“Symbolism of the Father-Son Relationship”
Throughout Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, many tangible symbols are used to represent abstract ideas. Some symbols that Homer used have two meanings. The double meanings of these symbols represent Odysseus and Telemachus as they strive to meet each other. While each symbol has a meaning that represents the growth of Telemachus, each one also represents, by another meaning, the growth and development of Odysseus. When Odysseus and Telemachus finally meet, the symbols and the character traits that they represent converge, and the resemblance between father and son becomes complete.
One of the key ideas running throughout The Odyssey is the importance of water. It has the power of giving life and quick, safe travel, but it also has the potential to drown. Water can be considered a paradox in and of itself. While it is good and usually life giving, it also demonstrates how too much of a good thing can bring harm. It brings much harm to Odysseus as he is traveling to Phaeacia. “Earth-shaker Poseidon stirred up a great wave, as when a blustering wind shakes up a heap of dry husks, and scatters them in all directions, so it scattered the raft’s long beams”(60). Everything needs water to live, however Odysseus thinks of water as an agent of death. Water that brings death by excess represents Odysseus, for he is the one that has to suffer all these years, and he is the one that nearly drowns near Phaeacia. Odysseus also learns how too much of a good thing, such as wealth or gold, can seriously harm a man. He especially experiences this when he tries to steal from the Cyclops and ends up losing many of his companions (96). Henceforth, it is fitting that the excessive side of water represent Odysseus.
However, life that is brought by water, the water that sustains, is the type that represents Telemachus. He is not excessive, and has been in fact humbled by the suitors in their years at his home. Further, Telemachus has never seen any trouble with the water or the sea; “A wind swelled the midsail, and the purple wave about the stem sounded loud as the ship went on. She ran into the wave, accomplishing her course” (22). The water never hurts Telemachus, but always helps him. Telemachus does not get the chance, as his father did, to perish from his own excesses. Telemachus also has a pure mind and body, which is what water embodies.
As both Telemachus and Odysseus grow and develop, the symbol of water, and its relationship to the character of both men converges together. Telemachus becomes less pure when he aids Odysseus in destroying the suitors (239). Odysseus becomes much less excessive, and comes to value simple things in life such as family; not how much gold it is possible to amass while sacking a city. When they finally meet, it is possible to see how the symbol of water holds the same meaning for both men.
Another main symbol seen all throughout the Odyssey is that of caves. The expression, “tomb or womb” can been used to explain the double meaning of the cave. In other words, the cave is either a place of shelter, or a place of mystery, even death. One of the most obvious places where the symbol of the tomb cave is used is when Odysseus and his group find their way into the Cyclops’ dwelling. Many of Odysseus’ good men die there. “…The Cyclops leaped up, stretched his hands to my companions, snatched up two together, and dashed them like whelps to the earth” (97). The tomb meaning can be interpreted as the real world, sink or swim. Odysseus is faced with this throughout his twenty-year travels. Odysseus is the character that should be associated with the unpleasant side of the caves.
The other idea the cave symbolizes is the womb, or the sheltered life of a man who never has to face the real world. This is symbolized by a different cave, one that protects rather than imprisons. One cave from the story that symbolizes protection is the cave home of Calypso. During his stay with the goddess, Odysseus is given the treatment of a king. All of his needs and wants are taken care of. The other cave that represents the womb is the cave in Ithaca. Athena shows this cave to Odysseus as a place for him to store his treasures from the Phaeacians, to keep them safe from harm. Telemachus is unmistakably represented by this meaning of the cave. He is sheltered all his life until he comes closer and closer to meeting Odysseus. Fatherless, his mother has safe guarded and protected him. However, when he meets his father, the guard is removed completely and he even helps Odysseus destroy the suitors.
On the other hand, when Odysseus reaches home, his hardships are for the most part over. He will no longer have to withstand the harsh reality symbolized by the cave of Polyphemus. He becomes more sheltered as Telemachus becomes more exposed by their reunion.
Symbols, which each have a double meaning, are used throughout The Odyssey to represent different facets of the characters of Odysseus and Telemachus. Each interpretation of the symbols exemplifies either Odysseus or Telemachus. As the two characters grow and develop, and the father-son reunion occurs, the two meanings converge into one, and Odysseus and Telemachus become more similar.
The Odyssey. Homer. Tr. and ed.Albert Cook. Second ed.
New York: Norton, 1993.