Odyssey Essay Test Questions
Argue against the claim that The Odyssey ought to be read as a tragedy because of all the pain inflicted upon its protagonist, Odysseus.
Although Odysseus' name means "Son of Pain" and he is made to suffer greatly before achieving his nostos (homecoming), the fact remains that he ultimately does achieve nostos. When he returns to Ithaca, he finds that his immediate family has remained faithful to him, and is able to reclaim his rightful place as the king of Ithaca. Although the amount of hardship he has had to endure may make such an outcome seem implausible, the implausibility is better explained by the epic nature of the work, rather than by calling it a tragedy.
Works like The Odyssey offer us insight into the customs and beliefs of the ancient cultures that produced them. Describe one such custom that The Odyssey makes clear was important in ancient Greece.
One example of such a custom is that of hospitality: it was thought that guests might always be gods in disguise, and therefore ought to be treated with the utmost respect. To this end, guests were often fed, clothed, and so forth, prior to the host asking after their lineage and purpose in their land.
Is Odysseus a just man? Provide evidence to support your answer.
Although Odysseus has character flaws and may not hold what we consider a modern conception of justice, he does seem to act justly in most regards. He only deceives Polyphemus after Polyphemus has rejected the custom of a guest-gift and eaten several of Odysseus' men; he only disguises himself in Ithaca in order to test his family and the suitors. And, perhaps the most important piece of evidence in favor of his being just, he only punishes those servants and suitors who wronged his household while he was away; he lets the innocent live.
Discuss fidelity in the poem. Was Odysseus faithful to his household?
Although Odysseus has many affairs on his journey home, the implication is always that he had to do so in order to progress towards home; there were many moments when it would have been easier for him to give up or surrender, but he never truly lost sight of home. (The year he spent with Circe might be seen as a counterexample to this; nonetheless, the fact remains that he returned to his quest and did not forsake his homeland). At minimum, it is evident that the text's notion of fidelity is not reducible to something as simple as sexual relations.
Discuss fidelity in the poem. Was Odysseus' household faithful to him?
Many servants of Ithaca betrayed Odysseus and sided with the suitors, but the "principle players" of his homeland -- the Swineherd, Telemachus, Penelope, Argos, and Laertes -- remained faithful to him despite his absence. This fidelity is symbolized best by Argos, who seemingly staved off death until he could see his master home safely. Penelope, too, could easily have remarried, and was under tremendous pressure to do so; yet she employed every possible means of keeping the suitors at bay in order to continue waiting for her true husband to return to her.
Examine the various epithets that are constantly associated with the various characters: “thoughtful” Telemachus; “circumspect” Penelope; “resourceful,” “enduring,” and “godlike” Odysseus; and so on. What function do these epithets serve other than as formulaic constructions used in the oral poetic medium? How are these epithets appropriate to the characters associated with them? When are they not appropriate?
Examine the arguments made by each speaker at the Ithacan assembly. How do the characters’ speeches reflect their individual personalities? Analyze both what the characters say and the manner and mood in which they say it. How do the styles and rhetorical strategies employed by the various speakers compare and contrast with one another? How are these similarities and differences significant? What conclusions can we draw about the speakers’ character traits as depicted in their speech?
Examine Nestor’s personality and character. What distinguishes him from other characters who serve as storytellers during the course of the narrative? What distinguishing features mark his speech? What is the general impression of his character that is given in the Odyssey? What means does Homer employ in order to achieve this impression?
Scholars have dubbed the first four books of the Odyssey as the “Telemachy,” for the books deal almost exclusively with the journeys of Telemachus. In what ways are these books an appropriate introduction to Homer’s work? In what ways are the books an inappropriate introduction? Note the many references to Odysseus in these books. What picture do we have of him before he even walks onto the stage in Book V? Is our view of him negative or positive? How does the picture we have of him coincide with the later Odysseus who appears in the poem?
Examine several of the epic similes found in this and other books of the Odyssey. Identify each element in the simile and its relation to elements (characters, events, objects, etc.) in the narrative proper. What emotions, moods, and other factors can we elicit from the epic simile that were not present in the direct description of the element itself? Are these new feelings appropriate to the events that surround the simile? Does the simile enhance the narrative or distract us from it?
Compare the various comic aspects of Book VI with parallel passages in the poem of a more serious nature. Look, for example, at Odysseus’ decision-making, Athene’s enhancement of beauty, and epic similes. How is the mocking of previous conventions more effective than simply inventing new narrative techniques for comic action?
Examine the many scenes of hospitality in the Odyssey. How are they similar? How do they differ? What is significant about these differences? What commentary does each episode offer concerning the responsibilities of guest and host, such as gift-giving, nourishment, etc. What is the relationship between this motif and the distasteful situation occurring in Odysseus’ home during his absence?
Examine the character of Demodocus in Book VIII. What information does Homer relate to us concerning his profession? How did professional bards survive? Note Penelope’s attempt to silence Phemius in Book I. What is significant about Telemachus’ defense of Phemius’ behavior, and how does this defense relate to Demodocus later in the narrative?
Book IX is the first section of a four-part narrative told by...
(The entire section is 1564 words.)