The Long-Suffering and Self-Pitying Odysseus Essay
The Long-Suffering and Self-Pitying Odysseus
What would it take to make Odysseus, the renowned warrior and the pride of all Greece, cry uncontrollably? Surely, he must be put through some sort of extreme physical pain that no other mortal could survive or perhaps he is even forced to watch the horrendous slaughtering of his comrades. But more often than not, it is only mere words and memories, driven on by self-pity, not atrocities committed against his crew, that make Odysseus cry. Instead of acting as a compassionate leader who grieves for his lost friends, Odysseus cries to indulge his own sense of sorrow at his problems, and uses this to gain attention from others. By examining Odysseus’ outbreaks of grief, it becomes obvious that his selfishness and pride are at the very heart of the obstacles he has faced on his journey home.
Odysseus cries to satisfy his feelings of loneliness and despair at being so hated by the Gods. When we first encounter Odysseus, he is sitting alone on Calypso’s island, “weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away / with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home” (5. 168-169). At this point, Odysseus has been a prisoner on Calypso’s island for seven years, and has an understandably forlorn outlook regarding his journey home. However, Odysseus spends every night on the island acting as a lover to the beautiful goddess, whom he even admits is far more lovely and tempting than the wife he yearns to return to. Though he pines for Penelope, his acts of constant infidelity show that his guilt is not plagued by his actions.
He is described as being an “unwilling lover” (5. 172), but there is no evidence to suggest that Odysseus feels he is committing a crime against his wife. Instead, Odysseus is described as being “no longer pleased” (5. 170) by Calypso, which suggests that at one point Odysseus may have been very satisfied with his situation, until he became homesick again. It is an admirable trait that Odysseus so longs to go home, but his self- pity day in and day out is anything but admirable. He seems to be having his cake and eating it too. After seven years, he is still wallowing in sadness, unable to see that his fate of being alive and well (and seduced nightly) is still a much more favorable outcome than what his crew encountered. His selfishness only lets him see “how long I have suffered!” (7.181).
Odysseus also uses his tears to manipulate others into sympathizing with him. When Odysseus finally gets off Calypso’s island, he is beset by still more problems. He eventually finds shelter with Alcinous, the king of Phaeacia. As is the custom, he is the recipient of great hospitality and is made to feel at home, even though his hosts have no idea who he is. However, one night after feasting, the bard Demodocus sings about the conflict between Odysseus and Achilles during the Trojan War. At this point, Odysseus becomes so distraught and overcome with emotion that he “hid his face and wept” (8.109). The text also says that he is “ashamed his hosts might see him shedding tears” (8.103), but why is he crying in the first place? The bard is not even singing about all that Odysseus has suffered, and is only referring to his argument with Achilles, which was a prophesied victory sign.
It is very possible that Odysseus is crying because he wants to be found out. These people obviously adore the Odysseus they know through stories, so wouldn’t they worship the flesh and blood version if they were ever to meet him? Instead of simply saying, “I am Odysseus”, he instead waits, cries a second time until his grief is publicly noticed, allowing people to feel sorry for him and wonder what would cause him so much pain. This gives Odysseus the perfect opportunity to tell the awful story of his trip home, which he does, full of the troubles that could have been avoided had Odysseus restrained his pride and selfishness. The shame that Odysseus might feel at openly crying in front of strangers is outweighed by the satisfaction he gets out of telling his story, because misery does indeed love company.
Odysseus’s pride also prevents him from showing respect towards his men, by not heeding their advice and by not properly mourning their untimely deaths. At Alcinous’ court, Odysseus recounts his experience with the Cyclops. The whole trouble with this one eyed monster begins when Odysseus decides to linger in the Cyclops’s cave after eating his food, to see “what gifts he would give” (9.258). Instead of welcoming the Achaeans, the monster decides to eat the men who had rudely eaten his food. In sudden shock and horror, Odysseus and his men “wept and cried aloud” (9.331). Eventually, through a clever plan by Odysseus, he and his men escape, but almost die again because of his pride. Taunting back to the Cyclops, Odysseus reveals who he is, which allows the monster to almost collapse their ships, and also to issue a complaint to Poseidon that he should not let Odysseus return home. Poseidon hears this, and as a result, Odysseus and his crew are from then on beset by problem after problem.
Had Odysseus listened to his crew who begged him to leave the cave before the Cyclops returned and also to not brag his identity to the monster, the men would have made it safely home. Even after witnessing the cannibalism of some of his crew, Odysseus is only “glad to escape our death / yet sick at heart for the comrades we had lost” (9.630). He does not appear to be too devastated by everything that has just happened to him, curse and all. Perhaps it is because he is surrounded by others who share the same fate, and aren’t as willing to be as sympathetic as a group of strangers hearing the story from a legendary hero would be.
Odysseus also tells the story of the Laestrygonians, who eat a high number of Odysseus’ crew. Once again, Odysseus is “sick at heart” (10.147), but feels little else for his dead friends and does not weep at all for their memory. When his crew begins to mourn for those lost, Odysseus almost seems disgusted and says “They burst into cries, wailing, streaming live tears / that gained us nothing – what good can come of grief?” (10.221). At this point it becomes very obvious that Odysseus only deems it necessary to cry, when he is the one being wept for. He has no problem crying in front of strangers who are unknowingly praising him, he sees nothing wrong with crying everyday for seven years because he is marooned with a beautiful goddess, yet there is something wasteful about weeping for men who were savagely killed and eaten, all because he felt the need to tell the Cyclops that he, the great Odysseus, was the one who blinded him.
While pride may have been the downfall of Odysseus, without it he would never have reached the status of a hero. His pride and desire for glory were a major driving force behind all his great strategies and war efforts. Without his strong self-esteem, Odysseus would have instead been just another expendable member of his crew. Yes, the selfishness of the crew is also apparent when they open the bag of winds and blow the ship off course, but actions like these are to be expected from men who are of such low importance in the epic that they are not even named. But from Odysseus, the reader should demand a higher level of standards, and expect him to act responsible for the men whose lives are entrusted into his care. When Odysseus does not cry after his men are slaughtered and instead goes on with his work, it appears that he is just acting as a strong leader. But when you consider other moments when he is very weak and does cry openly, it is plain to see that he only weeps for those worth weeping for. And to Odysseus, the only one worth shedding a tear for is himself.
THESIS: Instead of acting as a compassionate leader who grieves for his lost friends, Odysseus cries to indulge his own sense of sorrow at his problems, and uses this to gain attention from others. By examining Odysseus’ outbreaks of grief, it becomes obvious that his selfishness and pride are at the very heart of the obstacles he has faced on his journey home.
1. Cries out of self pity and loneliness
2. Cries to manipulate others
3. Does not respect shipmates
a. Does not listen to their advice and suffers the consequences
b. Does not properly mourn them when they die partly because of his actions
4. Pride and selfishness allow Odysseus to become a hero