The tone of The Odyssey evolves from somber and mournful to joyfully excited as Odysseus gets closer to completing his quest. The book begins in a depressive tone, as Telemachus and Penelope despair of ever seeing Odysseus again and the situation with the suitors is becoming dire. We first hear about Odysseus in the opening lines, when he is described as “heartsick on the opening sea,” having suffered “many pains.” When we meet Telemachus, his heart is “full of grief,” and Penelope is “wary and reserved,” and soon bursts into tears. These characterizations create a tone that is mournful and pessimistic, despite Athena’s assurances that Odysseus is still alive. Rather than rejoicing and sharing the news with his mother, Telemachus sneaks out of the house while she’s asleep, keeping his mission to find his father a secret. This creates suspense, as well as the sense that Telemachus is not at all sure his quest will succeed. When Telemachus stays with King Menelaus, he is still doubtful that his father is alive. Menelaus says the last he heard, Odysseus was on Calypso’s island, “weeping live warm tears,” increasing the tone of mournful regret.
Once the story switches to Oydsseus’s experiences the story shifts toward a more optimistic and excited tone. At first, Odysseus seems similarly despairing of ever seeing Ithaca again, and is filled with sadness over his lost comrades who died at Troy and along his journey to Calypso’s island. But once King Alcinous throws him a party and he engages in the sports competitions, he perks up, and tells the tale of his past adventures in a boastful tone, as when he tells the Cyclops his name is “Nobody”: “laughter filled my heart to think how nobody’s name – my great cunning stroke – had duped them all.” While he expresses regret over the crew he lost in the Cyclops’ cave and leaving Circe’s island, he generally seems proud of his adventures. Here, the epithet used to describe Odysseus expands from “man of pain,” to “master of exploits, man of pain,” marking a change in the tone toward optimism.
By the end of the poem, the tone is admiring, as we finally see Odysseus engaged in battle, and both he and Telemachus are invigorated by their fight with the suitors. The tone in the final books of the poem are optimistic, and also serious, underscoring the sense that the gods are controlling the action and Odysseus is fated for victory over the suitors, whose deaths are inevitable. The end of the poem is the most bloody, violent, and unrestrained, with the action related in an unapologetic tone. Homer describes the bloodshed, such as Telemachus’s murder of the servant women, in great detail, and with little remorse: “so the women’s heads were trapped in a line, nooses yanking their necks up, one by one, so all might die a pitiful, ghastly death… they kicked up heels for a little – not for long.” This mercilessly gory tone echoes the beginning of the poem, as in the repetition of the phrase “warm tears,” but this time there is the sense of resolution, as the violence is described as inevitable for the peace that ends the poem.