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Unit information: Reimagining Odysseus in 2018/19

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Unit name Reimagining Odysseus
Unit code MODL30019
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Vilain
Open unit status Open




School/department School of Modern Languages
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit will trace aspects of the reception of one of Western European literature’s earliest, most inspiring and most revisited canonical texts, The Odyssey. It will focus on the figure of Odysseus himself as wayfarer and traveller, drawing out key themes such as exile, diaspora and homecoming; hospitality or hostility to strangers; honesty and deception or disguise; suffering and perseverance; restlessness and desire; memory and death; fidelity and treachery; fate and freedom. It will explore how these are mutated and reinvented by new generations in new political and cultural contexts while remaining recognizably ‘Odyssean’. Taking a cue from Italo Calvino’s essay ‘The Odysseys within the Odyssey’, it will link the ‘master theme’ of wandering and return to the telling of a plurality of tales and to the nature of story-telling itself.

The unit will look at versions of the story of Odysseus by both male and female writers and artists and the perspectives of the men and women in the tale, and will draw out the unique ways in which the theme has been exploited in post-colonial literature. Primary material will be presented in English, although students with knowledge of the original language of translated material will be encouraged to use those languages in their coursework, by using original primary texts and supplementary secondary material. Each block of material will be introduced with a lecture or lecture-style presentation and explored in seminars and/or small group work. A defining characteristic of the unit is the exploration of a very wide range of material in different genres, including contemporary writing; students will be encouraged to use secondary materials to track down retellings of the types that interest them most. Key texts forming a ‘spine’ to the unit are Homer, Odyssey (8th century BCE); Virgil, Aeneid (29-19 BCE); Dante, Inferno XXVI, from The Divine Comedy (c. 1308-1320) and Primo Levi’s use of this in ‘The Canto of Ulysses’, in If This is a Man (1947); James Joyce, Ulysses (1922); and Derek Walcott, Omeros (1990), esp. book 5, and The Odyssey: A Stage Version (1993).


  • To develop students’ understanding of a body of knowledge that is complex, sophisticated and of lasting significance in European and world culture.
  • To facilitate students' engagement with a body of texts, including in non-print media, primary sources and ideas as a basis for their own analysis and development.
  • To develop further skills of synthesis, analysis and independent research, built on the skills acquired in units at level I/5 and transferable to other working environments, including preparation for further study.
  • To develop an understanding of the discipline of comparative literary and cultural studies.

Intended learning outcomes

Successful students will be able to demonstrate:

a) critical knowledge and understanding of a significant figure, and set of themes, in European and world culture;

b) an advanced appreciation of the transfer of the Odysseus figure between cultures and across time, as well as of the discipline of comparative literature;

c) skill in the selection and synthesis of relevant source and secondary material;

d) evaluate this material critically, applying high-level skills of independent research and analysis;

e) an ability to respond to questions or problems by presenting independent arguments in an appropriate written style and at a high level of complexity as appropriate to level H.

Teaching details

2-hour weekly seminar

Assessment Details

Two essays of 3000 words each, each contributing 50% of the total mark, each testing ILOs (a)-(e).

Reading and References

Harold Bloom (ed.), Odysseus / Ulysses (New York & Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1991)

Piero Boitani, The Shadow of Ulysses: Figures of a Myth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)

Edith Hall, The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008)

Justine McConnell, Black Odysseys: The Homeric Odyssey in the African Diaspora since 1939 (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Beaty Rubens and Oliver Taplin, An Odyssey round Odysseus: The Man and his Story traced through Time and Place (London: BBC Books, 1989)

William Stanford and John Victor Luce, The Quest for Ulysses (London: Phaidon Press, 1974)