Plots and Twists in Homer’s Odyssey
The Man of Twists and Turns
Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus is on his journey for a duration of 20 years, logically leading readers to expect that the main character undergoes some sort of major transition. Although Odysseus endures many trials and tribulations, evidence of actual character development can be difficult to pinpoint. Major character development is not made abundantly obvious, thus Homer makes us thoroughly examine all aspects of Odysseus’ personality in order to be able to deem him a static or a dynamic character. While Odysseus does exhibit some behavior that would indicate a change of heart, he also falls prey to many of the same character weaknesses after he returns home, that he did while on his perilous journey. In most of Homer’s works, the characters are viewed unanimously as static. However, if Odysseus does in fact undergo change, he would be considered the only exception to Homer’s traditional way of character development, or lack thereof. Some say that by looking at Homer’s usual characters, along with the unchanged characteristics of Odysseus in both the beginning and end of the epic, Odysseus is yet another static Homeric character. Although some aspects of Odysseus remain the same, I would consider those unchanging, foundational aspects of his personality, and that Odysseus exhibits enough change to be considered a dynamic character.
Throughout the course of the epic, Odysseus becomes increasingly more capable of recognizing the importance of humility and temperance in certain situations. In the start of his journey home, Odysseus fails miserably, such as in the case of his encounter with the Cyclops. After barely escaping death by Cyclops, as Odysseys sails away he boastfully taunts, “Cyclops – if any man of the face of the earth should ask you who blinded you, shamed you so – say Odysseus, raider of cities, he gouged out your eye, Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!” (227.558-562), which irritates Poseidon, who in turn places a curse upon Odysseus and his crew. However, Odysseus appears to have learned from his foolishness when he patiently waits to reveal his identity to the king and queen of Scheria, and by the time he reaches home in Ithaca, he is even capable of waiting days before revealing himself. Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops reveals his struggles with not just patience, but pride as well. However, in this characteristic he has clearly changed because by the time he gets home, he is not only not revealing his identity, but even assuming a different identity, of a humble beggar at that, making his dampening of pride that much more noticeable.
Odysseus’ primary desire to return to Ithaca also makes a transition throughout the epic, shifting from primarily kleos to almost solely nostos. Odysseus makes many stops throughout his journey, seeing that it did last for 20 years, but his enjoyment of each stop lessened substantially as his desire to just be back home in Ithaca grew. In the beginning of the epic, when he and his crew stopped at Circe’s island, Odysseus’ focus on returning home all but diminished, in favor of Circe’s temptations. Although his crew’s foolishness is what forced Odysseus to venture onto the island in the first place, it was Odysseus that decided he enjoyed the island’s pleasures so much so that they should spend an entire year on the island. However, his transition form kleos to nostos is made clear by noting the drastic difference in the way he behaved while shipwrecked onto Calypso’s island, where he spends ten years, but spends them all weeping on the shore. Odysseus even tells Calypso that although Penelope, “falls far short of you, your beauty, stature… Nevertheless I long – I pine, all my days – to travel home and see the dawn of my return” (159.239-243). Odysseus’ kleos was achieved after defeating Troy, but it would not be completed without homecoming. However, it is clear from his encounter with Calypso, and after over twenty years of being away, he simply wants to arrive back to Ithaca because it is his home.
Odysseus displays impetuousness throughout the epic, and though he displays this character flaw again in Ithaca, I believe it is due to a circumstance that requires special attention. Towards the beginning of the novel, as Circe is informing Odysseus of how to escape the perils he will soon encounter, he interrupts her to ask if it would be possible to just fight Scylla instead, using his sheer power to keep Scylla from snatching six men, to which Circe responds by vehemently scolding his characteristic hotheadedness and arrogance. When Odysseus and his crew finally do reach Scylla, although he does follow instructions and command his men to row faster, he has a lapse in judgment and falls back into character by putting on his armor in preparation for a fight, which Circe explicitly instructed him not to do. Once Odysseus reaches Ithaca, some say that evidence of change would be clear if Odysseus had just taken control of his estate and has the suitors leave. He instead slays every last one, which some say provides evidence of his lack of change. However, it is important to note that the suitors’ grisly fate was determined by Athena. It is unclear whether or not Odysseus would have chosen this fate without her, but, according to the text, Odysseus does realize the good in Amphinomus. However, “even then Athena had bound [Amphinomus] fast to death at the hands of Prince Telemachus and his spear” (18.178-179), along with all the other suitors. Thus, we cannot undoubtably say whether or not Odysseus’ hotheadedness has cooled because Athena sealed the suitors’ gruesome fate, so Odysseus was not able to decide for himself to exhibit more temperance. However, judging by the vast improvements he makes in his other weaknesses, it is possible that Odysseus is a stronger, wiser man, even in his overzealous willingness to fight, the area for which he is famed.
Throughout the epic, Odysseus makes impressive strides in his weakest areas of pride, patience, impetuousness, and even transitions his motivation to return home to Ithaca. In regards to pride and patience, the increasing length of time Odysseus takes to reveal his identity is proof of great change, thus indicating that he realizes life is not all about exulting one’s accomplishments. Likewise, on Calypso’s island, he spends ten years pining for Ithaca and his wife, which is completely opposite from his indulgent behavior on Circe’s island, showing proof of a wiser, more rational Odysseus. Furthermore, when looking at the characteristic of impetuousness, it is impossible to unquestionably tell what actions Odysseus would have taken had Athena not chosen the more violent route for him. But by acknowledging his improved track record, we can deduce that it is probable he would have at least given more thought to who he would have slayed and who would have spared, seeing as though he realizes Amphinomus’ goodness. It is important to realize Odysseus’ change of heart because it allows us to deepen our understanding of The Odyssey, as well as distinguish this epic from Homer’s other works. Homeric pieces are generally centered around a static main character, which vastly differs from characters in more modern works. However, if we decide that Odysseus does, in fact, break the Homeric mold, this is of great importance, especially since the legitimacy of Homer and the historical events in The Odyssey are already questionable. Thus, if The Odyssey is Homer’s curveball in regards to his typical style of character development, it is important to know why, as well as whether or not a dynamic Odysseus has larger implications for the historicity and legitimacy of the work as a whole. Therefore, understanding the changing aspects of Odysseus could be a key to providing clarity to a fuzzy, but infinitely significant period in human history.
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