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Irony in The Odyssey

Dramatic irony is used throughout the story to build tension and suspense for the listening audience. Because the narrator invokes a muse at the beginning of the tale, he, and by extension his audience, are given privileged sight of Odysseus’s tale. For this reason, the audience often knows things that the characters in the story cannot, creating the dramatic irony and providing tension for the story.

Irony Examples in The Odyssey:

Book III

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"I can expect nothing of the kind..."   (Book III)

This is another example of dramatic irony since the audience knows that Telemachus is being guided by the goddess Athena, who is disguised as Mentor, while searching for Odysseus. This emphasizes Telemachus’ slight ignorance, as well as dependence on Athena.

"praying heartily to Poseidon..."   (Book III)

It is ironic that Athena prays to Poseidon since she is actively working against the god who is punishing Odysseus by giving advice to his son, Telemachus.

"I am going to send you away of my own free will..."   (Book V)

The reader knows Calypso is lying, which makes this an example of dramatic irony. She tells Odysseus that she is letting him free because she still cares about him even when he will be gone, and she wants him to care about her when he leaves.

"Poseidon himself could not save you..."   (Book XII)

Circe doesn't necessarily understand the irony of this statement. Considering how Odysseus has offended Poseidon, it is highly unlikely that he would, under any circumstances, assist Odysseus.

"may I find my admirable wife living in peace among friends..."   (Book XIII)

As readers we are given the information that a large group of suitors has descended upon Penelope, trying to convince her Odysseus is dead and she should take one of their hands in marriage. By having Odysseus hope for something that directly contrasts the reality of the situation, Homer uses dramatic irony here to foreshadow further conflict in the story.

"I saw no more of you..."   (Book XIII)

Since Odysseus did not see Athena from that day, he believed that she had abandoned him. However, this is dramatic irony because the reader she assisted him during his entire journey back to Ithaca.

"for I was not given to bragging..."   (Book XIV)

This is a bit of conscious or unconscious irony on Odysseus' part. His bragging has caused many problems over the years, particularly with regards to Poseidon, who might not have known that Odysseus was the one who blinded his son Polyphemus had he not arrogantly told Polyphemus his real name.

"and their hair always tidy..."   (Book XV)

Even among servants, Eumaeus implies, there's a social hierarchy, as we see when the "upper" servants who work in the house look down on the swineherds and laborers. Odysseus, as he appears in this scene, wouldn't be fit even to work on his own lands (an irony that cannot be overstated).

"we had made sure that it would come to nothing..."   (Book XVI)

The suitors had hired a boat and crew to ambush Telemachus on his way back to Ithaca from Sparta, but he left Sparta earlier than expected and avoided the ambush, which was supposed to have taken place near Ithaca. Since they had assumed the ambush worked, the sight of Telemachus is surprising for them.

"like a man..."   (Book XVII)

Note the irony of this statement. Melanthius, a man of little to no means and a servant with no respect for his master, would never receive a sword or a cauldron as a gift, making him, by his own definition, less of a man. This further underscores how unhealthy the gender roles in ancient Greece were.

"married the best man..."   (Book XVIII)

Homer uses dramatic irony to humorous effect. Antinous demands Penelope pick the “best man” to marry, while her husband, Odysseus, is also standing in the room unbeknownst to them.

"of the same mind as I am..."   (Book XVIII)

Homer uses irony to emphasize Telemachus’s cleverness. Telemachus means exactly the opposite of what he says about Antinous and Eurymachus being “understanding”, but he is using it as a cover-up so that they don’t interfere. His craftiness deepens the connection between him and his father.

"Irus..."   (Book XVIII)

This is another example of Homer’s wordplay. “Irus” is a play on “Iris”, a messenger goddess. Some of the townspeople nicknamed him this ironically because he is the complete opposite of any godly being: a beggar and a drunkard. He delivers messages out of dire need, not out of divine duty.

"Bring a seat with a fleece upon it, for the stranger to sit upon while he tells his story..."   (Book XIX)

Penelope, well aware of the requirements of formal hospitality (xenia) provides the beggar with the same kind of seat she is using.  By doing this, she is honoring her absent husband, who happens to be sitting right in front of her--a great Homeric irony.

"yet I am laughing and enjoying myself as though there were nothing happening..."   (Book XXI)

A rare example of verbal irony from Telemachus. Up till now, he has been fairly somber and serious. However, now he is laughing not because he feels carefree, but because he knows what is about to happen to the suitors.

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