Telemachus, Heredity, and the Persistent Weirdness of Parent-Child Relationships

Caption: Upon being reunited, Odysseus hugs Telemachus and kisses his face. Oil on canvas painting by Henri-Lucien Doucet (1880), Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus.

Telemachus, Heredity, and the Persistent Weirdness of Parent-Child Relationships

By Natalie Dean


Poets such as Sappho and Pindar garnered plenty of attention during their lifetimes, but many of them also led rich afterlives in which they continue to influence the world of poetry. In the current pop culture scene, works inspired by or retelling Greek and Roman myths are very popular, including loosely inspired children’s books such as the Percy Jackson series and edgy, politically relevant retellings such as the musical Hadestown. One might understand these and similar works as continuations of the ancient storytelling tradition, albeit with a change in format. When examining the ways in which Greek myth is transformed in modern iterations, it is clear that no matter how much time passes, there are intrinsic truths of the human experience at the root of these myths, and from these truths, we are still learning to understand love, rage, humanity, and ourselves. 

In this essay, I will examine the relationship between Telemachus and Odysseus in Homer’s Telemachia of The Odyssey and Ocean Vuong’s Telemachus, analyzing the ways in which the latter reinterprets the titular character and arguing these reinterpretations can affect our retroactive understanding of Telemachus as a reflection of the human condition.


Homer’s Telemachia

Books IIV of The Odyssey tell the story of Telemachus, Odysseus’ now-grown son, as he searches for his father who has not yet returned from the Trojan War and who, at this point, seems unlikely to ever return. Telemachus has gone his entire life without a father, and as he comes of age, he finds himself lacking something this relationship might have provided. His quest to learn more about his father can, in this way, be understood as a quest to learn more about himself. 

When a stranger at Telemachus’ gates reveals herself as Athena, she speaks with familiarity and warmth to Telemachus, saying, “[A]re you / Odysseus’ son? You are so tall! / Your handsome face and eyes resemble his” (Wilson Book I, lines 206208). Immediately, there is an established connection between Telemachus and Odysseus. This at first seems innocent, even insignificant. It is only physical, as is expected of heredity, but the poet’s intention in mentioning it becomes clear in the next block of dialogue, as this is a source of discomfort and insecurity in Telemachus. The response from Telemachus is: “I cannot be sure […] / I wish I were the son of someone lucky” (I.215217). This vagueness and uncertainty in regards to his father is extremely important to understanding their relationship, or rather, lack thereof. A physical resemblance to a man he cannot remember means nothing to Telemachus, as even this most basic, primal link between himself and his father is rendered so ineffectual that he is unconvinced it exists at all. 

Beyond that, Telemachus bears an underlying sense of resentment towards his father. As he goes on to explain, the gods have cursed Odysseus, which has in turn sent Ithaca into turmoil and dysfunction. Telemachus, brazen, tells Athena that “if [Odysseus] had died, it would not be this bad” and explains his grievances, most notably the suitors whom his mother does not send away and whom he suspects will soon kill him (I.236). To Telemachus, the root of his problems is that his father is alive, since if he were dead, he would have earned sufficient honor and fame for the royal family that the suitors would not be so disrespectful. It is clear through how he speaks about his father’s absence, making it the source of his problems, that he does not yet think himself adult enough to find solutions by himself. Being quite young, he is looking for help in a missing father figure, Odysseus. Instead, it is Athena who gives Telemachus a strategy for how to proceed, to which Telemachus says, “[Y]ou were so kind to give me / this fatherly advice” (I.307308). The operative word here, of course, is ‘fatherly,’ as it implies Telemachus does have an understanding of fatherly tendencies even though he has never experienced them. The Greek here reads, “ὥς τε πατὴρ παιδί” and most simply translates to “as a father to his son,” assigning Athena to the role of father and himself to the role of son. Because we might assume this is the first time Telemachus has been put in the role of a father’s son, his change in demeanor after this discussion is also notable, as he leaves the interaction “feeling braver, more determined, and with his father more in mind” as well as “godlike” (I.321322, 324). The implication here seems to be that by interacting with a father figure, particularly in a conversation about his own father, Telemachus grows. Being described as “godlike,” the same word often used for heroes such as Odysseus and Achilles, Telemachus becomes more like his father simply by having his father “more in mind.” What the epic seems to be showing us is that Telemachus really did need the advice of a father figure in order to solve his problems, and that as soon as he got that advice, regardless of who gave it, he was able to move forward. A father’s guidance, therefore, is necessary for, using the colloquial term, growing up. 

