Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
The protagonist of this epic poem is Odysseus, the pivot of most of the action. After his ten years of war at Troy, Odysseus is away from home another ten years. He is kept away for so long by the wrath of Poseidon, who is angered by the blinding of his son, Polyphemus. The Odyssey is about Odysseus' struggle and final return home. The Trojan War lies in the background as Odysseus leaves Ogygia, reaches Phaecia, where he narrates his adventures up until that point, and returns home to Ithaca. Once at Ithaca, he slays the suitors who have been wooing his wife. Odysseus is the chief of the surviving heroes of the Trojan War, and the story of his adventures and return is the most famous of many. He himself is an enlarged and elaborated version of what he is in The Iliad.
The antagonist of Odysseus is the series of trials, inflicted by many individual antagonists; in order to successfully return home and regain his rightful place, he must overcome each of them. The god of the sea, Poseidon, keeps Odysseus wandering for ten weary years, forcing him to arrive in Ithaca in a pitiable condition, with trouble waiting for him at home. He has punished Odysseus for blinding his one-eyed giant son, Polyphemus. Through the eventful course of these ten years, Odysseus is pitted against varied forces - the Cicones, the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops, the Laestrygonians, the goddess Circe, the Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, sea storms raised by gods, Calypso's temptation of immortal love, and, finally, the suitors at Ithaca. The suitors may be his worst enemies, but they are not the only ones to cause conflicts in Odysseus' travels, and their slaying, though it provides a climax to the work, is only one episode in the long list of struggles Odysseus endures. He needs to be cunning and resourceful throughout, even while winning over friends such as the Phaecians. So, while Odysseus is clearly the protagonist, a single antagonist does not exist. Instead, this brave hero fights against odds and antagonistic situations more than antagonists themselves.
The Odyssey reaches its climax in the combination of two events - the stringing of the great bow by Odysseus and the slaughter of the suitors. At the end of Book 21, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, lifts the heavy bow, bends it, picks up an arrow, and sends it effortlessly through a line of twelve axes. The suitors are greatly surprised at this incredible feat. In Book 22, Odysseus strips himself of his rags and reveals his true identity to all after killing Antinous. Eurymachus begs for forgiveness on behalf of all the wooers, but Odysseus refuses, and a bloody battle follows in which the suitors are slain. Odysseus finally establishes his superiority in his own house. He gets rid of the young men who were wasting his wealth and corrupting the environment by sleeping with the maidservants. These twelve disloyal women are hung by Telemachus on Odysseus' instructions. Finally, the house is purified with sulfur and fire, symbolizing the re-establishment of order in Ithaca after the return of the king and the punishment of the evil doers.
The epic poem ends in comedy for Odysseus; he manages to reach his homeland despite all odds and slay the suitors of his wife, who far outnumber him. He is recognized and accepted by his family after initial doubts and is once again master of his house and leader of his people. In the last Book, Athena reconciles the feud between the kinsmen of the slain suitors and Odysseus' party.