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Free Study Guide-The Odyssey by Homer-Free Book Notes Summary
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THEMES

Major Themes

The major theme of this poem of action is stated in the Invocation to the Muse. The Muse is asked to speak about the adventures of "the man of many devices." Since the hero of The Odyssey is not named at this stage, it indicates that his story is a familiar one. It is true that Odysseus and the stories of his adventures and final vengeance on the suitors are central to this epic poem, as stated by the Muse, but The Odyssey is much more than a simple tale of adventure. Odysseus' character undergoes major changes through the narrative. In the adventures with the Cicones, the Laestrygonians, and the Cyclops, he is a typical Greek hero who is proud, even impatient, at times. By the end, when disguised as a beggar at Ithaca, he has to restrain his anger and patiently endure the impudent behavior of the suitors and the disloyal servants. Throughout the poem he has been continually tested, and his trials have taught him a lesson in humility and patience. In dealing with the suitors, he is not as reckless as he was when he entered the cave of the giant, Polyphemus. In the battle with the suitors, he is still not perfect, and Athena chides him for his weakness and does not let him win too easily. Even at the very end of the poem, the goddess intervenes against the proud Odysseus and prevents him from striking the suitors' kinsmen; the humbled Odysseus has no choice but to obey. Homer, the poet of action, proves through this epic drama that he also has great skill in developing characters. He gives meaningful insight into the changes that occur in Odysseus through his adventures. Odysseus' growth and maturation is, therefore, an important theme of the epic.

Another very important theme of The Odyssey is the relationship that Odysseus has to The Iliad. Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen relate episodes from the Trojan War to his son Telemachus. Nestor recounts the tale of his return to Pylos, whereas Menelaus tells of his own journey back to Sparta. Odysseus himself goes to the Hall of Hades and meets some of the warriors he has known during the Trojan fighting. He summons the ghosts with an offering of blood. Among those who appear are Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax. The parade of the ghosts of Troy provides a final curtain for great figures of The Iliad and of the heroic age. Later, when the ghosts of the suitors are escorted by Hermes to the land of the dead, they are also met by some of the heroes of The Iliad, notably Achilles and Agamemnon. The contrast between the two groups stresses what real heroes are and provides a final bow for the Iliadic heroes. It is not without reason, therefore, that this epic has been considered a sequel to The Iliad, for in The Odyssey the reader learns of the fate of the Iliadic characters. Agamemnon's cruel killing by Aegisthus especially highlights the danger that Odysseus may face in his own return.


The supernatural elements in the epic constitute another distinct theme. Foremost are the gods, who take part in the affairs of humans. Athena especially plays a crucial role in assisting Odysseus throughout the poem. She is there to aid in protect her hero in almost every adventure. Apart from the role of the gods, the supernatural element takes the form of omens, signs, and dreams. Telemachus and Peisistratus see an omen while leaving Sparta, and at Ithaca nearly all the characters witness omens. Penelope also dreams symbolic dreams. Both Circe and Tiresias prophesy, while Theoclymenus is a soothsayer who whole purpose in the epic is to forecast events and interpret signs. The last element of the supernatural is the role of fate. Many events take place because they are ordained, and it is interesting to witness this larger force in operation in this epic.

Telemachus' growth is also fundamental to the work. At the beginning, he is unhappy and helpless. His travels teach him to live and work like a hero, and, on Odysseus' return, he fulfills his duties as the son of a hero should. From a helpless young man who breaks into tears at an assembly, he transforms into a hero who nearly strings his father's bow. Moreover, he appears ready to compete with him in heroic capability. This development in his personality is undoubtedly one of the themes of the poem.

The theme of endurance is also central to the epic. It is one of Odysseus' chief characteristics, but it is what marks Penelope and makes her special. Because of her ability to endure, she knits the shroud by day and pulls out the stitches by night, never finishing the garment because she does not want to reject or to accept marriage. The first choice would endanger her son's life and go against her husband's wishes, for he told her to remarry if he did not return; the second choice would end her hope of reunion with her husband. It is this steadfastness and loyalty to her husband's memory that wins her praise from Agamemnon's soul.

Throughout the epic her behavior is contrasted with that of Clytemnestra, who caused her husband Agamemnon's death. Odysseus, not fully trusting women, is wary of Penelope's behavior in his absence; but Penelope proves to be loyal and enduring, and Odysseus need not fear her treachery. Penelope's endurance, accompanied by her chastity and courage, makes her heroic in her own right and forms yet another theme of The Odyssey.

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