Reflections on Summer Reading Club

by Vivien Zhang ’21

Follow up to –

Concurrently, I was partaking in the Summer Reading Club that was led by one of our English teachers, Mr. Fanni. Casual virtual assemblies composed of Grade 10-11 students were held once a week to discuss our elected classic of study, The Odyssey by Homer.  

The Odyssey coincidentally resembles a snaking, fathomless labyrinth in its complexity as readers have the capacity to investigate the poem replete with existential questions, overt assessments of the Messenian social structure and allusions. Luckily, Mr. Fanni was able to maximize our comprehension and gain from the text by passing on his extensive knowledge on the subject through a museum-like tour of the contextual information he has collected. For instance, a slideshow presentation consisting of artifacts, historical landmarks and polytheistic myths catapulted us into the world of Homer in which Odysseus, a ‘lionhearted’ man of noble lineage strives to return home. Mr. Fanni has included a collection of illustrious artworks from painters including but not limited to Fuseli, Gustave Moreau, and Draper, all of which I will be sharing with you today. In addition to the exhibit of paintings and sculptures, a virtual tour of Ancient Greece locations provided geographic visualizations of Sibyl’s Rock, Odysseus’ Palace in Ithaca, and Nestor’s Palace in Pylos along with 21 more landmarks that are relevant to the poem. 

To summarize The Odyssey, this disjunctive narrative captures the fragile, patriarchal Messenian household that is in need of a father figure. The household rests upon the wife, Penelope’s faithfulness to Odysseus who was cast off to Calypso’s island after the Trojan War and evoking Poseidon’s wrath. Ithaca’s throne and the household’s property are left vacant and prey to the suitors who have been lounging and exhausting the family’s resources all the while vying for Penelope’s hand in marriage. The steadily crumbling social structure and oikos (the Greek household/ family unit) is one crucial tension that we have explored amidst the commercial economy transition. 

The Suitors, Gustave Moreau (1853)

A vague and open-ended question would function as the focal point that binds the chapters together. One particular inquiry that fascinated me was regarding fate. How do we, as powerless, vulnerable beings, face the inevitable? In a nutshell, outsmarting the Fates is a fruitless attempt to control. The Odyssey presents a rather fatalistic perspective of fate that is derived from the Trojan War but is dialectical as it concludes that individuals must whole-heartedly engage themselves to their prophesied, woven destiny. Befittingly, the heroine is praised for his aptitude to provide meaning to his suffering instead of diminishing the value of his adversities. 

Odysseus Facing the Choice, Fuseli (1796)

The countless mythical creatures that Odysseus has encountered on his journey are the pharmakos of civilization. They were scapegoated and exiled because of their chaotic forces and barbarism, which disrupted orderly, social conventions. The epic was marred with sexist overtones that stemmed from a deeply rooted paranoia of chaotic female sexuality. Strong female figures were villainized as rational or irrational lawlessness that jeopardizes the patriarchal oikos. From Scylla to Circe to an adulterous wife, all were ‘latent with danger’, yet I was gleefully surprised to see Homer end the poem with the Athena, a female presence, shutting down the male pursuit of glory. Amidst the protests for anti-racism, the poem soars in relevancy, as societal anxiety skyrockets. Unrest stirs as the redefinition of social order in terms of a white supremacist nation has brought about a sweeping of distrust towards authorities. 

Ulysses and the Sirens, Draper (1909)

I have come to discover that temptation of knowledge and the stigma surrounding female sexuality is often intertwined in Messenian culture. The Sirens seductively offers the answer to Odysseus’ contemplation and investigation –– the meaning of suffering. 

I would wholeheartedly recommend the Summer Reading Club for those who genuinely do want to explore a challenging, but significant text that is beneficial to cultivating one’s literary knowledge. It is also for those who wish for some guidance and motivation to fully enrich their comprehension. There is absolutely none of the pressure that students may feel during class discussions as it is simply a gathering of like-minded individuals, freely conversing without the burden of being assessed. 

Through my involvement in the club, I have come to realize that The Odyssey is much more than a mere heroic tale. It indirectly speaks of timeless social conflicts that I would have regretfully overlooked if I were tackling this influential text independently. At this point, I would like to extend a genuine thank you to Mr. Fanni who had taken time out of his summer to continue inspiring us and sharing his passion for literary art with us. Yet again, I have been introduced to the allure of literature in that there are boundless possibilities and interpretations.