Is Ulysses' positive side, seen in the love of travel and knowledge, more persuasive than his negative side, seen in the disowning of his subjects and family in Ulysses?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There is little doubt that this is a tough question.  It is so difficult because there is not a singular or clear answer to it.  Like Tennyson's construction of Ulysses, it is complex.  I would suggest that the answer depends largely on what one values.

Tennyson, himself, does not give a "moralistic" answer.  He does not make it easy for the reader.  He constructs a figure that is ragingly complex.  In doing so, one has to examine how Ulysses is developed.  Indeed, there is much in Ulysses where admiration can be found.  The opening line that speaks against an "idle king" is a part of this.  Ulysses is constructive enough to understand that he is not being of any real, tangible use back in Ithaca.  Telemachus has proven skilled enough to handle the responsibilities that are required as "he works his work."  At the same time, Odysseus wishes to avoid a condition in which he does not "shine in use."  Odysseus is afraid of wasting away, to a great extent.  He makes  clear that his experiences have left an imprint on him:  "I am a part of all that I have met."  Acting upon these becomes vitally important for him.  Odysseus' characterization in the poem is one that illuminates these qualities within him.

Yet, it is hard to leave the poem without a realization that he is unable to adapt to what life is from an emotionally intimate point of view.  Life at home is viewed in a negative light.  It is viewed as a mundane existence.  Odysseus offers little in way of emotional exploration with the people that he struggled mightily to reunite.  He hardly speaks of Penelope, whose faithfulness and sense of honor is not acknowledged.  He speaks of Telemachus in the previously mentioned professional tone.  Yet, Odysseus fails to see "the emotional odyssey" that can exist between the people in his life and his subjects.  He defines consciousness in external terms and not with an emotional understanding.  Odysseus could immerse himself in an emotional quest with others by hearing them, being with them, and living life in communion with them.  This is not mentioned.  Odysseus only defines being as an external notion of the good.  He stands at the end of the poem as what can be described as a "melancholic figure."  This helps to reinforce to me that the source of his melancholy is a forlorn condition that will remain with him.  Even if he sets off to voyages, he will always be alone.  With the abdication of emotional connection to his subjects and family, this is the image that remains in my mind and seems to overcome all else.

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