E240 HOMER'S ODYSSEY QUESTIONS
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Assigned: The Odyssey,'' Books 1-12. I have included a complete set of questions, but only Books 1-12 are assigned.
1. How does Homer establish the significance of the story he is about to tell? How does he maintain interest in the tale as it unfolds? Keep in mind that "suspense" is not a key factor in Greek literature since the audience usually knows from the outset how things will turn out.
2. How would you characterize the narrator, the fictive "Homer" whose voice we imagine as singing the verses of The Odyssey?
3. What direct references to the craft or performance of poetry do you find in The Odyssey? What do they tell us about the importance of poetry in Homer's day? In responding, consider also indirect references such as the ones the text makes to weaving and singing -- after all, Homer himself might be said to "weave" his story, stitching together the various episodes and characters into a meaningful tale; and of course an epic bard sings his verses.
4. What qualities does the text hold up as heroic? Keep track of heroic qualities and the episodes in which they are most evident and necessary. Are there different kinds of heroism? If so, what is the distinction between the different kinds of heroism?
5. What kinds of behavior are treated as contemptible in The Odyssey? Keep track of these qualities and the characters who embody them. Find episodes where contemptible behavior occurs.
6. How does the poem represent mortal women? Since Penelope is the most important woman in The Odyssey, what qualities does she possess, and how does she respond to the troubles she faces? (Some of the other women are of note, too -- Eurycleia the serving woman, the faithless maidservants, Nausicaa the Phaeacian princess, and Helen of Sparta, Menelaus' queen, whose elopement with Prince Paris sparked the Trojan War. )
7. How do Homer's gods think and behave? How do their actions and motivations differ from the conception of god in other religions of which you have knowledge? What role do the Homeric gods play in human affairs, and what is the responsibility of humans with respect to those gods?
8. What can you gather from The Odyssey about the way the Homeric Greeks lived their daily lives? About how they governed themselves and what sorts of social distinctions there may have been among the citizens of Ithaca? For example, how important is the royal household to the rest of the Ithacans?
9. Keep track of The Odyssey's structure -- make a diagram or chart of some kind that illustrates the main episodes and their relation to one another. To get you started, the epic is divided into three main parts or plot-complexes: 1) The maturation of the young prince Telemachus; 2) The wanderings of Odysseus -- mostly recounted as past events; and 3) Odysseus' return to Ithaca and re-establishment of his authority as king. Consider also that although the poem's action takes place over the course of forty days, the text refers when necessary to events spanning twenty years -- i.e. from the beginning of the Trojan War on through the ten-year wanderings of Odysseus after the ten-year war.
10. What does the invocation (the first 12 lines) say the poem as a whole will emphasize?
11. What first impression does this book give us of the gods? How much of a role do they play in human affairs? What seems to motivate their actions?
12. What is our first introduction to various characters? The suitors, for instance -- are they a homogeneous group, or are there differences among them? What qualities does Telemachus possess at the outset?
13. How, according to Antinous, do the suitors view Penelope's reluctance? Why do they think they are justified in behaving as they do?
14. How well does Telemachus handle the suitors' chief Antinous and his self-justification?
15. How does Athena help Telemachus prepare to meet the old King Nestor?
16. What is the purpose of this book? Why is it important that Telemachus go and visit old Nestor, aside, of course, from the fact that he's out for news of his father Odysseus?
17. What exactly does Nestor tell Telemachus about the War and the return home? Why does he dwell upon the fate of Agamemnon, killed by Aegisthus, the lover of Clytemnestra?
18. How does Menelaus represent himself as responding to his wanderings on the way home to Sparta?
19. Why does Menelaus still value and accept Helen, even though her elopement with Paris led to the Trojan War?
20. How might Menelaus' story about the Old Man of the Sea, Proteus, be instructive to Telemachus in his quest to find his father? Why, for that matter, would Menelaus' response to the knowledge Proteus gives him be instructive for Odysseus?
21. What sort of character is Calypso? How long does Odysseus stay on her island? What is the source of Calypso's power over Odysseus? To what extent does she help Odysseus or hinder him once the decision to let him go is forced upon her by Hermes?
