English Language and Literature ETDs

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Man dies. In an absurd universe, one in which it is no longer possible to fall back on the consolations of religion or philosophy, death seems to undermine the meaning of life. It is the attempt of this thesis to examine man's confrontation with the absurdity of his own death in the light of one of his most ancient myths: the Odysseus legend.

It begins by showing that, although Odysseus' driving motivation in Homer's Odyssey is to return home safely to Ithaca, his complexity of character makes him one of the prototypes in Western literature of the uomo universale. It was inevitable that such a complex, contradictory figure should become for later poets the archetype of the wandering man.

And in fact, even within the Odyssey itself, Odysseus' wanderings are far more than simply those of a man trying to get home. In the elever1th book of the poem, the so-called Neky5a, Odysseus confronts the absurdity of death in all its guises. His illusions about the meaning of both life and death are st1·ipped away until finally he stands defenseless before the primitive terror of death. He flees back to the open sea, to Ithaca, to life.

Dante carries the confrontation a step further. His Ulysses has been conquered by death, but refuses to submit. His undying story of his last voyage, flung forth from the flames that imprison him, is an assertion of man’s will in the face of death. But this assertion, heroic though it is, becomes itself a kind of prison. Ulysses can never escape the past in which he now has his life. But though he himself is damned, his story, that great refusal to submit, becomes an immortal image of man's effort to surpass his human limi­tations.

Kazantzakis' Odysseus labors to complete the three duties of man: the duty of the mind to seek to impose order on the chaos of the abyss; the duty of the heart to seek to go beyond phenomena in order to merge with something higher; and the final duty of freeing the soul from both mind and h0art. Thus free, at the end of the poem, from both the hope of subduing matter and of finding the essence of things, Odysseus is able to embrace death without hope and without fear. Death has become, no longer the enemy, but like the bull in the ancient Cretan bull rituals, a fellow athlete with whom Odysseus struggles in order to learn to face the abyss without trembling. This sublime play is man's final freedom: without fear or insolence, without hope, to confront annihilation with an intrepid glance.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

Ernest Warnock Tedlock

Second Committee Member

Jane Lucile Baltzell

Third Committee Member

Edith Buchanan

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