The Odyssey tells the story of a heroic but far from perfect protagonist who battles many antagonists, including his own inability to heed the gods’ warnings, on his arduous journey home from war. Along the way the poem explores ideas about fate, retribution, and the forces of civilization versus savagery. While The Odyssey is not told chronologically or from a single perspective, the poem is organized around a single goal: Odysseus’s return to his homeland of Ithaca, where he will defeat the rude suitors camped in his palace and reunite with his loyal wife, Penelope. Odysseus is motivated chiefly by his nostos, or desire for homecoming, a notion in heroic culture that encouraged bravery in war by reminding warriors of the people and institutions they were fighting for back home. Odysseus’s return represents the transition from life as a warrior on the battlefield back to life as a husband, father, and head of a household. Therefore, Odysseus is ultimately motivated by a desire to reclaim these elements of his identity and once again become the person he was before he left for the Trojan War so many years earlier.
The chief conflict in the poem is between Odysseus’s desire to reach home and the forces that keep him from his goal, a conflict that the narrator of the Odyssey spells out in the opening lines. This introductory section, called a proem, appeals to the Muse to inspire the story to follow. Here, the narrator names the subject of the poem—Odysseus—and his objective throughout the poem: “to save his life and bring his comrades home.” The narrator identifies the causes of Odysseus’s struggle to return home, naming both the sun god, Helios, and Odysseus’s fellow sailors themselves as responsible: “The recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all, the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the sun and the sun god blotted out the day of their return.” The narrator next identifies Poseidon as one of Odysseus’s main antagonists, as all the gods took pity on Odysseus except Poseidon, who “raged on, seething against the great Odysseus until he reached his native land.” Finally, the proem tells us that the Odyssey will be the story of Odysseus’s successful journey home: “the exile must return!”
The inciting action of the story begins with the arrival of Athena in Ithaca, where Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, and wife, Penelope, are frantic about the suitors eating all their food and drinking all their wine. Athena, disguised as a sailor, tells Telemachus that his father is still alive, and he should set out on a journey to find out what happened him to after the Trojan Wars. Doubtful that Athena is telling the truth, Telemachus nevertheless sets sail, after warning the suitors to leave his mother in peace. We see Telemachus as doubtful of himself as a leader, but emboldened to take on responsibility and follow in his father’s footsteps as king. The next several books detail Telemachus learning that his father is being held captive on Calypso’s island, and hearing about his father’s bravery during the war as well as the incredible losses he suffered in battle. As Telemachus was just a baby when his father left, this is the first time he learns anything about his father. He also experiences Greek hospitality as his hosts bathe him in oil, prepare feasts in his honor, and pile him with gifts when it’s time for him to depart.
The rising action of the poem concerns Odysseus, who, after being freed from Calypso’s island by Athena, sets out for home, but is shipwrecked by Poseidon, still angry that Odysseus blinded his son the Cyclops. Odysseus washes up in Phaeacia, where he tells his hosts the story of his long and arduous journey after leaving Troy. In this speech we see Odysseus’s character as bold, curious, and confident. Everywhere he goes he is eager to find out what the locals are like, wanting to know whether they are “men like us who eat bread,” who will offer Odysseus and his crew the hospitality they prize. He lingers in the Cyclops’ cave out of curiosity, and makes his men tie him to his mast, rather than plug his ears, because he wants to hear the song of the sirens. He repeatedly ignores Athena’s warnings and angers the gods, and they vow retribution but stop short of killing him, instead promising that they will make his journey home as difficult as possible.
The climax of the poem happens after Odysseus has left Phaeacia and at last returns to Ithaca, where his story merges with Telemachus’s and father and son are reunited to face one final obstacle. They go to the castle with Odysseus disguised as a beggar, echoing his actions during the Trojan Wars and enabling them to test the loyalty and values of their countrymen. The suitors abuse Odysseus rather than extending hospitality, essentially sealing their doom and reinforcing the importance of the host-guest relationship in the poem. After several suitors fail Penelope’s challenge to shoot an arrow through twelve axe handles, Odysseus strings his bow and accomplishes the feat with ease, proving not only that he is the rightful husband of Penelope, but that he still has his warrior-like strength and agility. Odysseus and Telemachus kill the suitors and the servants, reconciling Odysseus’s former warrior persona with his current role as husband, father, and king, and confirming Telemachus’s evolution into a brave and decisive leader. In the poem’s falling action Odysseus is reunited with his wife and father, and the poem concludes with Athena erasing the suitors’ parents’ memory of the battle, restoring peace to Ithaca.