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The Unknown Odysseus

Alternate Worlds in Homer's Odyssey

Thomas Van Nortwick

Publication Year: 2009

The Unknown Odysseus is a study of how Homer creates two versions of his hero, one who is the triumphant protagonist of the revenge plot and another, more subversive, anonymous figure whose various personae exemplify an entirely different set of assumptions about the world through which each hero moves and about the shape and meaning of human life. Separating the two perspectives allows us to see more clearly how the poem's dual focus can begin to explain some of the notorious difficulties readers have encountered in thinking about the Odyssey. In The Unknown Odysseus, Thomas Van Nortwick offers the most complete exploration to date of the implications of Odysseus' divided nature, showing how it allows Homer to explore the riddles of human identity in a profound way that is not usually recognized by studies focusing on only one "real" hero in the narrative. This new perspective on the epic enriches the world of the poem in a way that will interest both general readers and classical scholars. ". . .an elegant and lucid critical study that is also a good introduction to the poem." ---David Quint, London Review of Books "Thomas Van Nortwick's eloquently written book will give the neophyte a clear interpretive path through the epic while reminding experienced readers why they should still care about the Odyssey's unresolved interpretive cruces. The Unknown Odysseus is not merely accessible, but a true pleasure to read." ---Lillian Doherty, University of Maryland "Contributing to an important new perspective on understanding the epic, Thomas Van Nortwick wishes to resist the dominant, even imperial narrative that tries so hard to trick, beguile, and even bully its listeners into accepting the inevitability of Odysseus' heroism." ---Victoria Pedrick, Georgetown University Thomas Van Nortwick is Nathan A. Greenberg Professor of Classics at Oberlin College and author of Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero's Journey in Ancient Epic (1992) and Oedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life (1998). Jacket art: Head of Odysseus from a sculptural group representing Odysseus killing Polyphemus in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Sperlonga, Italy. Photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page

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pp. iii


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pp. iv

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pp. vii-xi

For the Greek hero, to be unsung is to be as good as dead. Nowhere does this equation seem to be more true than in the Odyssey, where a major theme is the equation of anonymity with nonexistence. Not only...

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pp. xiii-xiv

I began writing this book during a research leave granted by Oberlin College in 1999–2000 and continued my work during the fall semester of 2001 when I was James Doliver Visiting Professor of Humanities at...


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pp. xv

Part One: The Making of Odysseus

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Chapter One: The Hero Emerges

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pp. 3-23

"Odysseus" exists in the minds of modern readers as a finished character: we know all about him. But of course we are seeing the hero from the far end of a long tradition.1 Any particular realization evolves as...

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Chapter Two: Odysseus At Work

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pp. 24-42

Having brought him into being, the poet sends his creation back into the world of time and change, where who he is will always be at issue on more than one level. Odysseus faces death in a physical sense...

Part Two: The Unmaking of Odysseus

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Chapter Three: Subversive Anonymity

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pp. 45-64

Anonymity carries a potent meaning in the Odyssey. To the hero intent on winning kleos, being nameless is the same as being dead. If the time for dying has come, then better always to leave this world in the...

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Chapter Four: Constructed Lives

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pp. 65-82

Book 13 marks the return of Odysseus to Ithaka and the return of Athena to the story. As she becomes more visible, the goals of the return plot come to the fore. From now on, we will be reminded...

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Chapter Five: The Ward of Hermes

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pp. 83-97

The story of Odysseus' naming reveals a telling connection on his mother's side of the family.1 As the old nurse washes the beggar's feet, she comes upon the scar (19.392 - 98)...

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Chapter Six: Sleepers Awake

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pp. 98-120

The Odyssey begins with the question: where is Odysseus? As the story unfolds, a second, more difficult quandary surfaces: who is Odysseus? By the time the disguised hero reaches the threshold of his...

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pp. 121-125

To make one's way in the Odyssey requires a good story. Escaping a monster's cave, angling for a boat ride, earning a meal all depend on creating a world with words. Not surprisingly, the best storyteller in...


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pp. 127-134

Reference List

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pp. 135-139


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pp. 141-144

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025213
E-ISBN-10: 047202521X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472116737
Print-ISBN-10: 0472116738

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2009