Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
2019

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Unit II: The Greek Epic

Week 7: Homer, The Odyssey
ca. 800 B.C.

Pallas Athena. Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Pallas Athena. Paris, Musée du Louvre. Photograph © Copyright, Bruce A. McMenomy

Please have read by your classtime this week:

I’d like to spread our discussion of the Odyssey out over three weeks, but, because it is a shorter work, I’m going to have you read it in two. For the last week, I’ll have you read the first chapter of Auerbach’s Mimesis which should help us tie up what we’ve been doing for the last number of weeks.

Given the narrative variety and richness of the work, I’m afraid there is no alternative to reading the whole thing: if you don’t cover it all, you will lose vital plot links. Before you panic, however, I should point out that, even in the original Greek, twelve books of the Odyssey is about the same length as eight books of the Iliad. The books themselves are notably shorter. In addition, the Rieu translation is in prose, and reads almost like a novel — which means it should go zipping along a little faster.

(If you saw the 1997 television production of the Odyssey, do everything within your power to forget it. The intrinsic faults of the production were only surpassed by the deliberate way in which the script managed to skirt, subvert, and destroy every theme Homer’s poem has to offer.)

In any case, I think you will find the story and the characters thoroughly engaging — it’s a rip-snorting good story, almost certainly more out-and-out fun than the Iliad. We can discuss whether or not it is on that account a greater poem or a lesser one. Some of what we will be doing will be comparing the Odyssey with the Iliad; there are also other matters involving structure and theme that we can consider. We have had less of a chance than I would have liked to consider some general Homeric issues, and the Odyssey poses a few of its own.

Consider these questions:

  1. How does Homer portray the poet and the poetic function here in the Odyssey as opposed to how he does the same thing in the Iliad? This was important in terms of the character of Achilles; it will also become important in looking at Odysseus and those who come afterward. Where do we see the poet? What is his task? What defines him as successful?
  2. How does the Odyssey compare to the Iliad as a work of literary art? Do you like it more? Less? Is this the same issue as their respective quality?
  3. What is the basic theme of this story? Is it as clear-cut as the story of the Iliad?
  4. What risks does Odysseus face? How does the poet introduce and delineate these risks, and what does he use as foils to the matter of Odysseus?
  5. What are some of the cultural/societal issues at stake here? What does the poem say about...
    • Hospitality?
    • Fidelity?
    • Property?
    • Marriage?