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Free Study Guide-The Odyssey by Homer-Free Book Notes Summary
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BOOK 11

Summary

Odysseus relates the details of his journey to Hell. After crossing Oceanus, the river at the end of the world, he and his crew come to the place that Circe had told them about. They perform sacrifices to the mighty Hades and to Persephone. Many spirits of the dead come to drink the blood of the sacrificed animals, but Odysseus keeps them away as he awaits Tiresias. The first spirit to come is the recently deceased Elpenor, followed by Anticleia, Odysseus' mother. Then Tiresias' spirit arrives. After drinking the blood, the seer prophesies Odysseus' future and advises him on his upcoming journey. If he does as directed, he will eventually arrive at Ithaca alone and take revenge on the suitors, but he will not be able to rest until he has appeased Poseidon. After Tiresias has spoken, there is a compassionate scene in which Odysseus talks to his dead mother. He also sees the spirits of many famous women, including Phaedra, Ariadne, and Leda, and hears their respective stories.

Odysseus stops his narrative here and asks the Phaecians to let him retire for the night. Alcinous, however, is eager to hear about the other spirits that Odysseus might have met. Odysseus continues his story and tells of his conversations with Agamemnon and Achilles and of the sight that Tityos, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Heracles presented. After Heracles departs, myriad tribes of the dead throng up together, making a great clamor, and Odysseus is scared that Gorgon, a monster of the underworld, might appear as well. He asks his men to mount the ship, and they sail away down the river of Oceanus, leaving the Hall of Hades behind.

Notes

Odysseus sails to the edge of the world and meets many ghosts, among them some chief figures in The Iliad. Agamemnon has been murdered by his wife, in marked contrast to Odysseus, whose faithful Penelope holds out bravely against the suitors. While shedding no new light on his personality, his story emphasizes the dangers that await those who return from Troy. Ajax, in a brief appearance, adds a new dimension to his simple character in The Iliad. In the interval, he has killed himself, because his honor has been wounded by Odysseus. Odysseus does his best to appease him, but Ajax takes no notice and does not answer. Achilles is the most striking figure and his poetic words have a deep impact. He says that he would rather work on the land as a serf than reign over all the perished dead. His son Neoptolemus is his only consolation, as he has turned out to be a stout warrior. These three ghosts form a link with The Iliad, and when Odysseus speaks to them, he speaks to his peers, as he does nowhere else in The Odyssey.


The main purpose for which Odysseus enters the world of the dead is to consult the ghost of the seer Tiresias. Tiresias says very little about the immediate future, except in warning Odysseus not to eat the cattle of the sun god Hyperion at Thrinacia. However, he does give him a precise forecast of his last days and quiet ending, with advice on the ritual that will appease Poseidon. In earlier versions, Tiresias might have said more than this and his warning about the cattle might only be a part of a larger set of warnings and forecasts. These are transferred to Circe instead. When Odysseus comes back to her, she will give him a careful and lengthy forecast of the dangers that lie before him. This device keeps Circe powerful, but at the cost of a lengthy "pre-vision" of what will come soon afterwards. Everything happens according to plan, but without the element of surprise.

This Book possesses a distinctive epic style. The tales of famous mortals and gods add color and give the reader a glimpse of the background against which Odysseus operates. Through Agamemnon's story, Odysseus learns that he must be discreet when he reaches Ithaca, and he is. Penelope is once again contrasted with Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife; it is once again states that Penelope has been loyal to her husband. It is still emphasized, however, that women are not generally trustworthy.

Apart from the variety of mortals, god, and destinies, there are some moving scenes in this Book, especially when Odysseus meets his mother. He wishes to embrace her but cannot, as she is merely a spirit, and the reader feels sympathy for his pathetic plight. Overall, however, this Book describes Odysseus as admirable for the courage he shows in reaching the Hall of Hades and facing the dead.

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