Irony is a further defining thematic characteristic of the poem. The Odyssey employs and pursues many different types of irony, but especially features irony involving Odysseus himself, from Melanthios' sneer that a god must be leading the unrecognized Odysseus to the palace (17.217-18) to Leiodes' outburst, after his failure to string the bow, that it will be the death of many suitors (21.152-56). Both members of the suitors' party are completely unaware that they have stumbled on to the truth. Odysseus's backstory establishes him as a master of disguise in his exploits in the Trojan War, most importantly, in the Trojan Horse itself. Thematically, throughout the poem, the Odyssey places Odysseus before characters who know much about him, but fail to recognize that he is in their midst. This is true in all manner of scenes, not just recognition scenes. The Phaiakians, though depicted as something like connoisseurs of epic poetry, who hear multiple songs about him and his exploits (8.73-83, 486-521), are not only unable to recognize him in their midst, but fail to recognize that the prophecy they earlier received (8.564-71, 13.172-78), clearly designates the man before them. Likewise their relative, Polyphemos, earlier hears a detailed prophecy about Odysseus (9.506-17), but cannot recognize him, though in extremely close proximity for sufficient time to do so.
This applies to seemingly all human characters in the poem, including very astute individuals such as Eumaios,who remains in extremely close contact with the disguised Odysseus for days, speaks at length, shares meals with him, but is unable to recognize him until Odysseus discloses his identity to him, proving it with a token (21.188-229).
Only Argos, who is not human, is unquestionably able to recognize the disguised Odysseus (17.291-327), enabled by more highly developed senses of smell and hearing.
As a highly thematic epic, symphonic in its introduction and restatements of themes, the Odyssey has not one climactic recognition scene but a series of such scenes, occurring throughout the second half of the poem, from Odysseus's encounter with a disguised Athena and disguised Ithaka in book 13, to his reunion with his father in book 24. Odysseus has recognition scenes not only with Telemakhos, but with his hound Argos, with Eurykleia, and with the retainers Eumaios and Philoitios, all before the destruction of the suitors. Each scene is unique in some respects, but in other ways each manifests a basic dynamic shared by all the other members of this family of related episodes.
Recognition scenes exist in a few different sub-types, on the basis of a few variables. When the protagonist meets up with a long-lost family member, are both characters ignorant of each other's identity, or only one? This difference in knowledge broadly divides recognition scenes into two large types. In most romances (e.g., Ion, Helen, Iphigenia in Tauris; The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre; The Winter's Tale, Pericles), both characters, protagonist and the other family members, are ignorant of each other's identities. Thus in the Ion, for instance, neither Ion nor Creusa is initially aware of the other's real identity, even as Creusa initially plots to kill her long-lost son (925-1047). In Shakespeare's Pericles neither the titular king nor his long-lost daughter Marina is aware of the other's identity as their recognition scene unfolds (5.1). However, both the Odyssey and Genesis' account of Joseph in Egypt use a different subtype of recognition scene. Here the protagonist is fully cognizant of other family members' identities when he encounters them, but he refrains from disclosing his own identity, while he tests and probes them. He reveals his identity only later, some times after considerable time has elapsed.
Other differences, more specific to the Odyssey's plot, divide recognition scenes into additional subtypes. Which character is doing the testing? Though usually Odysseus, in reversed recognition, another character does the testing (e.g., Athena in 13, Penelope in 23). Is there immediate recognition? The Odyssey suggests three different tempos of recognition: immediate (Argos), delayed (recognition occurs, but later in the same scene: Telemakhos, Eurykleia, Laertes), and postponed (recognition does not occur until a later scene: Eumaios, Penelope). Do the recognition scenes take place before or after the suitors are slain? If so, why for some characters and not for others? These variables allow us to construct a typology of the Odyssey's recognition scenes. The typology then shows us which episodes offer the most specific parallels with each other, suggesting some of them function as complementary counterparts to each other.
The first recognition scene on Ithaka is in book 13 (13.221-360), initially between Odysseus and Athena, then between Odysseus and Ithaka. In several respects this episode establishes some of the principal features that recur in the following instances, though it offers variations on others. The variations found here result from Athena's unique status as not only a goddess, but as the deity who sets in motion and directs so many of the plot's chief scenes. More specifically, she herself directs many of the recognition scenes, as first here. This initial instance of recognition is reversed: it is she who tests Odysseus (as will be true of Penelope in 23). It is she, and Ithaka, who are in disguise, she as a young herdsman, the island, shrouded in mist.
Because of its relevance to book 19, the question needs to be asked, can a mortal see through a disguise created by Athena? The answer here, even when the mortal is Odysseus himself, whom both Zeus (1.66-67) and Athena (13.297-98) declare most intelligent of all mortals, is clearly no. I suggest the same implication holds for other mortals in the poem, that they are unable to penetrate a disguise Athena makes, unless they see an explicit token, such as the scar. This is perhaps the poem's favorite irony: that which a given character most desires is now before him/her, but he/she cannot recognize it.
We turn now to Penelope's scene in book 19. It is worth noting that in all of the other recognition scenes (Eumaios, Telemakhos, Argos, Eurykleia, Philoitios, Laertes) no character has suspected that Odysseus is near, though this is the very thing they hope for. Those most eager for his return are at the same time least likely to believe he is before them. This is the pattern the Odyssey carefully establishes, its favored form of irony, and also employs in Penelope's interview with the mysterious stranger, which I argue, forms a counterpart, offering a number of parallels, with Eumaios's scene in book 14, the poem's two instances of postponed recognition (Fenik 1974, 155ff). Like Eumaios in books 14-15, Penelope has a lengthy interview with the disguised Odysseus in which he sees firm evidence of her loyalty. As with Eumaios, the interview results in a relationship established, trust between them, but as with Eumaios, recognition is postponed until a later episode.
Penelope's recognition in book 23, like Laertes's in book 24, is distinct from all the others in coming after the destruction of the suitors. Consequently they best typify the consummation of a romance, whereas all the other recognitions are partly hybrids, romance type-scenes with elements of the Odyssey's larger theoxeny (divine punishment of those who have violated hospitality) mixed in.
The Odyssey's larger plot employs several specific types of stories extant in other traditions as well. One of the largest, and most influential, in shaping and determining much of the narrative is Romance, extant in many other Greek myths, and in Genesis's depiction of Joseph in Egypt. Romances climax in recognition scenes, highly emotional encounters, twenty years having passed, which in many ways serve as a reward for the protagonist, recompense for his earlier sufferings, after he has completed his toils. Odysseus's last great labor, in the present time of the Odyssey, is the destruction of the suitors. The poem would clearly seem to arrange the recognition scenes around this act, presenting recognition scenes, for those who will aid him in slaying the suitors, before their destruction, but for the two family members who will not, Penelope and Laertes, after.