Odysseus is a combination of the self-made, self-assured man and the embodiment of the standards and mores of his culture. He is favored by the gods and respected and admired by the mortals. Even the wrath of Poseidon does not keep him from his homecoming. He is confident that he represents virtue even when a modern audience might not be so sure. He is also a living series of contradictions, a much more complicated character than we would expect to find in the stereotypical epic hero. We can contrast Odysseus, for example, with the great warrior Achilles in The Iliad.
Achilles himself is not a two-dimensional stereotype. He has a tragic flaw, which can best be identified as hubris (an overbearing arrogance or misguided pride) as one of several distinguishing traits. But Achilles is a simpler character. According to the myth the Homeric Greeks would have known, Achilles was given a choice by the gods to live a short, glorious life full of excitement and heroism or a long, tranquil life with little recognition or fame. Achilles, of course, chose the glorious life; therefore, he achieves a kind of immortality through valor and intense, honest devotion to a cause.
Odysseus, in The Odyssey, is much more complicated. He lives by his wiles as well as his courage. He is an intellectual. Often he openly evaluates a situation, demonstrating the logic he employs in making his choices. When it proves effective, Odysseus lies (even to his own family), cheats, or steals in ways that we would not expect in an epic hero. Although he is self-disciplined (refusing to eat the lotus), his curiosity is sometimes the root of his trouble (as with the Cyclops).
He is willing to pay a price for knowledge; for example, he insists on hearing the Sirens' call, even though to do so, he must have himself excruciatingly strapped to the mast of his ship so that he cannot give in to the temptation. Odysseus can be merciful, as when he spares the bard Phemius, or brutal, as he seems when dealing with the dozen disloyal maidservants. He creates his own code of conduct through his adventures. He is deeper than Achilles, more contemplative, but still capable of explosive violence; he is almost certainly more interesting. It is easy to see why some critics like to call him the first "modern man."
Victory motivates Odysseus. He wants to return home and live well in Ithaca; as a result, every step along the way is another test, sometimes, another battle. His concern with victory is also cultural, as well as practical. In Homer's world, where there are no police or justice systems, might usually makes right. The strong prevail. Odysseus often has only two choices: death or victory. Even when Athena intervenes on his behalf, she often leaves ultimate success or failure up to Odysseus. During the battle with the suitors, for example, she could easily and quickly prevail; but she makes Odysseus earn the victory.
Appropriately, Odysseus' development as a character is complicated. He is, in every way, "the man of twists and turns" (1.1). While he does seem to grow throughout his wanderings, the reader should not look at each event as a one more learning experience for the hero. The Odyssey is not a lesson plan for growth; the episodes are not didactic examples of the importance of prudence or anything else.
When Odysseus left for Troy, he had already established his reputation as a hero. His participation in the war was crucial to the Greeks' victory. It was he who disguised himself as an old beggar and infiltrated the enemy. As Menelaus tells Telemachus in Book 4, it was Odysseus' legendary ruse of the Trojan horse that led to the defeat of Troy.
Certainly Odysseus does grow in wisdom and judgment throughout his ventures. His self-control while dealing with the suitors' insults is exemplary and contrasts, for example, with his earlier irresistible urge to announce his name to the Cyclops in Book 9. In other ways, however, he seems slow to learn. The most notable example being his difficulty in controlling his men. After the victory over the Cicones, Odysseus wisely wants to take the plunder and depart quickly (9.50). His men prefer to stay, leading to a defeat at the hands of reinforcements. When Aeolus grants the Greeks fair winds to Ithaca, Odysseus falls asleep within sight of home, enabling his suspicious, undisciplined crew to open the bag of ill winds and let loose a tempest that blows them off course. Again, on the island of the Sungod Helios, Odysseus' men disobey strict orders and feast on the sacred cattle when he goes inland to pray and falls asleep. The struggles Odysseus faces make his growth as a character more realistic and more credible because it is not simple or absolute.