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The Odyssey - critical review

The Odyssey is the second epic poem attributed to Homer and explores the identity of one man: Odysseus. With this exploration comes an assessment of the human condition as a whole. The poem is not only a double story due to the juxtaposing plots of Odysseus returning home and his son Telemachus going away to find him but also a story that is filled with a multiplicity of tales which make up the plot of Odysseus as an individual. Odysseus himself is a different and unique hero to those in 'The Iliad', as he does not only have physical strength but is shown to be incredibly intelligent and tactical, portraying that intellectual skill is on an equal level of honour to physical. The poem is full of inconsistencies of conclusions: which I think is the reason for its attribute: it introduces questions on gender, human autonomy, the individual, and literature and narration itself that are still as relevant in today's society.

One could argue that the Odyssey maintains the idea that Homer is possibly displaying the idea that misogynism is a socially created construct and not naturally inherent. This can firstly be seen through the identity of Athene. In book one, her autonomy and authority can be automatically seen through her active urgency to Zeus and successful result to release Odysseus from his seven-year captive with the Goddess of Calypso. However, It is interesting to observe that when Athene comes into society to address Telemachus in the same book (1), in order to 'look like a visitor' she takes the appearance of a man, ('the Taphian chieftain Mentes'). The fact her new identity is male when entering the mortal world suggests it is necessary in order to be respected and listened to. It could be interpreted that through the fact the narrator maintains to address her as 'Athene' and 'she', it reminds the reader that she is still inherently feminine, it is only her appearance that has changed, and therefore proves that women have naturally have no less intellect and strength. This idea could be disregarded as Athene is a goddess, therefore necessarily more gifted, stronger and higher intellect, but the fact the immortals are still given genders may justify the point that it is a portrayal that women are no less able or potential than the natural form of man, but society has unjustly and naturally decided and pinned women with a lesser status than men. We see an example of this passivity through Penelope, who juxtaposing to her son Telemachus who actively goes out and searches for answers to Odysseus' whereabouts, stays in the same location as when Odysseus left, passively waiting for his return.

Furthermore, we further see this autonomy of immortal women throughout the poem, and as a whole, the importance of all women: both mortals and immortals. One way we can see this is through the use of clothing, in which women give their homemade clothes to wear. It was explored in a massolit course on the Odyssey as a claim of connection with the men, especially significant due to the commonality of men from far away settling with local women that came with the increase in the need to colonise and settle as the population increased in 7th century BC. However, I think this use of giving clothing is shown to be something more significant than just a symbol of connection, and instead shows the natural autonomy and influence that women have over men. This can be seen through the fact that both Calypso and the sea God Ino give Odysseus clothes which serve for different purposes, making an effect on his journey. It could be argued that this merely suggests women working for men's aims, but instead I would argue it suggests their power over the fate of him. Calypso's set of clothes given to him when he leaves assists him on his sail, and the Sea God Ino's veil protects him in the sea. If one were to look at the clothes as a metaphor, it can be justified that women are therefore portrayed as a means of influence, power, protection and survival, as he uses them both and without them, he would have been nakedly vulnerable to Poseiden's attack, possibly even resulting in his death. This power of women can further be shown by Nausicaa, a woman who seems halfway between goddess and mortal, in which she is described to look like "Artemis the Archeress" by the narrator and Odysseus questions if she is "some goddess". Nausicaa's autonomy and influence is shown through her act of saving and protecting Odysseus on the island of Phaeacians, and he declares to her that he will "pray" to her, as "it was you, lady, who gave me back my life." The passive verbs 'gave me' in referring to the position of Odysseus confirms this power of women. Moreover one could argue that Penelope potentially proves the importance of women not only to men but in society itself. It has been argued that Odysseus' journey home is the journey back to Penelope, in which the end Odysseus achieves the most intimate closeness and is in bed with Penelope. I think this interpretation is especially significant in looking at the autonomy of women due to the inclusion of so many other women and their temptations in Odysseus' story, as one could argue that his declining of all that is offered to him due to his wife Penelope ultimately shows she is in control of him and his decisions. This tension of control is shown evidently through Calypso's offering of immortality to Odysseus, and he declines in light of returning to Penelope and therefore remaining mortal. This is significant as it could be argued that through this, she ultimately defines his mortal life (through him not choosing to be immortal). Therefore, the fact she is at the height of his decisions, and possibly the especially significant goal for his homecoming, shows her, as well as all women's, autonomy and power, even though that could not be immediately recognised. Overall, therefore, alike to The Iliad, there seems to be a portrayal of power and authority of immortal women, but The Odyssey is unique through the idea that immortal women don't seem to be completely unique, as through Penelope there seems to be a portrayal of mortal women's power and authority over men's fate.

