Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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What is a negative characteristic of Odysseus, other than being proud and fame-seeking, in Homer's Odyssey?

Negative characteristics of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey include unfaithfulness to his wife, poor leadership, selfishness, and recklessness.

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In addition to the characteristics noted in the question, I think Odysseus displays extreme levels of brutality and bloodthirstiness in the Odyssey , particularly in book 22 when he takes his revenge. His response to Eurymachus's plea for mercy (which comes with a proposition that the suitors recoup all the...

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In addition to the characteristics noted in the question, I think Odysseus displays extreme levels of brutality and bloodthirstiness in the Odyssey, particularly in book 22 when he takes his revenge. His response to Eurymachus's plea for mercy (which comes with a proposition that the suitors recoup all the damages they had inflicted on Odysseus's property) is wholesale slaughter. Furthermore, after the suitors themselves had been killed, Odysseus rounds up the disloyal serving-women, and orders them executed in brutal fashion. There would have been a very severe power imbalance between the servants and the suitors. The suitors are powerful men from powerful families, within a patriarchal culture and society that highly favors men to begin with. Note also, as an added wrinkle worth being aware of: there are some translations that explicitly refer to these women as slaves.

Furthermore, you might also criticize Odysseus's vengeance on purely pragmatic grounds. After all, remember that the suitors were the elite, from powerful families with powerful friends, and Odysseus just murdered them all to achieve his vengeance (while rejecting any offers or overtures of reconciliation). From a purely political calculus, this decision shows poor judgment on Odysseus's part, as it creates a litany of potential enemies from among the suitors' friends, allies, and supporters, who will seek vengeance against Odysseus himself. Note, also, that this outcome is precisely what follows from Odysseus's actions, and it is only through divine intervention that further violence is averted.

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Many criticisms of Odysseus made by modern readers are anachronistic. His pride and fame-seeking would have been regarded as necessary conditions for heroism by an ancient Greek. It is also worth remembering that he is portrayed more positively in the Odyssey than he is in other sources, such as the Iliad or Sophocles's play Philoctetes. However, the following points from the Odyssey may be taken as negative characteristics:

  • Odysseus is unfaithful to his wife, Penelope, who is waiting patiently and fending off suitors to remain faithful to him. He takes ten years to make the short journey from Troy to Ithaca, including his year-long affair with Circe and his seven years with Calypso.
  • Odysseus is an ineffective leader. He does not command the respect of his men, who continually disobey him, releasing the winds from the bag Aeolus gave him and slaughtering the Cattle of the Sun. Odysseus fails to keep his men in order and does not bring a single one of them back with him to Ithaca. He is too selfish to care much about this failure.
  • Odysseus is reckless and boastful. He values his reputation more highly than the safety of his men and the achievement of his mission. This is most obvious when he calls out his name to Polyphemus as he is escaping from the island of the Cyclopes.
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One of Odysseus’ negative characteristics is that he is stubbornly selfish. Odysseus act stubbornly selfish in a few ways.

The first is during the adventure with the Cyclops in book 9. Odysseus takes some men with him to get water and provisions from the neighboring land. Once inside the cave, the crew finds cheese, lambs, and kids. The crew wants to take these items and leave at once (having learned their lesson with the Cicones); however, Odysseus wants to stay and see who lives there and what kind of guest-gift he might receive from his host. So they stay, and experience the horrors of watching the Cyclops, Polyphemus, eating six of their men and being blinded, all because Odysseus wants his gift. (9.251-259) or Book 9, lines 251-259.

After escaping Polyphemus’ cave and once on his ship, as they are sailing away, Odysseus feels that he has to taunt the Cyclops. His men try to calm him down and stop him, but Odysseus is stubborn and continues to call out his taunts to Polyphemus, putting his crew in harm's way again because Polyphemus is hurling boulders towards the ship. (9.531-583).

We see Odysseus’ negative characteristic of being stubbornly selfish return in the next book during the adventure with Circe. Half of Odysseus’ men go to Circe’s palace and are turned into pigs. Odysseus rescues them. Circe turns his men back into humans and tells Odysseus to invite his remaining crew to come and rest and eat. Odysseus tells his remaining men to follow him back to Circe’s palace, and one of the men, Eurylochus, refuses, saying that Circe will harm the men and that they should just go home. Instead of listening to Eurylochus, Odysseus, being stubborn and selfish, gets angry and wants to harm Eurylochus for speaking against him and his plan. The men, including Eurylochus, agree to follow Odysseus to Circe’s palace, where they stay an entire year. (10.466-494). It isn’t until his men beg him to leave for home that Odysseus thinks of leaving. “Their urging brought my stubborn spirit round” (10.524).

This is according to the Robert Fagles version.

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