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Critique Please- Literary Analysis

Erin B.

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My ninth grade twins (age 14) just completed their first literary analysis essay on their own using A Guide to Writing the Literary Analysis Essay as their guide.  We had just finished reading The Iliad and The Odyssey and listening to all 24 great course lectures by Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver before they started writing.  I purposely didn't give them too much guidance, other than conversing with them as they came up with their thesis, as I wanted to see what they were capable of producing on their own.  I have my own initial thoughts on how I would like to guide them as they edit, but I would like to post their papers here for feedback.  TIA for anyone who can help me.  Papers are in two separate response posts.


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DD's paper

“You [Odysseus] wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving and your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature,” said Athena to Odysseus. Through Odysseus's skill in rhetoric, Penelope's skill in weaving, and their craftiness and self-control, Homer clearly shows that Athena was their patron goddess. Athena is mostly known as the goddess of battle and wisdom. However, she is also the goddess of craftiness, disguise, and, surprisingly enough, womanly arts like weaving.

            Most of Odysseus's skill in rhetoric is found in the first half of the Odyssey. In fact, in one of the very first scenes where we see him, he displays that skill. Kalypso delivers the message from Hermes that she must set Odysseus's free. But she questions why he wants to leave her, when she is more beautiful than Penelope. He answers, “Goddess and queen, do not be angry with me. I myself know that all you say is true and that circumspect Penelope can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature. . . . But even so, what I want. . . . is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming.” Odysseus does not want to anger a goddess and say that Penelope is his wife and he wants her more than Kalypso. Instead he first flatters the goddess, saying indeed she is more beautiful;  then he explains his reason to want to leave is so he can see his day of homecoming.[1]

            Another example of Odysseus's skill in rhetoric is the story of his wanderings he tells to the Phaiakians. In this case, he is not using his skill get himself out of a sticky situation, he is using it to win favor from others. He crafts his story to appeal to his audience and make them want to help him and give him gifts. The part of the story when he is in the underworld is especially entrancing because only great heroes can go into the underworld and make it out alive again.  Within that section too, he is crafting the story by listing all the great, historic women he met there; winning the favor of queen Arete.[2]

            Penelope is a skilled weaver and, although it more stressed with Odysseus than with Penelope, she is crafty. Penelope spends most of her time working on her loom. Telemachus tells her multiple times in the Odyssey to “Go therefore back into the house, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff” (Books I, XXI pp. 36, 318). Weaving was a honorable skill for women to do. Through Penelope's weaving, she also displays her crafty nature. To delay the decision of marriage, Penelope tells her suitors that she has to spin a shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law, because he is old and will soon die. But each night she undoes her work. This keeps the suitors at bay for three years. She also is encouraged by Athena to beguile gifts from the suitors, hinting that she will make the decision of who to marry soon. However, Odysseus is happy “because she beguiled gifts out of them, and enchanted their spirits with blandishing words, while her own mind had other intentions”  (Book XVIII p. 277).             

            Throughout the whole Odyssey, Penelope is given the title “Circumspect Penelope,” a name that highly suits her. A vivid image of this character in her is when Odysseus reveals himself to her for the first time. She does not immediately rush and embrace him, instead she tests him to see if he is really Odysseus. When she learns he is Odysseus, she embraces him and says, “do not now be angry with me nor blame me because I did not greet you. . . . For always the spirit deep in my heart was fearful that some one of mortal men would come my way and deceive me with words” (Book XXIII, p. 340). Penelope wasn't going to be tricked by any wooer claiming to be Odysseus.

            In the second half of the Odyssey, Odysseus faces extreme emotional trials which he must not, on any level, betray himself. During this time he also has to maintain his disguise as a beggar. This requires much self-control, even when he sees his wife and son for the first time in twenty years.[3] The first one of these trials is when he arrives on Ithaka, but he doesn't know where he is. When he learns he is in Ithaka from a shepherd boy (who is really Athena in disguise), he doesn't outwardly rejoice and run to the palace, instead he says he had only heard of Ithaka when he was “home” back in Crete. This is an amazing feat of craft and self-control. He analyzed his situation, realized he shouldn't reveal who he was, and then invents a lie to cover his identity. Furthermore, he shows self-control by not going to his home, son, and wife.

            The hardest one of these emotional trials is when Odysseus's meets with his wife, but cannot reveal who he is to her. He is questioned by Penelope and asked if he has any word of her husband Odysseus. However, Odysseus must not, in any way, reveal himself to her because there are other maidservants in the room. Then Penelope “wept for her man, who was sitting there by her side. But Odysseus in his heart had pity for his wife. . but . . he hid his tears and deceived her” (Book XIX p. 287). During the long conversation he had with Penelope, he answered all of her questions with a straight story, the same story he told both Athena and Eumaios, playing his part as a foreign beggar perfectly.

