It seems as though sanitized mythology and “O Brother Where Art Thou” have led me astray when it comes to the main themes of the Odyssey. As a child, when I lacked the patience to read a Homeric epic in its entirety, the plot was consolidated into narratives about the hero Odysseus’s great adventure. Later on, the Cohen brothers’ attempt to modernize the tale left me with a sense of humor about the hero’s melodramatic escapades. My assumption, based on all of these secondhand impressions, was that the Odyssey was Homer’s light-hearted counterpart to the Iliad– a whimsical narrative about Odysseus’s wanderings as he makes his way back home on the tails of a magnificent victory.
Upon fully reading the Odyssey though, it seems as if all of these impressions were somewhat misguided. For one thing, only about three books are devoted to Odysseus’s journey and even then they are just a story within a story. It is also not a particularly humorous or adventurous story. Just the opposite, in fact. My overall impression by the end of the tale was that it is a gory, carnal, and overwhelming depressing story than anyone had led me to believe. The vast majority of the tale revolves around one of the main characters weeping in lamentation about the agony of their lives. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that the main theme of the Odyssey is not centered the journey Odysseus takes nor his eventual homecoming, but the way that the cast of characters, both male and female, suffer from trauma and grief in the wake of the Trojan War.
One question that arises from this conjecture is how this grief and trauma impacts men differently than women? Arguably, it causes men to react aggressively to counteract the causes of their unhappiness while women often become the victims due to their misfortunes. This can be seen in the impact of the narrative on the main characters.
Long before Odysseus enters the stage, the narrator introduces us to the family he has essentially abandoned in Ithaca. Although most of their woes boil down to the ravenous suitors who are plaguing their estate, they are still mourning the disappearance of Odysseus. It is uncertain to them whether Odysseus has died or is simply lost, but his absence is a source of great distress regardless. There is some disparity in the way that the male and female characters convey this grief. Telemachus and Penelope, for example, are both lamenting Odysseus’s absence because they realize that they will lose their autonomy and wealth if the suitors overrun them and force Penelope to remarry. They long for Odysseus’s return, certainly in part because they miss him, but also because they need him to return to fulfill the role of both father and husband. Without him around to fulfill this role, they are both vulnerable. However, Telemachus is much more proactive when grappling with this grief than Penelope and the gods enable him to be so. Although Penelope is quite clever when dodging the suitor’s advances, she still spends her days isolated in her bedroom, crying herself to sleep. Odysseus’s son, on the other hand, goes out to seek answers and try to find help in dealing with the issue of the suitors who constantly revive his grief. Although Telemachus never really knew his father, his life still seems hinged on grief, but unlike his mother he harnesses this grief to improve his circumstances. Another example of these differences in mourning rituals arises with Odysseus’s parents. Laertes is essentially debilitated by his grief, but this hardly compares to the grief of his wife, who has died of a broken heart. In Ithaca, even though characters of both genders suffer from the same source of grief, the female characters seem to be more debilitated by their anguish than the men.
Eventually Odysseus, the man of misery himself, becomes the center of attention and the poem focuses keenly on his outward expressions of grief. He has been weeping for years on Calypso’s island where he has been trapped and his tears come up a number of times before that. It is not, however, his tears that hold him back from accomplishing his goal of returning home but divine intervention. Although it is stated on numerous occasions that he is being punished by the gods, it seems as though his grief is not what holds him back. Rather, his trauma over being stranded and lost for years after a horrific, lengthy war is what seems to have the greatest impact on his actions. He seems unable to subdue his violent urges in the wake of the war and his trauma manifests itself as acts of aggression. Although his circumstances on his journey often necessitate violence for survival, the slaughter of the suitors could be interpreted as a projection of post-traumatic stress. This seems to be a stark contrast to the female characters who were much more complacent in their grief.
From these examples, it seems clear that the main theme of the Odyssey is in fact trauma and grief. Additionally, it can be extrapolated that the effect of these emotions results in extreme actions from male characters while it seems to subdue the agency of women in the narrative.