We can imagine Telemachus thinks of Odysseus in much the same way as the audience does: he is a man of myth, a story passed down through time, and more concept than human. He says of his father, “[H]e is nameless and unknown” (I.242). At a glance, this seems repetitive, but the difference in the two descriptions here is poignant. First, to examine the weight of the word ‘nameless,’ we must remember that Greece was a monarchical and hierarchical culture in which parentage held great weight. Throughout Homer’s works, characters are referred to as their father’s sons, sometimes exclusively and without listing their own name. Even Athena, in this same interaction, has yet to refer to Telemachus by name, though she does skillfully call him “Son of Penelope” rather than Odysseus, picking up on the current tension. That is to say, names are core to identity, and lineage matters in a social sense as well as political. Again, there is an inherited connection between Telemachus and Odysseus which Telemachus finds difficult to accept. As the only son of a war hero and prince, Telemachus should be reaping the rewards of high status and honor, but instead, he feels alone against the suitors. The name Odysseus has given him does not protect him, so Telemachus rejects it. In referring to his father as ‘nameless,’ Telemachus dismisses not only his father, but the part of his own identity that comes from his father. 

The second word, ‘unknown,’ succinctly defines the existing relationship between these characters. Telemachus knows his father’s name well enough to discard it, but his feelings toward his father himself—the flesh and blood man, not the story he has been told since childhood—are not so heated. There is nothing here for him to reject; it is neutral. ‘Unknown’ is not resentful or hateful or otherwise emotional; it is fact. Any anger he feels toward his father is vague and ill-defined, because at the core of it, he does not know his father. Hate requires one to know the subject; hate requires details. This is the true relationship between them: they do not know each other well enough to have one.

The Greek here, “ἄιστος ἄπυστος,” can be translated more literally as “out of sight, out of hearing/sound.” The words themselves take the negative – prefix to denote lack, similar to the English un- and -less used by Wilson. This prefix (and suffix, in Wilson’s translation) is significant because it adds nuance to the word choice. Rather than using already negative words with the same sentiment, such as ‘silent’ or ‘blind’ or simply ‘gone,’ Homer uses positives and twists them negatively. Something which is unheard has the capability of being heard, and something unseen has the capability of being seen, as is not the case for deafness or blindness. This subtle choice reiterates the feeling of betrayal and hurt that Telemachus is communicating; his father could have been seen and heard, but he is not. Emily Wilson’s translation does change the literal meaning here; however, the sentiment remains similar, and her wording provides stronger connotation for English readers.  

Before Telemachus sets out on his journey to discover his father’s fate, Athena delivers a long monologue in which she assures him he will achieve his goal, so long as he is like his father. She reiterates this sentiment many times in the same speech: “Telemachus, you will be brave and thoughtful, / if your own father’s forcefulness runs through you. […] / If you are not his son, his trueborn son, / I doubt you can achieve what you desire. […] /  You do possess your father’s cunning mind / so there is hope you will do these things” (I.270280). Athena leaves no room for interpretation: Telemachus’ success is contingent on his similarity to his father. Crucially, this is the first time she calls him by personal name rather than parentage. Using his own name should be a moment of affirming his individual identity, but instead, she uses it to introduce a speech which reiterates that his identity needs to derive from his father’s. His worth is conditional; he is only a good, capable man so long as he is his father’s son, and Athena will call him by first name only in order to tell him as much. Again, there is an emphasis on inherited traits suggestive of the importance of parentage in this culture; heritage is not only biological but psychological, to the point that Athena is expecting Telemachus to have enough of an intrinsic bond with Odysseus that he will be able emulate Odysseus without ever having met the man. 