22. How does Odysseus respond to the shipwreck that he meets upon leaving Calypso? Follow the motions of his spirit as he struggles to save himself -- that is, track how the poet represents Odysseus' emotions and thoughts during and after the shipwreck.
23. How is the behavior of Nausicaa, the young Phaeacian princess who discovers Odysseus washed up on the shore, appropriate to the situation? What makes her an admirable character?
24. How does Odysseus treat Nausicaa? What is his strategy in approaching her?
25. What sort of kingdom is Phaeacia? How well is it governed, judging from the way the King relates to his family and subjects, and the way he receives the suppliant washed up on his shores?
26. How might the impression Odysseus and we receive of Phaeacia be significant for Odysseus' subsequent return to Ithaca?
27. What does Odysseus say when Arete questions him sharply and asks him to reveal his identity?
28. What effect does the song sung by the harper Demodocus have upon Odysseus? Demodocus sings again later in the book -- again, with what effect on Odysseus? Is the latter's response different from what we would expect of modern-day "heroes"?
29. How does Odysseus respond to the challenge of Broadsea? What Odyssean qualities shine through in this episode of athletic competition?
30. When does Odysseus reveal his identity? How has he been careful in keeping that information to himself from Books 5-8?
31. List Odysseus' tales in the order that he tells them. What patterns of meaning do you find emerging from this order?
32. Patterns aside, what do the individual stories Odysseus recounts tell us about him and his men? For example, what makes Odysseus a worthy leader? Does he make mistakes while leading his men? How is he better than his men? Are there dangers in his strengths?
33. This is actually a question for books 9-12 as a unit, but I'll ask it here: why is it important that Odysseus recount all his wanderings as past events? Why doesn't Homer simply construct his epic as a linear (i.e. "straight-line") progression of events from the Trojan War onward?
34. What sort of character is Circe? Why (aside from her magic) is she able to turn Odysseus' men into swine? What have they done to offend her, or what weakness do they show?
35. What makes Odysseus succumb for a time to Circe's enticements? What is his mistake here?
36. Why does Odysseus need to visit Hades (the Greek Underworld) and consult with Tiresias the blind prophet of Thebes?
37. What does Odysseus learn from Tiresias in Hades? What other characters does Odysseus speak with, and what does he learn from them? How do those characters regard him?
38. In general, how would you characterize Odysseus' attitude towards his journey to the Underworld? That is, what does the episode tell us about his understanding of his relationship with the divine realms and his spirit as an adventurer?
39. What is the Greek Underworld (Hades) like? How does it seem to be structured and along what principles? How is it unlike the Christian Hell?
40. Odysseus returns to Circe's island after his visit to Hades, and the witch tells them about what lies before them: the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and the temptation of the "Cattle of the Sun." Concentrate on one of those adventures as Odysseus himself relates them: how does he represent the danger of the event you choose, and how does he describe his own involvement in it?
41. How do Poseidon and Zeus interact in this book? What is the balance of power between them? How does Zeus assert his authority?
42. How does Odysseus handle his return to Ithaca? How much does he tell those he meets about his true identity and intentions? How much help does Athena give him?
43. How is this book pivotal regarding the action of The Odyssey as a whole? What necessary qualities, that is, does Odysseus show in this first step of his return to power?
44. What is the function of Eumaeus the swineherd? How does he treat Odysseus, and how does Odysseus treat him? How much of the truth does Odysseus tell him?
45. What is Telemachus' main diplomatic challenge in this book? How does Athena help him meet the challenge?
46. What role does Helen play in this book? What does the prophecy she makes reveal about her? Why might it be significant, in terms of The Odyssey as a whole, that Helen, whose misbehavior towards her husband set in motion the Trojan War, gives Telemachus a robe to bestow upon his future bride?
47. Who is Theoclymenus, and why is it appropriate that Telemachus should treat him kindly?
48. What is Eumaeus' own story, as he recounts it to Odysseus? Does the story indicate why Eumaeus is especially loyal to Odysseus? If so, what's the reason?
