Although Homer's story, The Odyssey, is an ancient tale of a sea adventurer
and his family, people today can relate to the story despite it being thousands of years old. A primary reason why the story of Odysseus is considered a classic
is because the epic contains a number of issues that are common to modern society. The conflicts Odysseus faces in his sea faring are mostly fantastical and not realistically possible; however, the family component
in the epic is probably the most realistic part of the story. Odysseus' wife, Penelope
, and their son Telemakhos
play critical roles in the epic because they are the family Odysseus longs to return to. Telemakhos is a perfect example of a lost and perplexed child
that has gone through life without a father. Telemakhos remains attached to his mother, maintaining the typical characteristics of an alienated boy confused by his surroundings, as any child today would under similar
Single-parent children often experience a sense of loss and/or confusion, and in ancient times the exclusion of a father from a family was somewhat common. Diane Ackerman explains in her book, A Natural History of Love: "Growing up in a woman's quarters, as if in a harem, children rarely saw their fathers; thus their exiled mothers must have been exceptionally strong forces in their lives. In all probability there was a lot of pent-up anger, rejection, envy, and frustration on display." Telemakhos displays his distress numerous times; at one point Menelaos speaks to Telemakhos about Odysseus, and Telemakhos responds dismally: "Now hearing these things said, the boy's heart rose/in a long pang for his father, and he wept,/ holding his purple mantle with both hands/ before his eyes." Also, Telemakhos shows his anger when he speaks to his mothers' suitors: "My distinguished father is lost,/ who ruled among you once, mild as a father,/ and there is now this greater evil still:/ my home and all I have are being ruined." After this speech Telemakhos with "hot anger threw the staff to the ground,/ his eyes grown bright with tears." Telemakhos exhibits a great amount of anxiety ruling upon his father's throne. When Telemakhos first speaks to Athena about his father, he says, "But he is lost; he came to grief and perished,/and there's no help for us in someone's hoping/ he still may come; that sun has long gone down." In this passage Telemakhos expresses his bitterness and feelings of rejection by his father who abandoned him. His resignation that his situation is ultimately irrevocable indicates Telemakhos' anxiety. Telemakhos' emotions are a common reaction to abandonment. Telemakhos's case is especially tough since not only is he abandoned by his father, Telemakhos does not know if his father is still alive. When speaking to Athena, he says, "I wish at least I had some happy man/ as father, growing old in his own house-/ but unknown death and silence are the fate/ of him that, since you ask, they call my father." In modern society it is easier to know if a lost parent is dead or alive because of technology. Telemakhos does not have the advantage of computers and social security numbers, so he has no proof that his father is still alive, or as Telemakhos occasionally mentions, if Odysseus truly is his father.
Telemakhos, like many fatherless children, becomes extremely attached to his mother, and she becomes very attached to her son as well. Throughout the story Homer continuously refers to Telemakhos as a boy, although he should be a man. However, Telemakhos does not "know" himself because he lacks a father and is still attached to his mother. Telemakhos remains a boy since he has not yet experienced what Freud terms "infantile amnesia", where a child's natural feelings of loving his mother and being jealous of his father (the Oedipal Complex) are forgotten in maturity. However, Telemakhos desires to be a man because he leaves Ithika and his mother to seek his father and also become a man. When Penelope hears of her son's departure, she weeps and says, "If I had seen that sailing in his eyes/ he should have stayed with me, for all his longing,/ stayed- or left me dead in the great hall." Penelope claims she wants to die because her son leaves her, expressing how much she needs him. The attachment of both mother and son is natural because Odysseus is absent. Ackerman explains the nature of this tendency: "Mother herself is food, is warmth, is safety. The baby continues to be attached to her by the umbilical of its need. Beginning as one loving whole, a single world, mother and child will in time become separate beings; just as lovers, beginning as two separate beings, in time become one world, one whole." Because of the father's abandonment Telemakhos and Penelope crave affection from each other, and because Telemakhos is protected by his mother for so long he remains "a boy." Stunted maturity like this occurs in today's society as well. Those individuals who are so-called "momma's boys" cannot fully function without their mother by their side, causing them to live relatively sheltered and/or unexperienced lives. Even when aging they can not "mature" until they separate themselves from their mothers. Telemakhos remains a boy until he detaches himself from his mother and resolves his alienation with his father.
In order for Telemakhos to resolve his childhood trauma, he must "discover" himself and become a man. The sub-plot to The Odyssey is Telemakhos' journey to find his father and himself as well. Because he is unsure of his father's existence, Telemakhos must part with his mother to find his father on the open sea (symbolically becoming a man.) This is not unlike orphaned individuals today who eventually seek out their true parents, temporarily leaving their foster parents in order to learn their past. However, Telemakhos is unsure about his actions. He worries about his mother while at sea and explains to Eumaios, "Mother is in a quandary, whether to stay with me/ as mistress of our household, honoring/ her lord's bed, and opinion of the town,/ or take the best Akhaian who comes her way-/ the one who offers most." Telemakhos is extremely worried about the suitors asking for the hand of his mother. He especially does not wish for her to marry someone else because Odysseus might still be alive, and also because of his unconscious jealousy. He and his mother have been rulers of the house for so long he does not want anything to change. However, he does wish to be reunited with his father, which would quell his turmoil. So, Telemakhos is unwelcome to change unless it arrives in the likeness of his father. The journey that Telemakhos takes is important and especially difficult for him because not only is he seeking his father and himself, but he is also leaving his mother on her own, where she might decide to re-marry.
When Telemakhos eventually find his father, Odysseus and his son cry in their joy. Odysseus says to his son, "I am that father whom your boyhood lacked/ and suffered pain for lack of. I am he." When Telemakhos finally finds his father and learns the truth of himself, he matures because he no longer lacks that other part of himself which he was not even sure existed, and he could finally sooth his inner turmoil. Odysseus is aware of the fact that his separation had caused his son great pain, and with their reunion Telemakhos truly "knows himself." He begins to assert himself as an adult when he speaks; when he returns home he says to his mother, "Direct your maids at work./ This question of the bow will be for men to settle,/ most of all for me. I am master here." Claiming himself master, Telemakhos begins to mature. In today's society, those who are missing a parent or parents must also come to terms with their own existence, either through finding their mothers and fathers or through therapy. By learning the truth about one's existence, those who are abandoned can become adults, as Telemakhos does after finding his long-lost father.
Though The Odyssey is an ancient story, it still holds value in modern society because it contains people and conflicts that are similar to today's. Homer's mergence of fantasy and reality in the epic create an interesting story, and the image that Telemakhos establishes is one of a lost and confused boy, inflicted with problems numerous abandoned children deal with today as well. Telemakhos does eventually find himself though, and makes peace with his past by finding his father in the present; something that every orphaned child hopes to do today.