Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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Book I
Examine the various epithets that are constantly associated with the various characters: “thoughtful” Telemachus; “circumspect” Penelope; “resourceful,” “enduring,” and “godlike” Odysseus; and so on. What function do these epithets serve other than as formulaic constructions used in the oral poetic medium? How are these epithets appropriate to the characters associated with them? When are they not appropriate?

Book II
Examine the arguments made by each speaker at the Ithacan assembly. How do the characters’ speeches reflect their individual personalities? Analyze both what the characters say and the manner and mood in which they say it. How do the styles and rhetorical strategies employed by the various speakers compare and contrast with one another? How are these similarities and differences significant? What conclusions can we draw about the speakers’ character traits as depicted in their speech?

Book III
Examine Nestor’s personality and character. What distinguishes him from other characters who serve as storytellers during the course of the narrative? What distinguishing features mark his speech? What is the general impression of his character that is given in the Odyssey? What means does Homer employ in order to achieve this impression?

Book IV
Scholars have dubbed the first four books of the Odyssey as the “Telemachy,” for the books deal almost exclusively with the journeys of Telemachus. In what ways are these books an appropriate introduction to Homer’s work? In what ways are the books an inappropriate introduction? Note the many references to Odysseus in these books. What picture do we have of him before he even walks onto the stage in Book V? Is our view of him negative or positive? How does the picture we have of him coincide with the later Odysseus who appears in the poem?

Book V
Examine several of the epic similes found in this and other books of the Odyssey. Identify each element in the simile and its relation to elements (characters, events, objects, etc.) in the narrative proper. What emotions, moods, and other factors can we elicit from the epic simile that were not present in the direct description of the element itself? Are these new feelings appropriate to the events that surround the simile? Does the simile enhance the narrative or distract us from it?

Book VI
Compare the various comic aspects of Book VI with parallel passages in the poem of a more serious nature. Look, for example, at Odysseus’ decision-making, Athene’s enhancement of beauty, and epic similes. How is the mocking of previous conventions more effective than simply inventing new narrative techniques for comic action?

Book VII
Examine the many scenes of hospitality in the Odyssey. How are they similar? How do they differ? What is significant about these differences? What commentary does each episode offer concerning the responsibilities of guest and host, such as gift-giving, nourishment, etc. What is the relationship between this motif and the distasteful situation occurring in Odysseus’ home during his absence?

Examine the character of Demodocus in Book VIII. What information does Homer relate to us concerning his profession? How did professional bards survive? Note Penelope’s attempt to silence Phemius in Book I. What is significant about Telemachus’ defense of Phemius’ behavior, and how does this defense relate to Demodocus later in the narrative?

Book IX
Book IX is the first section of a four-part narrative told by Odysseus himself to the Phaeaceans. What are the differences between Odysseus’ narrative technique and that of the main narrator of the Odyssey? What are the similarities between the two? Does Odysseus’ depiction of himself coincide with that of the main narrator? Explain the significance of your findings.

Book X
The loyalty of Odysseus’ crew is constantly in flux. Sometimes they follow him unswervingly, and other times they refuse to obey him and even conspire against him. Examine these critical moments throughout Odysseus’ narrative. How significant are these moments in the plot’s overall progression? What message are both Odysseus and Homer himself trying to drive home to their audiences by means of these many examples of loyalty and disloyalty?

Book XI
Throughout the Odyssey, Odysseus’ curiosity is one of his most endearing traits. Note the conflict between fear and curiosity that he experiences throughout Book XI. What do we learn about his character here? Does his curiosity ever seem obsessive? When do we see his curiosity in a negative light, and when do we see it in a positive light?

Book XII
Examine Odysseus’ relationship to the supernatural universe surrounding him. At what moments does he lack control over his surroundings? At what moments does he seem in command of his own fate and that of his companions? What message may we infer from Homer’s treatment of Odysseus’ relationship with the gods? What do we learn about the poet’s views on human nature and its interaction with forces beyond its control?

Analyze the scenes where Odysseus employs deception in Books IX-XIII. What do we learn about Odysseus’ character through his use of deception, disguise, and false storytelling?

Book XIV
Examine Odysseus’ second story about the mantle. What is significant about his depictions of both himself (the real Odysseus) and his persona in the narrative? Where do the ironies lie when we consider the fact that Odysseus himself is telling this false story? What insights do we gain about Odysseus through his telling of this story?

Book XV
Consider the present status of Eumaeus the swineherd. What new dimensions are added to his character by his life story? In what ways is he similar to the Phoenician slave? In what ways does he differ from her? What is significant about these similarities and differences? What is Homer trying to say about the status and duties of household slaves in the Greek world of his day?

Book XVI
Examine the three speeches given by suitors in Book XVI (Antinoös [364–392], Anphinomus [400–405], and Eurymachus [435–447]). Of what is each attempting to convince their audiences? What rhetorical strategies are employed by each to persuade their audiences? What do we learn about these characters from their respective speeches?

In Book XVII, we see once more a contrast between Eumaeus, the model servant, and the other, disloyal servants. In what ways do Melanthius and other servants casually referred to in the narrative differ from Eumaeus? What is the significance of Eumaeus’ own commentary on the matter? What does Homer imply through his treatment of servants in Book XVII?

In Book II, Antinoös made angry allegations concerning Penelope’s deceitful behavior. How do the events of Book XVIII support his suspicions? Why does Odysseus react as he does to Penelope’s actions? How do we better understand the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope through the events of this chapter? What is Homer’s attitude toward Penelope’s behavior? In what way does the poet want his audience to perceive her?

Book XIX
Analyze Penelope’s dream of the eagle and the geese. What links the imagery in the dream with other symbols in the Odyssey? What is curious about Penelope’s attitude toward the geese in the dream? What do her actions in the dream seem to suggest? What is odd about her request to have Odysseus interpret the dream? What is ironic about their discussion of the dream?

Book XX
With the arrival of Philoitius we have another perspective on the role of the loyal servant. Examine Philoitius’ speeches to Odysseus. What do we learn about his character through his stories? What are the options he has to consider? What is significant about each of his options? What makes his decision so crucial to Odysseus’ assessment of his loyalty?

Book XXI
Examine Penelope’s contest in some detail. What is significant about the suitors’ failure to string the bow? What is significant about their reactions to their own failures? Look particularly at the speeches made by Eurymachus, Leodes, and Penelope herself? How do these serve to make the competition of the utmost importance to all involved?

Examine Homer’s use of poetic justice in Book XXII. How do certain characters’ deaths recall past incidents or foreshadowing presented earlier in the narrative? Analyze the deaths of Antinoös and Melanthius particularly. How do the manner of their deaths recall earlier episodes involving them? Also explore characters whose deaths seem inappropriate. To what extent are we meant to sympathize with
characters whose deaths appear unjust (e.g. Leodes and Amphinomus)?

In what ways does Odysseus’ revelation of his identity to Penelope differ from other such disclosures? In what ways is this occurrence similar to other scenes like it? Trace the motif of the revealed identity from Odysseus’ announcement to the Phaeaceans all the way to Penelope in Book XXIII (and Laertes in Book XXIV). What makes each scene distinct from the others? What makes these distinctions significant?

Critics have noted the rather abrupt ending of the Odyssey. Do you think the finale of the poem is complete, or do there seem to be events missing? Explain your answer, drawing upon the preceding events of the poem and the foreshadowing they provide. What events will occur after the poem’s end? How is it appropriate or inappropriate to the nature of this poem for the narrative to end with much yet to be accomplished (e.g. Teiresias’ suggested voyage)?

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