The final leg of Telemachus’ journey takes him to Menelaus and Helen, friends of Odysseus who remember him fondly and relay to Telemachus their best memories of him. After speaking, Menelaus tells Telemachus, “My boy, your words are proof of your good blood,” which again enforces the idea that in order for Telemachus to be ‘good’ or otherwise worthy of praise, he must be similar to Odysseus (IV.611). In this way, Telemachus is not given the opportunity to prove his own goodness; every good action of his is an ode to Odysseus’ goodness, which is only being borrowed by Telemachus. His merits are inherited. From this, we can understand that everything Telemachus learns about his father on his journey, he is also learning about himself.

The Odyssey seems to take the stance that lineage, regardless of a person’s personal relationship to their ancestors, is important and quantifiable. Even though Telemachus and Odysseus have not met in any meaningful way, Odysseus is present in Telemachus’ life through Telemachus’ own actions, personality, speech, and appearance. Telemachus is his own father; his sense of self may not be tied to his father, as he tells us when he explains he is unsure of his parentage, but his identity is. It is not a paradox: he is certainly and irrevocably defined by his father, but he is unaware of it. The bond between them is so primal and basic that it does not need to be acknowledged in order for it to exist.

When Telemachus returns home, his father has beaten him there, and Telemachus does not recognize him. This idea will be expanded upon in the final section, but for now: despite the perceived insistence that Telemachus’ biological connection to his father is enough to shape his own personality and abilities, it is not enough for him to genuinely know his father, and it does not supplement a relationship with his father. We should approach Ocean Vuong’s related work with this in mind. 


Ocean Vuong’s Telemachus

Celebrated Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong often centers his work around very personal experiences, such as loss and grief, sexuality and queer identity, the immigrant experience, and most importantly for the purposes of this essay, the aftermath of the Vietnam War with a concentration on its lasting effects on family relationships. 

With this in mind, the poem is included below: 


Telemachus, by Ocean Vuong

Like any good son, I pull my father out           1

of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail

the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer

where we left it. Because the bombed

cathedral is now a cathedral

of trees. I kneel beside him to show how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,

Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer         10

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming

with seawater. He is so still I think

he could be anyone’s father, found

the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year

he has never touched. I touch

his ears. No use. I turn him

over. To face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes. The face

not mine — but one I will wear         20

to kiss all my lovers good-night:

the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own & begin

the faithful work of drowning.


The poem, written in 24 lines to mirror the 24 books of the original work, uses Telemachus’ name as the title to give readers some baseline context. Keeping the title in mind as we read through the poem, we are able to get an understanding of the scene Vuong is setting of a child receiving their father upon his return from war. 

The most immediately striking detail of the relationship between the father-son pair is a sense of duty. Vuong’s speaker writes that in dragging his father from the water, which we can interpret as bringing an end to the long return journey, he was only doing what is expected of “any good son” (ln. 1). The words used here are flat and generalizing. There is no warmth or love for the father in this first line, setting the tone for the rest of the poem. Vuong’s speaker is immediately dismissive of any emotion behind his actions, opting instead to portray the sense of obligation that the speaker feels toward his father. Here the speaker acts almost without agency to meet the requirements to which he is bound. There is no sense of control over this action, nor a sense of wanting to do it. This idea is reiterated in the final line of the poem, bracketing the entirety with this tone of somber duty-fulfillment, in which the speaker begins “the faithful work of drowning” (ln. 24). “[F]aithful” is the operative word here. Faithfulness has a religious connotation, painting a picture of unquestioning devotion to a being whom one does not understand. The speaker acts not out of love or care but an unquestioning belief that this is his duty. Again, any semblance of emotional weight is missing here, where we might otherwise have expected a happy reunion. The return of the father does not bring the speaker joy, but rather binds him to acting, almost puppet-like, in the way that is expected of him.

