The Odyssey

The Odyssey Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Argue against the claim that The Odyssey ought to be read as a tragedy because of all the pain inflicted upon its protagonist, Odysseus.

    Although Odysseus' name means "Son of Pain" and he is made to suffer greatly before achieving his nostos (homecoming), the fact remains that he ultimately does achieve nostos. When he returns to Ithaca, he finds that his immediate family has remained faithful to him, and is able to reclaim his rightful place as the king of Ithaca. Although the amount of hardship he has had to endure may make such an outcome seem implausible, the implausibility is better explained by the epic nature of the work, rather than by calling it a tragedy.

  2. 2

    Works like The Odyssey offer us insight into the customs and beliefs of the ancient cultures that produced them. Describe one such custom that The Odyssey makes clear was important in ancient Greece.

    One example of such a custom is that of hospitality: it was thought that guests might always be gods in disguise, and therefore ought to be treated with the utmost respect. To this end, guests were often fed, clothed, and so forth, prior to the host asking after their lineage and purpose in their land.

  3. 3

    Is Odysseus a just man? Provide evidence to support your answer.

    Although Odysseus has character flaws and may not hold what we consider a modern conception of justice, he does seem to act justly in most regards. He only deceives Polyphemus after Polyphemus has rejected the custom of a guest-gift and eaten several of Odysseus' men; he only disguises himself in Ithaca in order to test his family and the suitors. And, perhaps the most important piece of evidence in favor of his being just, he only punishes those servants and suitors who wronged his household while he was away; he lets the innocent live.

  4. 4

    Discuss fidelity in the poem. Was Odysseus faithful to his household?

    Although Odysseus has many affairs on his journey home, the implication is always that he had to do so in order to progress towards home; there were many moments when it would have been easier for him to give up or surrender, but he never truly lost sight of home. (The year he spent with Circe might be seen as a counterexample to this; nonetheless, the fact remains that he returned to his quest and did not forsake his homeland). At minimum, it is evident that the text's notion of fidelity is not reducible to something as simple as sexual relations.

  5. 5

    Discuss fidelity in the poem. Was Odysseus' household faithful to him?

    Many servants of Ithaca betrayed Odysseus and sided with the suitors, but the "principle players" of his homeland -- the Swineherd, Telemachus, Penelope, Argos, and Laertes -- remained faithful to him despite his absence. This fidelity is symbolized best by Argos, who seemingly staved off death until he could see his master home safely. Penelope, too, could easily have remarried, and was under tremendous pressure to do so; yet she employed every possible means of keeping the suitors at bay in order to continue waiting for her true husband to return to her.