fact that you drew comparisons between Sam/Dean and Penelope/Telemachus. It wasn't what I was expecting and not what I got from the story myself but IT HAS MADE THE STORY EVEN BETTER. You are so spot on with how Dean and Sam are like Penelope and Telemachus in Coyote's story what with Dean waaaaiting and being sad forever and Sam striking out on his own but coming back! Except I don't want Penelope and Telemachus to have reunion sex, BUT THE LACK OF INCEST MAKES THIS ALL THE MORE INTRIGUING AND WONDERFUL.

/o\ Thanks for sharing! Your essay was a great read and makes me yearn for more essays on specific fics tbh. Also could you have chosen a better fic? No you couldn't have the end.

Posted by: animus_wyrmis (animus_wyrmis)
Posted at: August 20th, 2011 01:43 am (UTC)


One of my favorite things about this fic is that there are totally multiple ways to line up the characters, and each one gives a slightly different reading and it is VERY FUN.

yessss omg the striking out and then coming back was where I started with in this because POOR SAM, WANTING TO BE A GROWNUP AND FAILING BADLY.

lack of incest always makes things better!

makes me yearn for more essays on specific fics tbh
this is a thing i too would want.

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