Building onto this lack of emotional resonance is the sheer unfamiliarity between the speaker and the returned father. The speaker’s father is mute and unresponsive. When the speaker asks to be recognized by him, the father says nothing. Vuong tackles this concept succinctly in this exchange: “do you know who I am, / Ba? […] The answer / is the bullet hole” (ln 911). War has altered the relationship between the two so completely that there is not even recognition between the father and son. Without recognition, the degree to which the speaker and the father are able to form a relationship is severely limited. This is a reversal of the original story, in which Odysseus recognizes Telemachus on sight but is not recognized in return. Yet, there is a truth to the poem that is pervasive even in The Odyssey, which is that, in all reality, the parent and child do not know each other. Odysseus is, to Telemachus, a stranger. Telemachus is, to Odysseus, a taller version of the baby he left behind. At the time of meeting, there is no substance to their relationship. Odysseus recognizes Telemachus, but he does not know him. Vuong takes this concept a step further by naming war as the actor in this relationship. If we are to understand the father as Odysseus, at least in an allegorical sense, the bullet hole literally filling with seawater becomes a beautiful, gruesome visual of what the journey home has done to the father, covering his wounds with more and more travel instead of giving them the care and attention needed to heal. It is because of war that Odysseus was kept from his son for so long in the first place, and it is the long journey home that allowed the situation in Ithaca to escalate to the point it has. War is the perpetrator. 

This unfamiliarity between speaker and father is continued in lines 1921: “The face / not mine — but one I will wear / to kiss all my lovers good-night.” Here, Vuong examines the objective biology of a parent-child relationship; no matter how little emotion exists between the two, they will never be fully rid of the link that binds them. Physical similarity is complicated and difficult to rectify with oneself when one’s father’s identity comes in the way of their own identity, as seems to be the case for Vuong’s speaker. Because he feels that his face is associated with his father and that he does not know his father, he is left with a dissociation toward his own features and identity. 

It is the same struggle Telemachus feels on his journey. He is told how similar he is to his father, but his father is not there, so he must learn about his father in order to learn about himself. However, Vuong’s speaker pushes back against this, daring the reader to ask: is it possible to find any amount of your identity from someone you don’t know, regardless of their relationship to you? Within the poem, the answer is complicated. On the one hand, no, the speaker feels no connection to his father, nor his face, which leads him to speaking in an apathetic, detached manner. But on the other hand, yes. In the lines, “I seal my father’s lips / with my own” the reader is able to see that there is indeed a separation between the two men’s faces. Earlier, the speaker refers to his father as “Ba” rather than by name (2223, 10). These lines imply that the speaker does understand himself as being completely distinct from his father and understands their relationship as one of parent and child. The usage of “Ba” here is especially interesting because it rings so false. The word does not hold the same informality as the English “Dad,” but the use of a familial term at all suggests the speaker is acutely aware of the relationship they are missing. 

We can compare it to the original story by looking at Telemachus’ first words to his father after learning his identity, in which he calls Odysseus “πάτερ φίλε” (XXVI.222). Many English speakers will recognize ‘φίλε’ as the origin of the root word, ‘phil,’ and the phrase can be translated as ‘beloved father.’ In both iterations, the relationship between father and son is arguably nonexistent, yet when they finally are face-to-face, the son is only capable of expressing love. An optimistic reading of this would be that familial love is powerful enough that it does not need to be cultivated in the way that romantic or friendly love does. It is a reflex; it does not need to be learned. A less optimistic reading would be that the title “πάτερ φίλε” is unearned and lacks substance. Succinctly, one might say the way Telemachus speaks to his father in both iterations is misplaced, but not insincere. 


