I have never thought of Odysseus as a hero in the modern sense. He is nothing like what modern (late 20th and early 21st century which is, it can be argued, postmodern) sensibilities require in a hero. For every instance of his wiliness or feats of strength there are several of venality, vice, cruelty, or selfishness. The episode of the Cyclops (Book IX) is one example. The only reason why Odysseus stays to see the Cyclops is that he wants the bragging rights of claiming a guest-gift from him. If he had swallowed his pride and either just stolen some cheeses from the Cyclops, as his men urged him, or simply walked away without food, many lives would have been saved. Several men were devoured by the Cyclops in front of his eyes simply because of Odysseus’ pride.
While Odysseus’ many adventures are very exciting, he spent a very long time cheating on his wife (with Circe and Calypso) and seemed to not take his wedding vows very seriously (although at this time I’m not sure men were required to vow that they would be faithful to their wives!) But for me, the worst thing Odysseus did was killing all the maids in his house, upon his return. They had sided with the suitors, it is true, but they were bound handmaidens and were just probably trying to side with who they thought would be the winners. When Odysseus killed the trapped (and unarmed) suitors it was bad enough (Book 22) – they were strong men and warriors who were bent on killing him, but they at least had somewhat of a chance to fight back or get away – but for Odysseus to make the maids clean up all the blood, and then to hang them all, was just horrific. It’s true they were disloyal, but he could have beaten them and sent them away – it seems excessive to me to hang them. But, probably, Odysseus was only abiding by the rules and practices of his time.
But I am looking at it from an entirely modern point of view, and judging Odysseus by the standards of my day, not his. This is a dangerous and not a very meaningful exercise when considering a (possible) historical figure; especially one preserved in a poetic and, we assume, somewhat fictionalized account. In the time of the so-called Heroic Age (roughly the Mycenaean Age, the time of the Trojan War, 1200-1100 BCE or thereabouts) standards were much, much different, and some of them, at least, for very good reasons. Probably by those standards (or the standards of Homer’s time, some 400 years later) Odysseus was much closer to a paragon than he is in our eyes. It is certain that in the Hellenic world the double sexual standard was the rule; while the warriors were off to battle they were free to have affairs with women (and even while they were at home), while the wives at home were required to be faithful, so that aspect would probably not have bothered Homer’s hearers. Odysseus also did several things which people of his time would have thought very heroic, and might have justified or ameliorated his venal or cruel acts; Odysseus was very instrumental in winning the Trojan War, which was a point of honor for the Achaeans (and probably had a favorable effect on trade for Greece, too), he made it home, against horrible odds, alive after a long absence, and was strong enough (and favored enough by the gods) to defend his home and reestablish himself and his house as the rulers of Ithaca. This re-assertion of the social order after a long war, and Odysseus’ ability to be just pious enough when it mattered, would have been comforting and heroic to Homer’s listeners; or at least some Greek scholars think so.
It’s hard to know much about a time so far removed from us, and almost everything we know is by induction (reasoning out the mores and standards of the day from the actions of particular heroes in possibly fictional situations) rather than historical accounts of what was acceptable and admirable and what was not. So, my answer is that, in my mind Odysseus is not particularly likable and not that much of a hero, but to his or Homer’s contemporaries I believe he was both heroic and admirable.
My students said NO WAY!
Yes, they found him wily and clever, but they did not find him admirable at all.
Here are a few reasons:
When Odysseus is "stuck between Charybdis and Scylla," he chooses NOT to tell his men about the impending danger because he knew they would become panicked and would put the entire crew and the ship in danger; instead, he said nothing, hid himself below, and allowed 6 men to be eaten!
They also did not like the fact that he was so "unhappy" with Calypso...yeah right. The laughed at the fact that throughout that portion of the poem he claims he does not love her but that he "makes" him sleep with her every night!
Overall, they loved the story though!
No, Odysseus is not an admirable hero because he makes rash decisions to put his crew mates and himself in jeopardy. One example would be when after stabbing Polyphemus the cyclopes in the eye and escaping, he shouts back to the cyclopes giving away his position and almost causing a ship wreck. Although, the cyclopes misted him, Odysseus spills his name dooming all of his men.
Odysseus seems to be a hero in his own eyes, and although he has a rough sense of justice, the actions he commits seem fitting to him.
A Hero is someone who is constantly vying for the prevalence of the greater good. But Odysseus' interpretation of the greater good is much different at times, from ours as the readers.
In book 12, Circe tells him how to navigate Scylla and Charbdyis, and while he does end up not responding to the men who do get snatched up, he shows remorse.
When the end of the suitors and Melanthius comes, as much as we as readers think he goes way overboard in his revenge, this is how he sees justice in his house.
O is a hero, timeless and controversial. So there.