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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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BOOK 16: FATHER AND SON

Book 16 begins dramatically. While Eumaios and Odysseus breakfast, Odysseus hears footsteps and notices that the dogs don't bark. When Telemakhos appears, Eumaios, in his surprise, drops a bowl and jug, then kisses Telemakhos' head, eyes, and hands, like a father in tears welcoming a returning son. The irony is heavy. Try to visualize all the small but significant acts of courtesy that occur after Telemakhos enters the hut. Every bit of dialogue, every act, is fraught with meaning because Odysseus is present, in disguise.

When Eumaios tells Telemakhos that the "guest" craves Telemakhos' protection, Telemakhos seems quite different from the way he was when he offered his help to Theoklymenos. He's back in Ithaka and all the problems are still here. He feels weak, untrained, unable to defend himself. When Odysseus says it's better to die fighting than to do nothing, Telemakhos explains that the matter of the suitors is in the hands of the gods, for although there is no bad feeling in the town against him, he is alone-without brothers-and his mother is powerless.



As soon as Eumaios goes off to tell Penelope that Telemakhos is safely back, Athena instructs Odysseus to reveal himself to his son. Turn back to the description of the "beggar" at the end of Book 13 and compare it to the glowing picture here. Also notice how Telemakhos reacts, first thinking Odysseus must be a god, then suspecting a trick on the part of the gods.

After a tearful reunion Odysseus and Telemakhos begin to lay their plans. Telemakhos, cautious, thinks the situation might defeat even Odysseus, but Odysseus, a true epic hero, has faith in Zeus and Athena. Telemakhos must learn to trust the gods, which may be the same as trusting his own best instincts.

Odysseus tells Telemakhos to go home and mingle with the suitors. When Odysseus disguised as the beggar arrives and is insulted, Telemakhos must not react. When Athena signals Odysseus, Odysseus will signal Telemakhos to hide the weapons in the storeroom. The excuses he is to offer to the suitors seem pretty flimsy, but as you have observed before, the suitors are blinded by their arrogance and greed.

NOTE: It's satisfying to see Telemakhos disagree with his father in the matter of checking the loyalty of the servants, a plan Odysseus originally proposes. Telemakhos says that can wait until later. You would not respect Telemakhos if after his successful foray into the world he simply agreed to every idea of his father's without a murmur.

In the meantime, Telemakhos' ship has arrived, and Penelope gets the news of her son's return. After hauling the ambush ship on shore, the suitors meet in private assembly. Antinoos, who headed the ambush, seems angry that his quarry gave him the slip, and wants to kill Telemakhos in some remote place, then lay claim to his stores and livestock. But Amphinomos, probably the least inherently evil of the group, thinks the murder is not right and that the suitors should consult the gods. He prevails, and although of course the gods are not consulted, the suitors return to Odysseus' house.

At this point in the story Penelope, who has heard (again from Medon) that the suitors may be plotting the death of her son in his own house, decides to appear before them, perhaps to distract them from her child, mostly to vent her anger and frustration. Currying favor with her, Eurymakhos promises to protect Telemakhos, though Homer tells us that Eurymakhos' speech is all lies. Penelope retreats upstairs and weeps for her husband until Athena soothes her to sleep.

NOTE: Penelope has the beauty, wit, and wealth to attract suitor's not only from Ithaka but from neighboring islands. But she has no power, only the traditional female ploys of delay and deception, as symbolized in her weaving and unweaving of the shroud. Klytaimnestra's alliance with Agisthos becomes more understandable when you think about Penelope's plight. Penelope's holding out for twenty years, against all the evidence, for her husband to return has its epic proportions, too.

Before Eumaios returns to his hut, Athena changes Odysseus back into a beggar. He will suffer humiliations before he is raised to glory. Eumaios reports that Penelope knows of Telemakhos' return, and that the ambush ship is apparently back. The three together cook, eat, and sleep: father, son, and faithful servant.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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