             A skilled rhetorician and weaver with crafty natures and extreme self-control. This couple is definitely watched over by the goddess Athena. If Penelope and Odysseus didn't have these traits, then the Odyssey wouldn't be a very long story. Time after time it saved their lives. If Penelope hadn't been so cautious and crafty, she would have been married to another long before Odysseus came home. Likewise, Odysseus would never have made it home if his quick mind and crafty tongue hadn't saved him numerous times.


[1]Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, The Odyssey of Homer: Course Guidebook, (The Great Courses, 1999), Kindle, p. 19.

[2]Vandiver, p. 28.

[3]Vandiver, p. 33.

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DS's paper:

The Importance of Xenia

            The Greeks first began colonizing surrounding islands and lands around 800 BC, centuries before the start of European colonization in the 1500s. They were far ahead of many cultures in arts and literature, one of the most famous examples being the Odyssey by Homer, who might have lived between the 12th century BC or the 8th century. Xenia is a very important theme in the Odyssey. Homer views it as a way to measure the civility of a society.

            Odysseus uses the same phrase three different times in the Odyssey when arriving on a land. On the three different lands, he questions about the inhabitants, ''whether they are savage and violent, and without justice, or hospitable to strangers and with minds that are godly.'' Clearly the presence or absence of xenia defines the society as savage or civilized. It's more than simply hospitality as well. Hospitality can be optional, but in some cultures it is an unspoken rule to at least give the guests something to drink. Xenia, on the other hand, was almost an unseen force that everyone obeys. Giving a meal, bath, bed, and sometimes clothes are all given from the host to the guest.[1] And the host does not ask about the identity of their guest until after he/she has eaten and satisfied his/her immediate needs.[2] Afterwards, the two are both xenoi or guest friends. The guest gives a present to the host, and the host sometimes gives presents to the guest. Xenia remains so powerful that even generations later, the grandchildren of the two xenoi might meet and be overjoyed at seeing one another, even if they are both two enemies in a war, and promptly sit down for a meal even in the middle of a battle, as seen with Diomedes and Glaukos in the Iliad. But xenia was not practiced simply to love everyone who came to your door. People were subject to the rites of xenia in fear that they would be punished Zeus if they did otherwise.

            Odysseus first questions himself about the xenia of the land when he and his men arrive in the land of the Cyclops. When he and his men find their way into Polyphemus' cave, they are given the worst possible xenia you could ever expect. Instead of providing them with a meal, they become Polyphemus' meal. And the only guest gift that Odysseus provides in return was poking out the cyclops's eye. So, the first time he asks about the xenia of a land, it had no respect or acknowledgment of xenia. The cyclops living there had no fear of the gods, they being almost gods themselves. With no fear of the gods, the cyclops did not follow the rules of xenia and ate any luckless travelers who landed on their shores by fate.

            The second time he wonders about the xenia of a land, it is in Scheria, the land of the Phaiakians. Now the Phaiakians tried to help every single traveler that was shipwrecked on their island. When they entertained Odysseus in their palace, it was like xenia given to a king, and he was a king, they just didn't know who he was then. They gave him treasures ''more than Odysseus could ever have taken from Troy.'' So, in the second instance, the xenia ends up being the best xenia imaginable.

            The third time he asks himself about the civility of the country he came to, it was on Ithaka itself, his very own kingdom that he had ruled over before leaving to Troy. Although the country had once been generous to travelers and well off, the absence of its king caused many problems. Suitors came from all over Greece to court his wife, Penelope. The suitors themselves shun xenia, the gods, and their elders and therefore ignore all the important things in a culture.[3] Ithaka therefore fell apart without Odysseus to hold it together, and no xenia is given to him at the island. But it is important to note that, later on, he does actually experience xenia in the dwelling of his faithful swineherd, Eumaios. Eumaios shows his understanding of xenia and its purposes when he tells Odysseus that the reason he befriends Odysseus is because ''fear of Zeus, the god of guests, and for my own pity.'' He not only befriends him for fear of Zeus, but also because he is kindhearted and has pity on Odysseus, who looks like an old beggar or vagabond. But this is not like the xenia one would usually expect. He had to walk all over Ithaka before he finally received xenia at the hand of Eumaios. So, when he arrives in his native country, the xenia had faded away, but not disappeared.

            The Odyssey still has a reverberating voice in the minds of readers today. It has impacted literature up until the modern day. The concept of an epic hero facing hardships and trials is definitely mirrored in later literature. In the Odyssey itself, xenia is one of the main ideas that characterizes many of the nations Odysseus visits. To live in a culture with xenia was to live in a culture that was human.


[1]Elizabeth Vandiver, The Odyssey of Homer: Course Guidebook (The Great Courses, 1999), Kindle: Lecture Two, p. 15.


[3]    Ibid.

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