The Odyssey Odyssey
by Homer

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(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Odyssey c. Eighth Century B.C.

Greek poem.

For information on the Iliad, see CMLC, Volume 1.

The Odyssey is considered one of the greatest literary achievements of Western civilization. Composed of twenty-four books totaling over 12,000 lines, it details the wanderings of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and focuses on his honor, bravery, resourcefulness, and nobility. Although the Odyssey has been deemed inferior to Homer's other epic, the Iliad, by many critics, it has been praised for its structural sophistication, thematic consistency, and complex characterization.

Plot and Major Characters

The story of the Odyssey begins ten years after the fall of Troy, during which interval Odysseus has been trying to return to Ithaca, where his wife, Penelope, is faithfully waiting for his return. The reader is first introduced to the hero, Odysseus, in Book V, near the end of his seven-year captivity by the goddess Calypso. Under Zeus's orders, Calypso releases Odysseus, who, after building an improvised boat, resumes his journey home. Along the way Odysseus stops at the island of Phaeacia, where he meets the young princess Nausicaa and recounts to the Phaeacians his adventures during the first three years after the Trojan War— with the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, and the Sirens. Odysseus sets out to sea again and upon his arrival in his kingdom discovers that Penelope is being courted by suitors who are also plotting to kill his son, Telemachos. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus mingles with the suitors in his palace, talks with Penelope, and is recognized by his old nurse, Eurycleia. He is also reunited with Telemachos, and together they plan their revenge against the suitors. Penelope, longing for Odysseus's return but realizing that she can no longer delay replying to the suitors' marriage requests, decides to hold a bow-and-arrow contest and offers herself as the prize. The suitors try in vain to string Odysseus's bow, and finally Odysseus (still dressed as a beggar) steps forward to try. He succeeds, revealing his identity, and together he and Telemachos kill the suitors; Odysseus then approaches Penelope, who is still not convinced that he is truly her husband. As a final test to determine if her husband has really returned home, Penelope asks Odysseus a question about their marriage bed, and his correct answer proves his identity. They go to their bed, make love, and exchange stories of what has happened since they were last together. Odysseus then resumes his place as King of Ithaca and restores peace to his kingdom.

Major Themes

The central theme of the Odyssey is that of disguise and recognition. The clearest example of this is Odysseus's concealment of his identity from his friends and family in Ithaca and the subsequent private scenes of recognition that structure the second half of the poem. Odysseus reveals his identity to a number of characters in the poem: his son, Telemachos, who then makes plans to help him kill the suitors; his dog, Argus, who recognizes his scent and dies from the excitement of his master's return home; his nurse, who sees the scar on his thigh by which she recognizes Odysseus as she bathes him; his wife, Penelope, who is cautious to believe he has returned; his father, Laertes, who regains physical and emotional strength upon his son's return home; and the suitors, who are punished for their selfish and underhanded actions during Odysseus's absence. Sheila Murnaghan has noted that, furthermore, "the reunions of these characters with Odysseus involve these characters' own shedding of disguise and recognition as well as his." Laertes, for example, sheds his rags and the weakness of old age upon Odysseus's return, becoming the strong patriarch that Odysseus left behind twenty years earlier. Telemachos also undergoes a change, but, unlike that of Laertes, it is not a recovery of a previous state but growth into a new state of maturity. The complex nature of the two main characters, Odysseus and...

(The entire section is 143,455 words.)