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Free Study Guide-The Odyssey by Homer-Free Book Notes Summary
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OVERALL ANALYSES

CHARACTER ANALYSIS

Odysseus

Odysseus is driven to many wanderings during which he sees many wonders and endures many sufferings. Part of the poet's theme is the vicissitudes that have fostered the hero's multi-faceted character. Yet, Odysseus' adventures are not random, for they reach a goal that in him implies unity of character. Many various strands, however, are interwoven to reveal the various traits of this hero. He can be clever, as seen when he tricks the Polyphemus by calling himself No-Body. He can be deceitful, as seen when he disguises himself as a beggar in Ithaca. He is always enduring, as seen in his refusal to give up during any of his struggles. The cleverness, deceitfulness, and endurance combine to help Odysseus survive.

Odysseus also has an eye for wealth and adventure, traits that are common to all Homeric heroes. He welcomes the Phaecian gifts with unconcealed pleasure and enthusiasm; he is also pleased to see Penelope trick the suitors into presenting her with gifts. Just as he welcomes riches, Odysseus also welcomes adventure, often seeking it out. He chooses to go to Polyphemus' cave and refuses to plug his ears, for he wants to hear the song of the Sirens. In truth, it is a search for wealth and glory that causes Odysseus to ever leave home.

A wide variety of epithets are used to describe Odysseus. He is "wise hearted," "bold," "glorious," and "god-like," but is also "son of Laertes" and "Ithacan." The latter two epithets are more basic to the story. The former traits are seen in the suitor-slaying episode, where Odysseus starts with something like Achilles' unforgiving wrath and spurns Eurymachus' plea for forgiveness. His anger, unlike Achilles', however, does not last. He spares the herald Medon and the bard Phemius, and he forbids Eurycleia to whoop in triumph over the dead.

Odysseus' dual character, as both wise man and hero, persists in the climax. After long trials, Odysseus realizes the value and sanctity of home. The sanctity of these ephemeral securities can only be understood by a man like him who can measure them in the context of the wide world - its perils, glories, and temptations. He is the hero, defending the last human possibility, and the epithets "Ithacan" and "son of Laertes" assert that he is not simply vindicating common civil order. In having seen the underworld and renouncing Calypso's proffered immortality, he alone has fully regained what the other fated Iliadic heroes lost. In the climactic suitor-slaying scene, he acts as a powerful man, but he also understands as the tested man.

Penelope

The trait of endurance that marks Odysseus is mirrored in his wife Penelope, who is unwilling either to reject or to accept marriage. The former choice would endanger her son's life and property, while the latter would end her hope of reunion with her husband. It is for this loyalty to her husband's memory that she is praised in comparison to Clytemnestra's infidelity. Like her husband, Penelope is also seen as clever. She is able to trick the suitors and delay a decision of marriage by carefully knitting Laertes' shroud by day and removing the stitches at night. Since the shroud is never finished, she is able to postpone a decision about matrimony.


Penelope does not allow herself to sink into black despair at the thought of Odysseus' misfortune. She rises from her inertia when the time comes for action and decision. She appears before the suitors and announces that she will marry the one who can string Odysseus' bow and send the arrow through the twelve axes. Her primary purpose is to try and get rid of the suitors and to buy time, for she knows that none of them can pass the test.

While her suffering does chasten her out of superficial optimism, it does not, however, sink her into an incapacitating melancholy. Though she doubts the beggar's prediction about Odysseus' homecoming, she acts upon it, declaring her intention of marrying the man who can string Odysseus' bow. This expresses her inspired compromise between doubt and hope, between her memory of Odysseus' old command and her faith in today's signs. Her thoughts and dreams each night oscillate between duty and desire, and she neglects neither.

Penelope is not just heroic, beautiful, chaste, and commanding; she is also human and sometimes filled with doubt. She loves her son and is anxious for his safety. It is for his sake, in fact, that she even thinks of remarrying. She is also doubtful, especially about Odysseus' return. Even after he reveals himself to her, Penelope wants proof, which he provides in knowing about the olive tree bed.

In characterizing Penelope, Homer gives up his normal device of describing characters through their setting. As with Achilles, Homer penetrates her mind. The mystery of her girl-like laughs, her impulsive appearances before the suitors, her beautifying sleep, and her wish to die speak of her complete inwardness, which is seen even through the last scene. In this respect, she offers a striking contrast to Odysseus, whose responses are conveyed through his setting and through what he sees around him. Homer also paints Penelope at a higher level than most of his female characters, who are described as shallow and unfaithful.

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