Invitation to World Literature
The Odyssey The Odyssey: Key Points
Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts
- Athena is Odysseus’ patron deity; he is her favorite human being. Look at some of the scenes in The Odyssey in which they interact, and describe their relationship in some detail, giving specific examples from more than one book of The Odyssey.
- Compare Odysseus to a modern hero―a political leader, entertainer, or athlete, real or fictional. Think about how that hero’s family life, beliefs, friendships, activities, heroic behaviors, and so on, affect or reflect society.
- Choose a character in The Odyssey that you think is the most “monstrous,” and explain what you find so notable about him/her/it, and why.
- Why does Odysseus go to Hades and what does he learn there?
- Why doesn’t Athena just get Odysseus home rather than let him suffer at the hands of other, lesser beings than herself?
- The ending of The Odyssey is interesting and troubling. Why are the female servants killed? Why is the one good suitor killed? Why does Odysseus want to start a war on Ithaca?
- In Homer’s time, Greeks were just beginning to explore and colonize the western Mediterranean, founding cities in Italy and southern France. How do you think this plays into Odysseus’ various encounters?
- Think of several women, mortal and divine, in The Odyssey.What does their portrayal suggest about the ancient Greek perception of the proper role of women in society?
- Review the scenes that take place in Hades in Books 11 and 24 of The Odyssey. What can these teach you about Homer’s conception of life after death?
- How are the different places Odysseus visits represented? Are they all equally “foreign,” or do they each have unique characteristics and civilizations? What differentiates human from magical kingdoms?
- On earth, among the living, social class is strictly observed, and people are judged and ranked, punished or rewarded for their actions. But in the underworld, all the dead are grouped together―great heroes like Achilles rub shoulders with people of no distinction. Why do you think this is?
Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking
- Odysseus as an imperialist: Is he representative of conquering Greeks when he plunders and takes resources from other creatures’ lands and possessions? Greeks of Homer’s time were beginning to set up colonies to the West in today’s Italy and France? How much of that political activity is expressed in the epic?
- Address the differences among the civilizations of Homer’s time.
- Readers have debated Odysseus’ “morality” for centuries, especially in terms of his infidelity to Penelope. Can we ever understand how Odysseus’ actions would have been seen by the original audiences for the epic? How does that relate to the way the actions might be judged today? How and why might modern-day responses vary?
- Odysseus is often described as restless, a natural traveler who always wants to be off to a new destination. But is he really so restless? Doesn’t he want always to go home to Ithaca?
- Do you think the original Greek audiences actually believed in the gods they heard about in the story?
- Odysseus survives many ordeals that kill his men. Evaluate Odysseus as a leader. Is he a good leader or a criminally bad one? Why do you think he survives while his followers do not?
- Penelope’s one required virtue is faithfulness. She could have had many great virtues, but had she cheated on Odysseus, she would have died at his hand. Yet Odysseus betrays her repeatedly and is not condemned for it. What does this say about the different standards of morality for men and women? Are there different standards of moral behavior for slaves, freemen, nobles, gods and monsters?
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.