How do The Odyssey and The Crucible use the hero in order to explore the concerns of their times?

Last Updated: 26 Jan 2021
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The concept of what constitutes a hero varies according to the values, culture, context and setting of the society in question. Homer in his epic poem The Odyssey and Arthur Miller in The Crucible through the portrayal of the hero's in their texts; Odysseus and John Proctor, reflect the values of the time in which the text was set but more importantly provide a social commentary on the context of the texts. Both looking to the past to provide answers and draw parallels with the present.

The Odyssey was written approximately in 700 BC and was set in twelfth century BC, in what was known as the Bronze Age. The Greeks believed that this earlier period was a more glorious and sublime age, when Gods still frequented the Earth and heroic, godlike mortals with superhuman attributes populated Greece. The Odyssey is episodic in nature and in many ways consisted of nation building myths which were unifying and drew on what was common in Greek culture by detailing the exploits of the classical archetypal Greek hero, Odysseus.

Essentially it is an epic tale in which the wicked are destroyed, right prevails, and the family is reunited. On the other hand, The Crucible was written in the early 1950's in America and is set in 1692 in Salem, a small town in colonial Massachusetts. It follows the witch-hunts of 1692 which began when several young girls were stricken with an illness characterized by symptoms of hallucinations and seizures, which were ascribed to witchcraft. This led to the eventual execution of thirty individuals for the crime of witchcraft.

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They were tried and convicted in an atmosphere of moral absolutism through which Miller alludes to the events which took place in the 1950's before the House of Un-American Activities Committee in Washington. The Crucible can be viewed as allegorical text not for anti-communism, or as a faithful account of the Salem trials, but as a powerful timeless description of how intolerance and hysteria can intersect and tear a community apart. Furthermore, in contrast with Odysseus, John Proctor is a tragic hero, who would rather die then confess and lived with a marred name.

This idea of nobility is inseparable from the tragedy genre. Tragedy in many ways enlightens, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of a man's freedom. The quest for freedom is the quality in the tragedy which exalts. Both texts are framed by religious imagery. In The Odyssey Odysseus does not question the power of the Gods and in many ways Homers text can be viewed as a moral lesson, through the omnipresent nature of the god's as they guide the wandering hero home.

This reflects the Greek notion that the gods exercise absolute power over the mortal world. In the poem mortals are constantly making sacrifices to the gods to earn their favour. Conversely, offending the gods creates immense problems as is illustrated through Poseidon's grudge against Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemos. Moreover, it is only through Athena's guidance throughout the text that Odysseus can survive his dangerous adventures.

This distinguishes an important point as it reiterates not only the all-powerful nature of the gods but also introduces the idea that if Odysseus the hero cannot survive without guidance from the gods then the rest of the members of society must accept their fate as lying in the hands of the gods. What must also be noted however are the characteristics of the gods, which were a mixture of magical, immortal powers and basic human instincts, the gods were not perfect. Through this portrayal of the gods in the text Homer presents a more glorious time in Greek culture in a time when Greece was only a shadow of its former greatness.

This however varies in The Crucible which is set in a theocratic society, in which church and state are one and the religion practised was very austere form of Protestantism known as Puritanism. In this form of society there is no room for deviation from social norms, since any individual whose private life does not conform to the established moral laws presents a threat not only to society but also to the rule of God: "You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between".

John Proctor challenges this religious identity of time and shows how man has used god to manipulate and control individuals and it is ultimately his choice not to confess to witchcraft, which is a true religious and personal stance. In this way The Crucible can be viewed a symbolic of the paranoia of the communism which pervaded America in the 1950s. Several parallels existed between the witch hunts of 1692 and the House Un-American Activities Committee's rooting out of suspected communists.

As with the alleged witches of Salem, suspected Communists were encouraged to confess their crimes and to "name names," identifying others sympathetic to their radical cause. Miller through the actions of the hero Proctor foregrounds the McCarthyist excesses, which wronged many innocents, making a strong political statement. Furthermore, both Odysseus and Proctor are flawed and fallible and both of them fall into the seductive charms of the 'seductresses' as is portrayed in the texts.

Women are presented as either 'sainted virgins'; Elizabeth and Penelope or 'seductresses'; Abigail and Calypso this dichotomy represents the patriarchal structures of the context of the texts. Moreover the texts also highlight the dangers of giving women power and of female sexual potency. Odysseus' infidelity when he is trapped by Calypso serves to reflect gender roles and the double standard in Greek society. Homer does not invite the responder to view Odysseus' infidelity with any disdain or disapproval: "withdrawing into the cavern's deep recesses, long in each others arms they lost themselves in love" (#250-51).

It is somehow acceptable for Odysseus to sleep with another woman, while Penelope is represented as morally dubious for allowing the suitors to remain in the house. It is only Calypso who challenges these gender roles: "You unrivalled lords of jealously/ scandalized when goddess sleep with mortals... " (#131-32). While Homer portrays these sexist views, he also through Calypso's dialogue brings to attention the double standards of the society and more importantly introduces a new idea which may have been viewed as subversive in Greek culture at the time.

On the other hand in The Crucible, John Proctor as the play's tragic hero is honest, upright and blunt spoken, Proctor is a good man however his fatal flaw is his lust for Abigail Williams which leads to their affair. Proctor is very self-critical and this in a way reflects how his moral code is a product of the society in which he exists: "But I will cut my hand off before I'll ever reach for you again". Once the trials begin, Proctor realizes that he can stop Abigail's rampage through Salem but only if he confesses to this adultery.

This highlights how the hero must face a series of trials and tribulations in order to be redeemed, in Proctor's case these are more physiological battles whereas Odysseus faces more physical challenges. This illustrates the way in which the different contexts result in the formation of varying hero's reflecting the values of that particular society. Finally, Arthur Miller once said: "Nobody wants to be a hero... but in every man there is something he cannot give up and still remain himself... If he gives that up, he becomes a different man, not himself... It is Proctor's self-critical nature which distinguishes him because he does not set out to be a hero.

Normally he would not be considered a saintly individual, and he has not great eagerness to be a martyr due to his underlying guilt at his infidelity, which in turn he projects on Elizabeth: "I do not judge you. The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you. " Nevertheless when put to the final test, the meaning here of 'crucible', he will go to his death rather than irrevocably compromise his integrity.

Through his representation of Proctor as the tragic hero Miller creates a new post-modern ideology of the hero in which the hero is not extraordinary physically or mentally but rather what is heroic is the individual who stands by his personal principals, he does not set out to be the hero but rather the situation merely reveals the hero within. This notion explores the concerns of 1950 America in which the hero's were not the

McCarthyist's as it might seem on outward examination but rather those who only through their personal actions transpired to be essentially heroic. In conclusion, The Odyssey and The Crucible through the representation of the hero in text foreground the concerns of their times. The texts have revealed to me that what constitutes the hero varying according to context and setting and can help us gain further insight into the concerns of the society in question. Essentially the characteristics, which form the hero, are fluid subject to the values and culture of the times.

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How do The Odyssey and The Crucible use the hero in order to explore the concerns of their times?. (2017, Dec 23). Retrieved from

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