Moreover, the idea of immortal control over human fate is prevalent just as in The Iliad. This can be seen through Odysseus own fate, as the reason of his captivity is due to Poseiden's anger at him for blinding the Cyclops, and his release being due to the decision of Athene and ultimately, Zeus. However, immortal control can not only be seen through the wider fate of mortals but also their phycological state. In book five, it is stated that Odysseus would have 'come to an unpredestined end, if Athene had not given him a good idea.' Furthermore, in book 18 it displays that Athene 'put it into the head of Icarius' wise daughter Penelope to appear before the suitors.' The phrase 'given him a good idea' and 'put it into the head of' suggests this phycological accessibility that the Gods have over the mortals, suggesting complete control of the mortals.

However, despite this idea being present in the Odyssey, there also seems to be the idea of mortal autonomy throughout. Zeus, in the first dialogue of the poem, declares 'what a lamentable thing it is that men should blame the Gods and regard us as the source of their troubles, when it is their own transgressions which bring them suffering that was not their destiny" and gives the example of Aegisthus stealing Agamemnon's wife despite warnings from the God's, resulting in his death before it was fated to be. This is not an inconsistency with their control, but instead suggests the idea that despite mortals fates being predestined, they do have the potentiality to act against it and change it. This active engagement in what the God's have decided for individuals is shown through Odysseus' retreat from Calypso. Once Hermes has delivered the message to Calypso about the mortal's decision to allow him to leave her, she still gives him a choice of his decision: offering him immortality. His active decline of staying and receiving immortality, along with the building of his raft with his own hands suggests this human autonomy within the fate that the God's have decided. It suggests a malleable relationship with predestination, the idea that humans can either follow or disobey the planning of the immortals.

The end of the novel comments on this tension between immortal control and human autonomy even further, showing human control but ultimately displaying the immortal's superiority. The second part of the poem is Odysseus' venture in restoring power and taking revenge. This ultimately results in two factions and a civil war breaking out. However, Zeus sends a firebolt stopping the conflict as he causes collective amnesia causing them to forget what they were about to engage in, therefore preventing the war. A lecturer in a massolit course, along with many other critics (including Aristotle according to this lecture!) argues that this ending is artificial as it is not a true representation of reality, as civil wars do not just end because a God sends a thunderbolt. However, I think through looking at this thunderbolt as a metaphor, an argument can be created that it is not trying to show the naturalistic ending to a civil war, but instead both the agency needed that gives the human condition some power and the ultimate superiority of immortals or nature's law. Through taking away the memory of what was about to happen, it takes away human's power to ultimately take control and create our own reality. Through the suitor's and Odysseus' ability to remember, they take power and control against each other's lives as they want to protect or revenge something that has previously happened, meaning they are active over other's lives due to memory. However, when this is taken away, they are unable to do this. This strength of human memory is explored throughout the poem itself through much of Odysseus story being narrated by him retrospectively, showing the power one has over other's perceptions of yourself through his ability to recount (and possibly exaggerate) his skill and ability to both the Phaeacians and the listeners and readers of the poem of The Odyssey itself. Therefore, the ability of the God's to take this away from humans shows the ultimate superiority that they have to mortals, as they can retrieve something that gives humans power and control over both the reality of themselves and others. This idea can still be relevant in our secular society, as humans have autonomy and control within their lives, but are ultimately inferior to nature as natural illnesses can take away these abilities such as memory which give us our autonomy.