49. In this book Odysseus reveals his identity to Telemachus. What does the reaction of the two characters tell us about the Greeks' attitude towards the expression of emotion? How does their attitude differ from ours? (Think of American film heroes like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. )
50. In what ways does Telemachus show in this book that he has matured?
51. In Elizabethan revenge tragedies, it is common for the villain to declare himself a thorough rascal. In what way do Melanthius the goatherd and the suitors throw away a chance to redeem themselves in this book? Why do they fail?
52. Around line 480 Odysseus tells a "resourceful" tale, namely that he was sold into slavery in Egypt. Although the tale is a lie, what purpose does it serve, aside from establishing some cover for Odysseus in concealing his true identity?
53. Why is it appropriate that Odysseus disguise himself from the suitors (with Athena's help) as a beggar?
54. Why is it significant that Odysseus overcomes the swaggering beggar Irus?
55. What part does Athena play in this book? That is, what effect does she have on Odysseus and the suitors?
56. Penelope questions the stranger (Odysseus in disguise) closely, and he claims to be Aethon from Crete. Do you think that Penelope knows or suspects Odysseus' real identity? Why or why not?
57. Whether she suspects anything or not, how does Penelope test the stranger? What qualities does she manifest in this book that make her a worthy match for Odysseus?
58. Interpret the dream that Penelope relates to the stranger towards the book's end. Does it reveal things about her stance towards the suitors that would probably surprise even her?
59. Why does Penelope tell the stranger about the contest to string Odysseus' bow that she is planning to announce?
60. What portents announce the struggle to come? How does Odysseus react to them?
61. Athena inspires the suitors to behave even more inappropriately than usual. Why does she do that? What effect does their behavior have on Odysseus and Telemachus?
62. Penelope fetches Odysseus' bow and announces the contest to the suitors. How do the suitors again prove that they deserve the "blood wedding" that awaits them?
63. The suitors mock at the stranger for wanting to take his turn with the bow. Penelope tells them to let him go ahead -- why?
64. Odysseus strings his own bow at the book's end. How does Homer represent this moment? For example, why don't we hear anything from the suitors right after Odysseus shoots his first arrow?
65. As logic dictates, Antinous is the first to die. How do the remaining suitors try to appease Odysseus? Why, in view of The Odyssey's task as we have discussed it in class, would it be inappropriate for Odysseus to accept their arguments or pleas? 66. At what points in the struggle is Athena active? How much does she help Odysseus, and how much credit is mainly his?
67. Why might it be significant, in light of The Odyssey's task as we have discussed it in class, that around line 400 Odysseus, in Fagles' translation, refers to the work that remains to be done in the book as "household chores"?
68. How do Odysseus and Telemachus deal with Melanthius the goatherd and the women who sported with the suitors? Consider the intensity of the violence throughout this book -- do you find it unsettling or "over the top"? Why or why not? Does the epic narrator take up an attitude towards the violence?
69. Why does the text refrain from making Penelope recognize Odysseus outright? Why does Penelope insist on testing Odysseus even after all that he has done in the hall?
70. Why is it appropriate that the couple's bed should be involved in the main test of Odysseus' identity?
71. Around line 300, Odysseus recounts the prophecy that Tiresias had made about the King's further adventure and death in old age? Why would Homer remind us of this prophecy, just as the poem achieves its goal of bringing Odysseus home and reestablishing him successfully as master of Ithaca?
72. Describe the interaction of the suitors' shades with others in Hades. How do Agamemnon and Achilles view each other's fates?
73. How does Odysseus test his father Laertes, now living a hard life, after the slaughter has been accomplished? What's the point of testing his father?
74. What problem remains for Odysseus to deal with, even though he has rid himself of the suitors and their hangers-on? What reason do the suitors' surviving kin give for their attempt to kill Odysseus? Is it grief alone, or something different?
75. How does the reconciliation between Odysseus and the surviving kin occur? Without Athena's divine assistance, what would be the prospects for immediate or eventual reconciliation?
Edition: Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0143039952.