Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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What is a good topic in The Odyssey to write an eight-page research paper on?

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For a research paper, you can try discussing certain themes from The Odyssey. I will discuss two below.

1) Hospitality

This is one of the major themes of the story. Some questions to explore:

a) Should hospitality be regarded as a reciprocal arrangement?

b) If guests abuse their privilege, what recourse does the host have?

c) If the host in question is powerless to prevent her quests from taking further unwanted liberties with her person and property, should she resort to violence? If she cannot do so, should another party resort to violence on her behalf?

In the story, Odysseus' wife, Penelope, is powerless against the machinations of her suitors. They shamelessly consume food and drink at Odysseus and Penelope's expense, and they also appropriate every luxury in the couple's palace for their own. Here, you can refer to the text to help you provide examples for the suitors' despicable conduct.

With Odysseus missing and Telemachus weakened by his fear, Penelope is forced to repress her anger. Instead, she uses her wits to keep her suitors at bay. She resorts to trickery by telling them that she must finish Laertes' shroud before she can marry any of them. Each night, she unravels her work so that the shroud is never completed. For three years, she manages to trick her suitors with her story. Later, when she senses that Odysseus is nearby (in the guise of the beggar), Penelope becomes more confident. She proclaims that she will only marry the suitor who can wield Odysseus' bow successfully.

Of course, the beggar (being Odysseus) is the only one who can truly wield his bow. Upon being exposed as Odysseus himself, the long-suffering husband proceeds to slaughter all of Penelope's suitors. Now, the denouement raises interesting questions. The suitors' relatives demand restitution for the deaths. Are their claims valid? Is Halitherses' proclamation that the suitors received their just deserts a good argument? Essentially, we revisit the question of whether hospitality should be a reciprocal arrangement. Your answer to this can be used as a working thesis statement for your essay.

2) Loyalty/ Fidelity.

Loyalty is a main theme in The Odyssey, and in Penelope's case, loyalty is richly rewarded. In the story, servants who remain loyal are also presented in a positive light. Some questions to consider regarding this theme:

1) Does gender play a role in defining loyalty? How does Penelope's loyalty differ from her husband's conception of marital fidelity?

Compare and contrast Penelope's sexual fidelity and Odysseus' seemingly gratuitous sexual indulgence while he is away. At the same time, it can be said that Odysseus is loyal in his own way: he overcomes great odds to return home to his wife and son. Is it possible to reconcile the two differing standards of loyalty? 

2) How do loyal servants preserve familial integrity? In The Odyssey, Eurykleia is a minor character, but her influential position helps her convince Telemachus to stay with Penelope. When Odysseus returns, she is one of the original few who recognizes him through his disguise. For more information about this, please refer to Book 19.

Basically, you can discuss how Homer uses the differing types of loyalty to tell an engaging story and to provide a glimpse into ancient attitudes about love, family, and community.

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There are several topics that can be explored in a research paper on The Odyssey.

--The roles of the gods and goddesses

Certainly, there are many instances in which Odysseus cannot achieve what he does without divine intervention. Then, too, Odysseus is often impeded from a successful return by deities such as Calypso, who holds him for years. And, if Athena had not intervened (along with Zeus), Odysseus may have remained with Calypso.

--Odysseus as the model for the tragic hero

Interestingly, it was Aristotle himself who ascribed to Homer the beginnings of Athenian tragedy and comedy. While Achilles and Hector of the Iliad hint at the tragic hero, in the Odyssey, critics contend that the standards of tragedy later developed by Aristotle in his Poetics are demonstrated. 

Thus, using the Poetics as the framework, a paper could develop an analysis of the Odyssey as containing certain elements of tragedy. Clearly, Odysseus is heroic as he is among those who have taken their share of plunder from the Trojans. However, he is the only one who does not return home. And so begins his long journey homeward in which he must struggle against wicked men and interfering deities. Moreover, even when he reaches home, he is met with insult and must conquer enemies there.

In tragedy, Aristotle declared,
a) The intention must be "to express true fact under impossible combinations."
b) "The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of tragedy. Character holds the second place."

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One interesting paper topic would be Homer's portrayal of father-son relationships, concentrating on the relationship between Telemachus and Odysseus. When the epic starts, Telemachus has never met his father and does not know he's alive, but, with Athena's inspiration, he begins to search for news of his father and matures as a result. The first four books of the epic concentrate on Telemachus's maturation from a daydreaming boy to a more confident young man who is willing to take on the suitors. How does Telemachus come of age, and how does his relationship with his father and their eventual reunion support or complicate his maturation?

Another interesting potential topic is the role of women in Homer's epic. Athena, a goddess, is a strong character who motivates and inspires both Telemachus and Odysseus. Penelope is strong in her own way, though she shows greater use of passivity. They both use deception--Penelope by knitting and unknitting a shroud that she says she must finish before choosing to marry one of the suitors--and Athena through using disguises for herself and for Odysseus. Goddesses such as Calypso model another form of being a woman. What is Homer suggesting is the proper role of a women in Greek society, and what kinds of power do women possess?

The use of deception is another idea for a paper, as the use of deception helps Athena, Penelope, and Odysseus defeat the suitors. Deception has both physical aspects (for example, Athena's use of disguises) and psychological aspects (for example, Odysseus's appearing weak before the suitors), and a paper could examine how characters use deception to defeat more powerful opponents and obstacles.

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