Approaching the Odyssey

For Thursday, you will read the first two books of Homer’s Odyssey.  As you do so, you should keep in mind that the division into books is a modern convention; the ancient Greek text had no subdivisions.  The illustrative titles, in turn, were added by our translator, Robert Fitzgerald.  Nevertheless, you will discover that Homer’s action moves through clearly discernible stages, and that there is a unifying theme to individual sections.

First, some notes about how to do college-level reading in general.  When approaching literary texts, you should ideally read everything twice – the first time to get the plot, the second time so you can fully concentrate on how details interact to create a complex narrative tapestry.  Realistically, however, you may not always have the time for this.  As a substitute, you should at least try to break longer reading assignments into manageable bits, so that your mind stays fresh, and you should always carry a pencil so you can take notes.

During the first few weeks of the semester, I will give you study questions to contemplate while you are doing your reading.  These exercises are meant to train you in how to approach texts with an open mind; they’re not exhaustive, and hopefully you will come up with many more questions of your own!

As you engage with these questions, be sure to write down evidence rather than merely impressions.  Literary study isn’t like mathematics, where there is an indisputable “right” answer and many “wrong” answers.  Texts will frequently support a range of different opinions on any given subject matter.  But this doesn’t mean that all opinions are equally admissible, nor does it mean that one particular opinion can’t be supported with stronger evidence than all others.  Your task is to find this evidence for me and quote it!

Here are your questions for Book I.  Again, remember to support them with specific passages:

  • What do we learn about Odysseus’ home?  What are the customs there?
  • What kind of a person is Telemakhos?  Does he say or do things that reveal aspects of his character that he might prefer to keep hidden?
  • How is Athena characterized?
  • Finally (and this is an ongoing question), do you notice unusual things about Homer’s language?

And here are your questions for Book II:

  • What do you make of Penelope?  How is she described?
  • What about Antinoos?  Is there any way to compare him to Telemakhos with whom, after all, he has hung out on occasion?
  • What about Telemakhos himself?  What does Book II add to his description?
  • Look at the last fifty or so lines of the book.  Does anything happen to Homer’s language in this short span?
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One Response to Approaching the Odyssey

  1. Lindsey Paris says:

    I know these questions were for Books I and II, but I noticed something unusual about Homer’s language in Book IV. On page 76 Athena appeared to Penélopê in a dream as her sister, Iphthimê. When Penélopê and Iphthimê began to speak to each other (line 57), I noticed that their words sounded different than the words in the other dialogues of the Odyssey. For example Penélopê says to her sister, ‘”Sister, hast thou come hither? Why ? Aforetime never wouldst come…”‘ (p. 77, 863-4).
    I am not sure if the different word choice is due to Robert Fitzgerald’s translation or for another reason. Perhaps the syntax is different because this dialogue is between two women, while the rest of the dialogues we have read have been between two men or a man and a woman.
    Did anyone else notice this difference? Can you think of any other reasons for the unusual language?

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