The theme of the first quarter of my CORE Humanities class last year was epic literature. In the class, we explored different manifestations of the epic across a broad spectrum of cultures, ranging from Ancient Mesopotamia to early-20th century Russia. Arguably the most well known epic we read is Homer’s The Odyssey, the first few lines of which establish the plotline for the ancient Greek story:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy. (Homer, Book 1, Line 1)
The “man” in this case is Trojan War commander Odysseus, and the epic chronicles his encounter with several obstacles ranging from terrifying monsters to lustful seductresses as he is “driven time and again off course.” The story is told not only from the perspective of Odysseus as he makes his arduous journey, but also from the perspective of those he left behind in his Kingdom of Ithaca: his wife Penelope, son Telemachus, and father Laertes. In this way, the epic offers a comprehensive depiction of Odysseus’ ill-fated return home.
Last year in class, we looked at The Odyssey as an epic work throughout the quarter, meticulously examining its cultural, thematic, and moral significance. I would argue that while The Odyssey does fit seamlessly into the syllabus of a course focused on epics, it would fit just as well into a class on transnational literature.
In essence, The Odyssey is the story of displacement and homecoming—the journey of an immigrant back to his native land. That said, The Odyssey denies the notion that “home” is a stagnant, stationary concept. The home that Odysseus dreams of is not exactly the one to which he returns at the end of the epic. Ithaca itself has been ravaged by his absence, and Odysseus finds himself struggling to reassemble the life he once knew upon reaching the island’s shores. Odysseus’ realization that home changes in one’s absence resonates with the story of Darling in NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names. Darling finds that when she leaves her friends in Africa for a new life in America, she grows more and more distant from the home she once knew. Lives change, people move on—the daily struggle of an immigrant is a yearning for the memory of a homeland that once was familiar, but the reality of which recedes further into the past as time marches forward.
The difference for Odysseus, however, is that when he does finally return to the unfamiliar home, he is able to successfully reconstruct the reality of the place he once inhabited by executing the traitorous suitors and reuniting with his beloved wife, son, and father. This “happily ever after” ending is virtually impossible for the modern immigrant to achieve, and is what marks The Odyssey as a somewhat idealistic representation of the transnational experience.
Nevertheless, The Odyssey grapples with the same aspects of the immigrant experience outlined by other works of transnational literature, and could easily be offered as a poignant portrayal of the multifaceted difficulties of homecoming.
– Joe Joseph