This idea leads on to the debate of individuality compared to the collective, and what the Odyssey is based on. One could argue that The Odyssey is merely a story of one man, Odyssey, and therefore focused on individuality. The opening to the book is the order to 'Tell me, Muse, the story of a man of many turns.' This idea then suggests that the Odyssey is based on only Odysseus, and his journey, or 'many turns', both in actuality and psychologically. This can be further justified through the juxtaposition of the focus on Odysseus with the description of the suitor's deaths, as they are narrated through the phrase 'one man hit the door post [..] another the solid door' which is used twice to describe two different pairs of men. Not only does the nameless noun phrase 'one man' and 'another' signify a lack of focus on them, but the fact that it is repeated to describe another series of deaths exaggerates fully this dismissal of identity compared to the focus on Odysseus. However, I think it is wrong to suggest that The Odyssey is merely based on one man, and instead it could be argued that through this focus on Odysseus, it is an exploration of a variation of humanity. This can be seen automatically through the description of Odysseus in book 1 that he 'saw the cities of many people and learned the minds of many men.' The phrase 'learned the minds of many men' suggests that Odysseus is made up of a variety of individuals that he has encountered on his journeys. This necessarily creates a variation in his character, which can be seen through the comparison of him to a wide range of animals: namely a lion (similar to Achilles in 'The Iliad), an octopus, a bat, and his own disguise as a ram when escaping the Cyclops. This variation in animals could, therefore, be interpreted as a display of all the different types of people included in his identity, as he "learned the minds" of many. Therefore, despite the poem being the focus of one man and his journey to home and survival of so many impossible situations, it is not just an exploration of one individual, but one of many different identities: as Odysseus adopts their features as he encounters them and they assist him on his journey. This perhaps is a comment on all human identities, as all people are made up of other individuals that they meet and encounter with on their individual journey through life.

The Odyssey is also a comment on literature and narration itself. In a massolit course, it pointed out that the Odyssey seems to show two worlds of Odysseus: one a third-person narration: in which Odysseus seems to be an epic and impressive warrior similar to those in the Iliad, and this is juxtaposed with his own narration, in which he seems to be more psychologically cunning. I think this is a comment on narration itself: as when Odysseus is narrating his experience himself, it could be argued that the reason for his more cunning portrayal is he wanted to display himself like this to his listener in the Island of the Phaeacians. This brings in questions of reliable narrative due to hidden agendas being possible in this way. This is exaggerated further through the fact that no one can justify his narration, as all the other men that were within these situations died in them. This idea of questionable reliability to the truth of what Odysseus is recounting is clear as he tells the Phaeacians about his journey to the underworld, as he gives a full catalogue of all who he met, including his mother and Achilles, the hero of 'The Iliad.' The Phaeacians interruption, in which they reflect on the superlative nature of this story and compare him to a poet, further suggests the idea that Odysseus is possibly exaggerating his stories. Significantly, the direct comparison of Odysseus to a poet could be interpreted as further suggesting not only his talent at speech-making but an idea of him fictionalising situations and suggests the possible superior aim of entertaining listeners over telling the exact truth. Therefore, just as Homer is telling a story not necessarily of a true man and his journey but as a symbol of mankind and the human experience, Odysseus may be recounting not a true replica of his story but instead a version that demonstrates the nature of the variety of his journey to safety. Obviously, Odysseus is a fictional character, and therefore his stories may be true in this sense, but there is the question, significantly brought up due to the juxtaposition of the third person and his own narrative, how reliable he is in terms of truth with the story of his journey. However, just as The Odyssey's fictional nature doesn't dismiss the importance of the story, the questionable narrative instead adds another depth to The Odyssey, as it demonstrates the subjectivity and personal nature of human experience.

To conclude, what stood out to me most prevalently when reading the 'The Odyssey' was the debates it presented through the story of one man. It looked at the idea of gender further, with the portrayal of women as autonomous and influential, despite the portrayal of their passivity that weakens them which is created artificially by society. Along with this, the idea of fate is explored through looking at the juxtaposition between the mortals and immortals, suggesting that despite immortals having ultimate power over mortals abilities, human's do have autonomy and control over their reality: as they can obey or disobey the wishes of the God's. This idea is demonstrated by Odysseus, as is most of the ideas and debates, which creates Odysseus to not only be a portrayal of the story of a single, unique and talented man, but also a synecdoche for the entire human race: in which he contains many different identities within him as he has developed through his journey. His narration of the story is so unique, and could be argued raises comments on the act of narration: as surely the cunningness of Odysseus plays a part in how he narrates his story, meaning how the story is told shows another level of him than what we are specifically told. These ideas of gender, fate, human autonomy, the development of an individual and the theory of narration still remain incredibly relevant topics and issues debated in society today, showing why Homer's work is so important and clever, as they still remain productive and vital to urge society to better understand the human condition.


website that contains lectures helping me to understand The Odyssey further:

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