Odyssey vs O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In Odyssey, the main character Odysseus leaves his land and family in order to battle for an ally’s kidnapped wife, the battle of Troy. He spends a decade later trying to return home, battling various ills and evils so that he may eventually be able to return home. In his long absence, his wife Penelope has the battle of her own to resist the suitors congregating in her home in an attempt to win her hand in marriage.

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Their son Telemachus battles a mostly internal war in both missing his father and despising the suitors who are ruining his home and overtaking his life.

In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the three main characters Everett McGill, Pete Hogwallop, and Delmar O’Donnell escape from a prison chain gang. Everett convinced his fellow inmates that he has hidden a treasure that must be recovered before his hometown is flooded in the name of progress and the creation of a dam. Unbeknownst to his companions until near the end of the film, he is actually in prison for unlawful practice of law, and the treasure does not exist. The trio travels back to McGill’s hometown, with many interesting adventures along the way, including meeting a blind man who foretells their future, McGill’s attempts to woo and win over his wife Penny, and becoming a famous singing trio who receive a pardon for their crimes due to their immense popularity.

Homer’s epic The Odyssey and Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? are remarkably similar despite several large differences. The most notable differences between the two media are the setting, the number of primary characters, and the history and story of the main character(s). The similarities are numerous, and include the varying array of adventures, the theme of nostos, and the pursuit of material reward.

In Homer’s epic, the story takes place centuries ago, while the Coen’s movie takes place very recently, in the 1930’s. These differences bring with them different cultures and values. In Odysseus’ time, honor was valued above nearly all else. Homer shares a story of men who were highly valued when they died in battle, which was considered a good, respectable death. In the time period McGill, Hogwallop and O’Donnell lived, honor was not as valued. Rather than being men who were very well off, who left home to do battle, these three are escaped convicts. They hold no honor, something that is very evident when Everett McGill finds that his wife is engaged to another man and has lied to their daughters, preferring to tell them that their father was hit and killed by a train than to tell them he has been jailed.

Odysseus’ wife Penelope waits for him for ten years, remaining faithful to him at all costs. She also shares her husband’s good name with their son Telemachus, and they both refuse to fully accept the possibility that Odysseus is dead without irrefutable proof. In contrast, McGill’s wife Penny tells their three daughters that he was hit and killed by a train, to avoid the stigma and shame associated with having a criminal for a husband. The girls believe their mother, as they have no reason not to, and Penny becomes engaged to another man rather than remain faithful to her husband. Despite these differences, both McGill and Odysseus do what they must to get their wives back from the suitors. While McGill takes a much less O Brother, Where Art Thou?violent stance, by punching his wife’s fiancé and then finding her original wedding band (her requirement to take her hand again), and Odysseus elects to violently murder all the suitors in his home, as well as any maids that slept with the suitors or other workers who aided the suitors above and beyond their basic duties. These two men have different family dynamics, but the same dedication to their wives and children.

In the Odyssey, there is one main character. While there are three central characters, Odysseus, Telemachus, and Penelope, the story only follows one at a time, with Odysseus ultimately being the main character. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? there are three main characters. McGill, Hogwallop and O’Donnell are together at almost all times. This story also has one main character that it follows, McGill, instead of following the stories of the three most important characters. There is a varying depiction of the most common and important characters.

The characters also have different stories and histories. Some has been covered above, but there are other large differences. Odysseus is a noble, often given the title “godlike,” and lives on a large property that supports his in-laws and allows him room and wealth for many flocks of animals, workers, and servants. Odysseus is well-respected, and his name is well known due to his high social status. The three in O Brother are criminals, without more than the possessions of the average middle to low class person during the time – at least before they were jailed. Their names are originally only known because of their failures to obey the law, and because they are escaped criminals. Later on, they are known because of their hit singing ability, but that is not even under their own names, but their “band” name. While Odysseus is known for his good deeds, McGill, Hogwallop and O’Donnell are known for their misdeeds.

The similarities between the two stories are extensive, so I will only focus on a few. There are similarities not only in plot and the adventures the characters embark on and are involved in, but both are ripe with metaphors. In both tales, the main characters are following the strong theme of nostos, or the want/need to return home. Odysseus is battling gods, monsters, even visits Hades to help him return to his family. McGill convinces two others to break out of a chained roadside jail so that he can return to his wife and daughters. In addition, both stories begin with our “heroes” in captivity when they are first introduced. Odysseus is on an island with Calypso, and the three in O Brother are jailed. Both escape captivity, though through different means.

Though at opposing ends of the story, Odysseus, McGill, Hogwallop, and O’Donnell end up floating on driftwood due to violent waters. For Odysseus, the waters are so intense because he had angered the god of the sea, Poseidon earlier in the story. Poseidon did everything in his power to keep Odysseus from getting home, though he was unable to kill Odysseus because of Zeus’ direct orders. As a result, Odysseus handcrafted raft is torn to pieces, and he floats on broken pieces until he has mustered the courage to attempt a swim to land. McGill and company were left floating on their own coffins after the valley they were in was flooded to create a dam. They also narrowly avoided death by those who wanted to kill them, the local sheriff and his men who wanted to hang them (which was why their coffins were there).

In other parts of the stories, they both have their future foretold by a blind clairvoyant (in O Brother, the clairvoyant is the blind man who gives them a ride on the handcart, in Odysseus it’s the prophet Theoclymenus). All four characters are seduced by sirens, though they take very different approaches to the water-loving singers. Also in line with the sirens, only one character becomes seduced by them, with Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship and Hogwallop is basically kidnapped for ransom. Another similarity would be when Odysseus and his crew meet, are terrorized by, and escape Polyphemus, the Cyclopes. In O Brother, the men meet and are mugged by Big Dan Teague, another large man who also lures them in with food (though Polyphemus lure isn’t intentional) and they certainly cannot beat with strength alone, and kills one of their “men” (they believed one had been turned into a frog, who Teague squishes, similar to Polyphemus eating smashing and eating some of Odysseus’ crewmates).

I was shocked between the similarities between these two stories. I read Homer’s Odyssey in the college I originally attended for my English class, and watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? once before with my father as it’s one of his favorite movies. It didn’t strike me that they were so similar until this paper challenged me to consider it. It seems almost as if they are the same story, and I am honestly shocked that I never noticed the wide array of similarities before. I think this is a very effective way of sharing the story with others, and makes the crazy things that happen seem as plausible in modern times as possible. Odysseus’ adventures today seem impossible, especially as most people now discount Greek mythology as nothing more than interesting stories of odd cultures from the past.

By putting similar happenings in a modern context, though it has a lot of happenings that can be considered coincidental (such as correct predictions of future events by others), the Coen’s turn something improbable to plausible and funny. By doing this paper, I now look for similarities between Homer’s tale and other media I see. A lot of modern versions of epics and tales of grandeur, even in media like Scrubs and The Dresden Files. Also, the success of the movie and epic both show the eternal interest of the general population in an epic tale that includes plenty of “action” and a tale of romance, which is interesting in and of itself.

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