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What is the significance of ‘home’ in the Odyssey?
Word Count: 1,474
The Odyssey is the story of a man, Odysseus, on a journey back to his home, Ithaca. Odysseus was displaced from his home after the battle of Troy which took place many years before. However, reaching his home is not a simple task and Odysseus must fight to get back and take his rightful seat as king of Ithaca once again. “In his 10-year trip from the battlefields of Troy to his home in Ithaca, Homer’s Odysseus travels extensively across the sea, experiences diverse meteorological conditions, and visits numerous islands with diverse natural features and diverse human cultures”.
(Schultz 299). Odysseus goes through an epic, life-changing journey, just to reach his home. Throughout the entire story Odysseus is just trying to find his home once again. Home, or Ithaca as it is for Odysseus, signifies the end of the struggle, the end of the battle, and possibly the end of his life.
“Yet every day, while absent thus I roam,/ I languish to return and die at home.” (V 1. 281-282). Odysseus longs for his life to end where he is comfortable and surrounded by those whom he loves.
Home is final in The Odyssey but Odysseus is not the only one who is affected by the finality of reaching their home. When Agamemnon returns home from war, he is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. “Amidst a war of spears in foreign lands,/ Yet bled at home, and bled by female hands”.
(XI 1.478-479). Agamemnon had survived a bloody war, but lived and instead met his ultimate end once he reached his home. For Agamemnon, just like others in the story, home symbolizes a final goal or end point. It is the end all, be all, whether it is death that the character is reaching or some sort of ultimate peace and fulfillment that has been long awaited.
When Odysseus first reaches Ithaca, he must go in disguise due to the fact that his wife, Penelope’s, suitors have taken over the town. In the disguise, there is one person and one creature that recognize him, a nurse and his very old dog, Argus. Upon meeting his master once more, Argus drops dead. “He [Argus] knew his lord; he knew and strove to meet…. … Takes a last look, and having seen him [Odysseus], dies;” (XVII 1.360, 398). He has been waiting for Odysseus’ homecoming. This was the end of Argus’ struggle. His goal, though not directly stated, was most likely to see his master one last time. Odysseus’ homecoming brings Argus to his end, his death. “…Odysseus’ homecoming not only brings him back to a specific natural place, but also to a sense of his particular relationship within this place and to all of its inhabitants.” (Schultz 300). Odysseus shows his humane side, for he weeps over the death of his dog and shows sorrow over seeing the heinous conditions in which Argus has been living all of this time. He did not just have a connection to his son, Telemachus, and his wife, Penelope, he also had a connection to the other citizens of the island and even the creatures, like Argus.
Penelope’s suitors come looking to claim the throne for themselves and Odysseus would have been brutally attacked if he strutted into Ithaca in the midst of all the chaos, which is why he needed a grand disguise to protect himself from the cruelty of the rioting suitors. He has been away for so long; Odysseus can hardly recall what Ithaca looks like. “Thus, when at last he reaches Ithaca, Odysseus initially identifies his homeland through Athena’s description of its rich forests and farmland: “There’s abundant grain here, and wine-grapes, / Good rainfalls, and rich, heavy dews. / Good pasture, too, for goats and for cattle, / And all sorts of timber, and year-round springs’ (p. 199).” (Schultz 308). At first, Odysseus cannot even recognize the land he once ruled, and he feels like a stranger in his own homeland. Before he can truly attain his long awaited homecoming, he must first free the land of the suitors to try and return it to the way it was before he left for battle, all those years ago.
After he triumphs as a hero, once again, he must prove himself to Penelope, to be able to finally reach home. He does this quite willingly, knowing that he needs her. Earlier in the story, Odysseus had a vision of Penelope. “And in this vision, at last Odysseus comes home; he knows his place on the land and among his fellow creatures—he knows where he is and who he is. Though he may not be finished journeying, he will always be coming home.” (Schultz 309). He must reach Penelope and have her back in order to be truly home and to reach his goal. He has been travelling and fighting to return for so long, but Odysseus has no way of knowing if things can ever truly be the same again. He has a strong sense of nostalgia throughout for the way things used to be, but there is nothing definite about his homecoming. “As the quintessential tale about nostalgia, it depicts a man’s voyage to return home and turn back the clock to a time before war, separation, suspicion, and revenge. While Odysseus returns home successfully, his homecoming is problematic, and in many senses, he does not, cannot, recover his former life.” (Taoka 256). However, Odysseus’ goal is simply to reach home, not necessarily to reclaim his “former life.” Just merely finding his home, his wife, and his son is what Odysseus dreams of throughout the story. “The island of Ithaca symbolizes home. There Odysseus can share his life with his beloved wife and son, enjoy the wealth that he has earned, eat the food of his youth, and even sleep in the bed that he built. Ithaca symbolizes the end of the journey, the goal of the mythic trek. Nevertheless, it is not gained without a fight.” (“The Odyssey By Homer Critical Essays Major Symbols in The Odyssey”). In this sense, Ithaca is not a place at all, and therefore, neither is home. Whether everything remained exactly the same in the ten years he was gone does not necessarily matter toward making Odysseus happy. His mission is to reach home, not to reach home ten years ago. For Odysseus, it is more about the journey and meeting the goal of the journey than actually finding what he remembers as home. “Thus Contempt reveals that the point of nostalgia is not, in fact, getting home, but the myriad ways that one tries to get there. But Homer already knew this. The Odyssey, after all, is not a poem about being home, but coming home.” (Taoka 256). Odysseus longs for home as he longs for the end of his journey because essentially, that is what coming home is for Odysseus, just the completion of another journey, another challenge.
Upon finally reaching home, Odysseus goes to his bed, and lies down to sleep. “Sees with delight the sun’s declining ray, When home with feeble knees he bends his way/ To late repast (the day’s hard labour done);/ So to Ulysses welcome set the sun;” (XIII 1.41-44). He has reached his peace and conquered all of the creatures and people and gods who created obstacles for him along the way, and he welcomes the night and sleep. He has longed to sleep in his own bed, and he has finally able to do so. Now, his journey can end, for he has reached his ultimate goal and has come home. “Home is regained by the time the epic ends, but only after a profound bringing into question of the very meaning of “home” as a place, as a destination, as a never perfectly fulfilled desire.” (Nesbet 388). This shows that although Taoka may be correct in saying that Odysseus cannot regain the home exactly as he remembers, it does not impede him from reaching his ultimate goal. A goal can never be “perfectly fulfilled,” but that does not mean it is not reached. Odysseus does not seem concerned so much with home as a sense of place; rather he looks at home as his final destination, a conclusion to his final journey.
Home signifies a goal being reached. It signifies a happy ending, or in the case of Agamemnon, a quite unfortunate ending. However, throughout The Odyssey, home is both a beginning and an end to a life. Odysseus starts at his home before he leaves for the battle of Troy, and after ten years of living on islands, and fighting his way to get back to Ithaca, Odysseus’ story comes to an end as he lays down in the bed in the home from which he has been gone for far too long.
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