By: JD DeHart
The genius that might have been Homer knew some truths about humanity. One of the primary ideas echoed in the sometimes verbal and sometimes written bard’s work is that people want others to remember them. The Iliad focuses on glorious death, and the memory heroic acts create. The fundamental question behind The Odyssey is, what does a person do when they are left living and everyone else has their glorious death? Sometimes living, it seems, is more challenging to a hero than dying.
For Odysseus, the process of returning involves using wits to escape desperate situations, usually involving the loss of companions. Each time a companion is lost, it seems, Odysseus feels the impact (if only briefly) of that loss before moving on to the next challenge. Sometimes the desperate situation involves an overgrown monster with a lack of hospitality, at one point the situation is complicated by a windbag, and sometimes an alluring female causes problems. At one point in the story, Odysseus even goes to hell.
Of course, back home, there is the nightmare situation of suitors pursuing Odysseus’s wife, attempting to cuckold the hero in absentia. Penelope, being the clever heroic figure that she is, invents a way to deflect these efforts. Penelope might have served at the titular character if an author told the story more recently, the noble and faithful domestic wife who uses manipulation and wisdom to preserve her husband’s dignity.
Odysseus shows us a desire to return home. It is the same desire that motivates us to take a camera with us on a trip (anyone who knows that perilous feeling of leaving said camera behind has an understanding of this). It is the desire to go back to the place we started, to embrace the familiar, and to sustain memory.
Our desire for restoration and renewal reflects the same emotion center. At the end of his journey, Odysseus is welcomed home. He unseats the suitors in characteristic heroic fashion, complete with a contest. We know it will never be the same, but the result of the story is still satisfying to many readers.
If we do not die in the battle, our next greatest quest is to return to what we know, to embrace the familiar, and to try again later.