Retrospective and Telemachus as the Human Experience

Though The Odyssey itself is a story of post-war aftermath, Odysseus himself never quite leaves the fray. Even back home, Odysseus is fighting, and the story ends before he has the chance to process and be changed by the trauma. Vuong’s poetry forces the readers to consider the ‘post-post-war,’ when all the fighting is done and has been done for some time, and how this new era might have felt for Telemachus. We can apply the characterization suggested by Ocean Vuong to the original myth to adapt our interpretation of both the myth itself and what the myth says about the human experience.

Vuong’s poem truly reinforces Odysseus as a tragic character; though he found his way home, it is unknown to him, just as he is unknown to it. This idea is touched upon in The Odyssey, which frequently reminds the reader of how different Ithaca is now that the suitors have all but overtaken the city, especially through Telemachus’ dialogue such as: “They keep eating, / consuming my whole house, and soon they may / destroy me too,” and Athena’s assessment of the suitors: “They look so arrogant and self-indulgent, / making themselves at home. A wise observer / would surely disapprove of how they act” (XVI.128130, I.237239). When Odysseus and Telemachus meet for the first time, Telemachus does not recognize Odysseus. Even after Athena lifts his disguise, Telemachus has to be told who Odysseus is. Even after learning more about his father than he has ever known, he does not know him. Telemachus’ inability to recognize his father is an integral, intentional undermining of the epic’s earlier assertion that Telemachus can build his own identity upon his father’s despite never meeting. Hearing about his father is not a substitute for knowing him, and if Telemachus does not know his father, can he know himself? The epic and Vuong both seem to be united on the answer: no. Using Vuong’s words: the face is not his. Telemachus is not himself, but an empty apparition of his father.

Modern psychology and data from modern soldiers indicate Odysseus would likely have experienced severe post-traumatic stress lasting until the end of his life. Though The Odyssey does not explore this idea—of course, we cannot reasonably fault it for this as the field of psychology is extremely young even by modern standards and remains full of controversy—it does begin to broach the subject of what happens to soldiers after the fighting is done in Odysseus’ visit to the underworld. There, he meets several of his contemporaries and former war-buddies, including Achilles. This scene is most notably characterized by the miserable and solemn tone. Achilles, whom Odysseus continually calls the best of the Achaeans, expresses his regrets. He is mourning himself. This is arguably a very early representation of the PTSD that awaits soldiers, and because Odysseus has not died, this fate will instead find him in Ithaca. Vuong’s poem allows us to retroactively develop this concept by applying the more advanced modern understanding of post-traumatic stress to the characters. His poetry is as much a reflection of modern soldiers as it is a speculation on the remainder of Odysseus’ life. Vuong pushes his readers to the idea that the cost of war is not only higher than the reward of coming home but that the cost of war actually negates the reward of coming home.

Vuong pushes the idea that parent-child relationships cannot be born solely from genetics. Using his poetry, we can come to the interpretation that whatever intrinsic, deep-rooted, biological connection Telemachus was searching for in his Telemachia, he will not find. For a child to have a relationship with their father, they must know him, and vice versa. 

A parent-child relationship is one of the few things which every person experiences to some varied degree, regardless of whether that parent or child is theirs biologically, whether that parent or child is physically nearby, or whether that parent and child are close. It is one of our most core experiences: the knowledge that we are a part of someone else, that we are the culmination of our ancestors, and that our children are a piece of ourselves made conscious. The parent-child connection is not always positive, even in the most loving relationships, but it is always present, and perhaps because of that, it is easy to disregard how strange this phenomenon is. To some degree, Telemachus is a reflection of every child. He embodies the act of growing up by depicting the identity crisis that is so natural to the young adult years, during which we either learn from our parents or become them. Neither option is inherently good.

Telemachus expresses a truth that is universal and core to the human experience: to be a parent or child is not strictly a biological phenomenon. A man is not your father until he makes himself so.


Natalie is a student with the Classical Studies Post-Bacc program at the University of Pennsylvania.