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Free Study Guide-The Odyssey by Homer-Free Book Notes Summary
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THEMES (continued)

The suitors occupy more than half of the poem, and their degeneracy is one of its themes. They are men of the younger generation who have not fought in the Trojan War and who do not possess heroic traits; instead, they are island chiefs and princes, who are impressed with themselves and who begin to woo Penelope in the sixth year after the fall of Troy. They greedily use up her property and vex her son Telemachus, who is too young to help. While Penelope pines at home amidst her wasting possessions, the suitors spread corruption in her household. They eat her food, sleep with her servants and plot Telemachus' death. They are depicted as truly despicable characters, a total contrast to the brave and heroic Odysseus and the faithful Penelope. Their punishment by Odysseus is well deserved and inevitable. The suitors' ignominious deaths are the proper end to their squalid careers, and, in the end, when their souls are in the Hall of Hades, their miserable qualities are contrasted with the true heroism of the Iliadic heroes.

Circe and Calypso both belong to the ancient theme of the witch who detains the hero's return. The differences between the two are great. Circe is subdued by the superior cunning and courage of Odysseus and, after admitting her defeat, welcomes him into her home. Her devotion to him is complete. Odysseus is with Circe for a year and then released without complaint. He is with Calypso for eight years, and she lets him go graciously but unhappily. There is nothing sinister about Calypso, while Circe possesses a sinister glamour at the start. The adventure with Circe is exciting for its own sake and appropriate to the hero on his wanderings. The sojourn with Calypso has much charm and beauty, but lacks dramatic variety. It is needed to fill a gap of time in the story, for Odysseus is to be away from home for twenty years. By the time of his shipwreck and the loss of all his companions, only twelve years have passed, and the remaining eight have to be accounted for. Homer does this very cleverly by confining him to Calypso's island, where nothing can be heard of him and his fate remains a mystery.


The loyalty that Odysseus is capable of winning is another one of the themes of the epic. Not only does he win the heart of the Phaecians at Scheria, who help him to reach Ithaca, he is also helped in the slaughter of the suitors by his faithful servants. Odysseus' relationship with Eumaeus is distinctively presented by Homer. The hero stays at the swineherd's house, and they converse a great deal. Later, the faithful Eumaeus plays a key role in the slaying of the suitors. Aligned to Eumaeus is the cowherd Philoetius, who is also loyal to Odysseus. Among the women servants, Eurycleia is the most distinct. She had nursed Odysseus as a baby, and she recognizes him by his scar. She is the only woman servant whom Odysseus trusts. She points out the disloyal maidservants to Odysseus and nearly whoops with triumph when she sees the dead suitors. All three, Eumaeus, Philoetius, and Eurycleia, represent what Odysseus is capable of winning - love, respect, steadfastness, and loyalty. Such loyal servants characteristically belong to an epic hero such as Odysseus.

Homer covers a wide range of human experiences in the poem and moves easily among them, from the heroic and bold to the domestic and serene. He would not have maintained his wonderful directness of approach if he had not sung to a listening audience and felt himself bound to make everything beautifully clear. In exploiting a wider range of themes than other heroic poets, he may have been helped by the antiquity and wealth of the Greek poetical tradition, which accumulated stories over a long period and reflected a generous taste for life.

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