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The Suffering Man and House: The Centrality of Human Misery in the Odyssey

Joseph Slama

Truman State University

This paper explores the complex relationship between the Odyssey and the manifold sufferings it details in its protagonist. In examining the suffering that Odysseus deals with and endures, as well as the grief of his household, we gain insight into how Homer constructs identity on levels individual and communal, as well as understanding of how response to suffering defines heroism in the poem.

Previous scholarship on Odysseus’ character has focused largely on his portrayal as “wily” (Silk, 2004; Detienne and Vernant, 1978); while this aspect is, of course, crucial, I take a different view by subordinating his craftiness within a larger framework of suffering inflicted and suffering borne. In doing this, I closely examine the morphology of two descriptors of Odysseus. I first look at “πολύτροπον” in the poem’s first line, which represents a sort of universality to his character and by its grammatical ambiguity foreshadows the poem’s development of his character. I then examine his name Ὀδυσσεύς as detailed in Book 19, which elaborates upon the characterization seen in “πολύτροπον” and also brings out more specificity in its overtones. The intricate grammatical indications of agency in these two words shed light on the dual nature of the character they illustrate. This grants an understanding of how the Odyssey builds the identity of his protagonist around suffering in both his wiliness and his woes. 

Understanding the operation of Odysseus’ suffering individually in turn lays the groundwork to understand the origins of the grief at the οἶκος he’s left behind. Focusing in particular on Penelope, I examine how a communal view of suffering in the poem reveals an inverse relationship between wartime κλέος and the ἄχος of the Ithacan οἶκος. In this way we see that suffering in the Odyssey is something shared, inflicted not on one man but on a whole house.

Finally, I examine contrasts between Odysseus and his house on the one hand, and his men and the suitors on the other, in their responses to suffering. This examination highlights the traits that lead Odysseus and his οἶκος to victory, and the characteristics that generate steep ruin for the greedy sailors and suitors: the differing responses of these groups to their pains and sufferings are their defining characteristics in their portrayal and in their fate. 

In conclusion, my paper delineates what makes a hero in the Odyssey by contrasting the poem’s hero and his house with the sailors and suitors that irk them. I situate Odysseus and his royal house in a broader light than often presented: examining their grief allows for an examination that penetrates, and deepens our understanding of, all aspects of their characters.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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