The Odyssey by Homer: The Story

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I read The Odyssey when I was in high school, but I didn’t recall much about it. If you aren’t familiar with it, here are some basic facts of the story. Please note that I’m not an expert, and these are only preliminary thoughts after having read the poem twice in the course of my life.

Tomorrow morning, I will share my thoughts on reading the Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey.

Who What When Where Why

Who are the main characters in The Odyssey? Odysseus, his wife Penelope, and his son Telemachus

What is going on the beginning of The Odyssey? Odysseus is trapped by the nymph Calypso, suitors want to marry Penelope, and Telemachus wants to find his father

When does The Odyssey take place? Seven years after the Trojan war ended

Where does The Odyssey take place? The island of Ithaca, mainland Greece, and various isles of the sea

Why is there a story in The Odyssey? Because Odysseus has been through a long journey


Some of Odysseus’s story is discussed by the gods in the heavens, discussion spearheaded by Athena, who pities Odysseus in his long struggles. An omniscient narrator also tells of the events on the isle of Ithaca, where Penelope mourns for her lost husband. Likewise, the narrator follows Telemachus through his journeys to mainland Greece in search of Odysseus. Finally, the narrator also follows Odysseus on the last stages of his journey, where he narrates his tale in full to an audience and then reunites with his family.

So What Is The Odyssey About?

The Odyssey is certainly about Odysseus and his journey home from Troy. But it’s also about his family,  reunion with loved ones, and revenge for his suffering. The themes of family, reunions, and revenge are general ones. Ultimately, I think The Odyssey is also about happy endings.

Odysseus’s journey is everyman’s journey.  For example, he has, you could say, pretty foolish coworkers, and those coworkers get him in to trouble. He just wants to be home with his wife, and she just wants to be with him. It’s pretty hard to get there. Every time he thinks he’s going to make it, something else comes up. As we follow his struggles and his frustrations, we relate to him. We may not understand ancient Greece, but the themes do resonate.

I’m not an expert; these are just my superficial thoughts. What do you think The Odyssey is about?

Reviewed on March 19, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I was not a big fan of The Odyssey when I read it. I thought Odysseus was a jerk, and I had a hard time getting past that. I know. Shallow. 🙂 I loved The Iliad though, even if Achilies had some, ah, issues.


  • I always thought of the Odyssey as an anti-tragedy. Where most Greek tragedies focused on a single fatal flaw (hamartia) that brings the protagonist to doom, the Odyssey showcases Odysseus’ key strength, his cleverness, and how it restores him from doom to happiness. Like many other epic poems, the Odyssey records existing mythos and lauds a paragon of manly virtue.

    Incidentally, I definitely like how Penelope is clever and strong in her own right and manages to hold off the suitors for so long. It’s a refreshing change from other Greek literature (Clytemnestra – evil; Agave from The Bacchae – crazy; Cassandra – helpless; Electra – weepy), though I guess in Lysistrata they are also relatively well represented. Maybe it’s the difference between heroic / comic works and tragic works.

  • I pretty much agree with your thoughts about the book. On a side note — have you read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood? It is a wonderful retelling of this story from Penelope’s point of view. It’s part of the Cannongate Myth Series.

  • I read The Odyssey in a Great Books class in college and definitley got more out of that experience than I would have had I read it on my own. What sticks with me now, 25 years later, is the idea of human triumph over adversity — that is, using human skills and virtues rather than merely being in the hands of the gods. There is a free will and self determination angle to it that was a big step forward in literature.

    What I really enjoy about The Odyssey are the remakes, like Ulysses of course, but also like the movie Brother, Where Art Though? It is obviously a story that continues to resonate.

    By the way, you might enjoy Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine Dark Sea about the ancient Greeks. He spends a big part of the book discussing The Odyssey.

  • Hmmmm… I think it’s hard to ‘define’ the Odyssey because it encompasses so many themes that are inherent to mankind. And that’s probably why it’s regarded as a great classic and epic to this day.

    I look forward to your post on the Fagles translation 😀

  • I agree with Lisa that The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood was a good read. I find that Odysseus has a very “inflated” opinion of himself in the Odyssey, and I found myself wishing that he wouldn’t have made it home.

  • Lezlie, I guess I didn’t think of him as a jerk but that’s because he is so much nicer than Achilles was in The Iliad. Now, he was a real jerk. And yet, I’m with you in that I loved that so much more (see my post of today!)

    Lily, awesome way to put it: “anti-tragedy”. And yet, it’s not a comedy either. Yes, he does triumph regardless. It is focusing on his strengths rather than his weaknesses. Great thoughts!

    Lisa, Penelopiad sounds interesting because there were already some sections from Penelope’s perspective in the poem. But then Penelope is gone for the main action, so I’d be interested to see how Atwood tackles that!

    Rose City Reader, I think the concept of free will and self-determination is what makes it so resonate 2000 years later! The Iliad was much more gods-in-control. I haven’t yet read Ulysses although I will get to it someday. I saw Oh Brother but I don’t remember it; must revisit. The Cahill books sounds very interesting. I’ve been on a Greek kick lately, so I should check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Tuesday, yes, there is much in it. And yet, I thought Iliad had even more. I felt I had so much MORE To say about that. (Have you read Iliad yet?)

    Penny, oh, I kept reading just waiting for him to get home. I was tired of him getting stuck time and again. I didn’t think he was so inflated as was Achilles (in Iliad), and maybe that’s why he didn’t bother me so much. He actually did have some good characteristics…

  • No, I haven’t read the Iliad. I might get around to it after Metamorphoses and the others, but it looks as though that’s going to take a while =)

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