- Why we study The Odyssey (and not contemporary teen fiction)
As I write this post, my ninth-grade English students are reading about the homecoming of weary Odysseus, whose hostility towards the son of Poseidon (the Greek god of the sea) has caused numerous complications and frustrations to delay our unhappy hero.
Our journey through the book is not without its own delays and frustrations.
“Why is Odysseus so mean to the Cyclops?” one student asked.
“I didn’t understand anything that happened on page 326,” another student journaled.
“Why does he have to sneak around in disguise?” my students demanded on several differing occasions.
Reading The Odyssey is, for many students, an odyssey in its own right. We read it for the better part of a school quarter, and it is one of the most detailed and dense books on the Cornerstone curriculum. Some students struggle with the line breaks and the elaborate poetical language; others are frustrated by the lack of proper nouns. A large percentage of them would prefer to read Divergent and The Hunger Games, with whose main characters they identify more strongly.
However, The Odyssey has one significant benefit: it provides a safe arena in which students can evaluate and critique the actions of other human beings.
In many first-person present-tense teen novels of today, the stream-of-consciousness monologues of the protagonist-narrators leave readers little room for literary interpretation. Towards the end of The Hunger Games, protagonist and narrator Katniss says,
“I can’t get caught out here. . . . Not only will I face death, it’s sure to be a long and painful one. . . . The thought of [my sister] having to watch . . . keeps me doggedly inching my way towards the hideout” (223).
- Collins’ readers can have no doubts about Katniss’ motivations; she wants to protect her sister from any harm or suffering. Her explanation isn’t wrong, but it means that discussions of the book focus predominantly on facts and personal reactions. Readers are not encouraged to discuss and analyze Katniss’ motivations, because the author has already revealed the answers.
In contrast, consider The Odyssey:
“They sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.
I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free--
they flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder . . .
But once we’d left the Sirens fading in our wake,
once we could hear the song no more, their urgent call--
my steadfast crew was quick to remove the wax I’d used
to seal their ears and loosed the bonds that lashed me” (277).
Like Katniss, Odysseus is in great peril and great agony. Although his statements, like those of Katniss, are in the first person, my students were quick to query:
“Why does he want to listen?”
“Why do only the sailors seal their ears?”
“Why is he so desperate to get free?”
Both The Odyssey and The Hunger Games can be used to answer important and meaningful questions, and many of the same questions can be applied to both. For instance:
How does this book present a hero, or a savior?
What is the source of the protagonist’s strength?
What does this book teach about friendship, loyalty, or truth?
When the discussions have faded, however, uncertainty about The Odyssey remains. We could discuss and debate The Odyssey for an entire year, or read it once every year, and at the end of that year, there would be more to discover and debate. For a few, the same could be true of the newest teen novel; for thousands, this has already been true of The Odyssey.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2009 (2008).
Homer. The Odyssey. transl. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1997 (1996).