I just finished reading the Iliad and the Odyssey. I’ve been reading them in small chunks during lunch at work. The single most surprising thing, given my prior knowledge of the two works from high school, was just how much of a jerk Odysseus was. This is all going from memory, so I’ve probably forgotten a couple Odysseus jerk moves. The following list should be fairly solid argument, however.
First, let’s talk about the Iliad. The first potential jerk move comes in chapter 10, the nighttime raid. In this chapter, Odysseus and Diomedes go out to spy on the Trojan camp. They find a Trojan spy attempting to do the same and after this guy surrenders, Odysseus and Diomedes kill the spy. To our modern sensibilities, that’s a cruel act, but because taking captives was a choice rather than a moral or ethical imperative, I’m not going to consider that a jerk move.
There is, however, a major jerk move regarding Diomedes. This isn’t actually part of the Iliad, but Diomedes and Odysseus have the task of going and grabbing a statue of Athena from Troy. As long as the statue stands, Troy will not fall. After the two Acheans grab the statue, Odysseus tries to kill Diomedes so that Odysseus could go back to the Greek camp the hero. Diomedes, being decidedly not a jerk, forces Odysseus back to the camp at swordpoint rather than killing him.
As if that weren’t enough, Odysseus was enough of a jerk that he got Telemonian Ajax to kill himself in shame. Odysseus shows remorse during the Odyssey, but save your underhanded behavior for your enemies, Odysseus.
After those two events, we go into the Odyssey, which should be subtitled, “The journey of Odysseus the jerk.” There were a number of jerk moves, but I want to limit myself to a couple of the biggest.
One of these was when the Phaecians take Odysseus back to Ithica, after handing him loads of goodies. After taking such good care of him, his first reaction is to doubt that they actually took him to the right place. I understand Odysseus is cunning and not going to be tricked (and that Athena had removed all of the important landmarks), but outright accusing them of treachery without any proof is a jerk move.
The single most egregious jerk move Odysseus made, however, was in the “trial” of his father. This was totally unnecessary. I get the trials of the swineherd and cowherd—Odysseus wasn’t sure he could trust any of his men, and if he revealed his true self to them, they might blab on accident or somebody might reveal his presence to the suitors. I follow why he didn’t reveal himself to Telemachus immediately—he wanted to test his son’s integrity and sense of honor. I get why he didn’t reveal himself to Penelope earlier—same reason, but this time regarding the maids. I even get why he didn’t want to reveal himself to his nursemaid, although his response (akin to “I’m going to kill you if you blab!”) was a jerk move too. But by the time he visits his father, all of the suitors are dead. He’s not in costume and has no reason to lie. So why does he do just that? Other than him being a jerk, I don’t know what possible gain he has from it.
As such, more than any other single character in these two works, Odysseus is a jerk.