The Appeal of Home

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The Appeal of Home

In the Greek camp at the end of the Iliad, we see Achilleus arrive at the conclusion that is the theme of the entire poem—that to be mortal is to suffer. However, Homer leaves unanswered the logical question regarding this conclusion: If to live is to suffer, then why live at all? This then becomes the central question of the Odyssey, in which we are given an entirely different kind of character who rejects two distinct possibilities—an immortal relationship and a utopian community—for his own “wife and his homecoming” (I, 13). The question we are then compelled to ask is, what could Penelope and his Ithakan household possibly offer that is worth more than utopia and immortality? To illustrate what Odysseus could’ve had, Homer shows us a contrast for each aspect of Odysseus’s longing—a couple and a community. Through these contrasts, we are shown just why these options don’t measure up for Odysseus.

The immortal couple is embodied in the marriage of Helen and Menelaos, who have been promised the equivalent of eternal bliss in the Elysian Fields. While Menelaos had his homecoming delayed, he never had to resist temptation along the way. The Trojan War and the journey back are nostalgic stories for him, to be recounted for guests as a means of recapturing the past glory of fighting. And Helen, unlike Penelope, certainly has never been one to spurn attractive men and remain loyal to her husband, or to anything at all for that matter. She could not even choose a side in a war fought ostensibly for her sake (IV, 250-284). It is meaningful that, rather than have to deal with the guests’ weeping, she slips something in their drinks to prevent their show of emotion (IV, 219-227). Helen avoids connection with men while her husband wants only to connect with the past. Once guaranteed immortality, there is no pressing need for either of them to attempt the extraordinarily difficult task of truly understanding one another because there is always time for that later. This is the marriage that Odysseus could’ve had had he stayed with Kalypso, but he understands its emptiness and refuses it, instead choosing a woman whom he knows has spent the interceding years resisting men whom Helen would’ve jumped right into bed with.

But Odysseus returns for more than just the single meaningful relationship between himself and Penelope.
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