In The Odyssey, how does the character of Odysseus change from the beginning of his quest until the end?

In The Odyssey, the character of Odysseus changes from the beginning of his quest until the end by becoming more cautious and less arrogant. When Odysseus triumphs over the Cyclops Polyphemus, he displays triumphalist arrogance that puts himself and his men in danger. But when he returns to Ithaca, he's much more cautious in dealing with his enemies, his wife's suitors.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In truth, Odysseus's character doesn't undergo much of a change throughout his epic voyage. At the end of the poem, he's as much of a wily, fearless hero as he ever was. Nonetheless, some subtle changes can still be observed. One could say, for instance, that Odysseus is a little less rash and more cautious in his behavior after his arrival back home on Ithaca than he was earlier on.

Take, for instance, how he conducted himself after he and his men successfully made good their escape from the fearsome Cyclops Polyphemus. As Odysseus set sail from the Cyclops' island, he arrogantly taunted the giant, loudly and proudly proclaiming his identity. As it turned out, this was a big mistake. The stricken Cyclops implored his father, the sea-god Poseidon, to exact a terrible vengeance on Odysseus and his men. Poseidon duly obliges and makes life difficult for Odysseus and his crew as they continue on their voyage.

By the time Odysseus finally winds up on Ithaca, he appears to have learned his lesson. Instead of his previous arrogance and impetuosity, we witness much greater caution and self-control. One might've expected Odysseus to dash off to the royal palace at once and settle accounts with his wife's suitors. But he doesn't; he bides his time and carefully establishes the lay of the land before going to the palace. And even after he arrives there, Odysseus, in the disguise of a beggar, waits until the moment is right before springing into action and wiping out the men who've dishonored him and his home.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I'm honestly not sure that Odysseus does change very much during his travels.  It's true that, in the end, he does display prudence and patience while awaiting his opportunity to avenge the wrongs done to his home by the suitors. However, Odysseus has shown prudence and patience before, when necessary; these aren't really new qualities that he's developed. For example, when he's in Polyphemus's cave, he prudently realizes that, much as he wants to kill the monster, if he does so, he and his men will be trapped in the cave. He needed to discover a way to maim the monster without killing him so that the Cyclops could still move the boulder away from the door. Odysseus patiently awaits his chance to blind the monster, and he is successful in his plan. He also knows that he and his men cannot rush out the door when it is open, because the Cyclops will grab them. He patiently awaits the opportunity to leave, prudently tying himself and his men underneath Polyphemus's sheep rather than on top, where the monster's hand might feel them.

Likewise, prudence and patience are necessary when dealing with the suitors. If he rushes in, holding his sword aloft, the suitors could defeat Odysseus as a result of their greater numbers. Again, he must exercise these qualities—qualities he's had all along—because, if he doesn't, he could die. He is brash, and he does have bravado, and he hasn't always been prudent in all situations, but it is a characteristic he's possessed for a long time. Then, the manner in which he and Telemachus decimate the suitors' numbers surely gratifies that bravado, which he's always possessed as well.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To answer this question we need to understand that one of the key desires of Odysseus as a character, which is a desire that he shares with all Homeric heroes, is the desire to gain glory through his exploits and deeds. At various points through the text, we see the way in which Odysseus rather arrogantly ignores the advice of different characters or does what he thinks is best without thinking about the consequences of his actions and what might happen to both himself, and to his men, as a result. The best example of this is when, at the start of his wanderings, Odysseus was so focussed on gaining glory that he deliberately revealed who he was to the Cyclops, and as a result brought down calamity on both himself and his men because of Poseidon's special relationship to the Cyclops.

However, by the end of the story, when he reaches Ithaca, the way in which he deliberately bides his time and disguises himself as a beggar instead of rushing into his home and declaring who he was before the group of extremely hostile suitors shows how he has developed and changed. He is not the same glory-hungry individual who often committed rash and rather vacuous actions in order to gain kudos. Instead, he tempers this aspect of his character with the need for patience, and remains incognito until he has established his position and what men are loyal to him and he is ready to strike. The text therefore indicates that Odysseus as a character very definitely learns from his mistakes and develops during the course of the epic.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial