Comparison of the O Brother, Where Art Thou and The Odyssey

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O Brother, Where Art Thou, released in 2000, follows the travels of a scruffy trio of escaped convicts through rural Mississippi in the late 1930s. This movie is loosely based on “The Odyssey”, and the similarities are immediately apparent.

First, Everett shares a name with the epic hero’s Roman adaptation- Ulysses. However, he chooses to go by Everett instead. He has a similar personality to Odysseus- he demonstrates pride and strong leadership abilities. His goal is also similar to Odysseus, as he just wants to return home, and nothing is going to stop him from doing that. Pete and Delmar represent the rest of the crew; they blindly follow their leader and don’t do much in the way of thinking.

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Several specific episodes throughout the movie are grounded in the original epic, as well as several themes. The first episode that we encounter is as the trio hitch a ride with the blind man. The blind man prophecies that they will not find the treasure that they seek. This is a nod to the blind prophet, Tiresias, who Odysseus seeks out in Hades’ domain, the Underworld. Tiresias prophecies that Odysseus will return home, but not without losing his crew first. These prophecies are both unfortunate news for the “crew members”- both Odysseus’s crew that will die, and Pete and Delmar, who will not achieve what they escaped captivity to do.

The next similarity that the trio is confronted with is the group of churchgoers by the river. The crew- Pete and Delmar- are enticed by their song and are baptized, momentarily forgetting their goal and feeling at peace with themselves. This directly correlates with the Lotus Eaters that Odysseus’s crew encounters. When Odysseus’s crew eat the lotus, they forget their homeland and mission, instead feeling at peace. In both situations, the leader does not partake in the merriments.

On their journey, the trio come across three women washing clothes by the river and singing. They are lured by the women to forget their journey, and seem to lose consciousness. When they wake, Pete is gone, and a frog is found in his place. This situation seems to be an allusion to two separate episodes in “The Odyssey”. The first is, quite obviously, the sirens. The sirens lured sailors to their death by disguising themselves as beautiful women and singing. The trio was not killed, obviously, but they do lose consciousness, and their journey is delayed because of it. A second, less apparent allusion to “The Odyssey” is the fact that Delmar believes that Pete has been turned into a toad. This may be an insinuation to the episode of Circe’s island in the Odyssey, where Odysseus’s crew is turned into pigs.

Directly following the sirens episode, Everett and Delmar continue, keeping “Pete” the frog in a box with them. They stop to eat, and meet a traveling salesman, who tempts them with the promise of striking rich by selling Bibles with him. He leads them out to a field on the pretense of talking about the business proposal further, but instead attacks them brutally, and kills the frog that they assume to be Pete. This episode relates to the encounter on Polyphemus’s island, where Odysseus’s men are beaten and killed. Another thing to note is that the salesman wears an eyepatch, giving him only one visible eye, similar to the cyclops, who only has one eye.

At this time, it is revealed that Pete is not dead, but has been captured by local law enforcement and is being whipped for information on the other two men. Unaware of this, Everett and Delmar head into town, where they encounter three little girls. Everett discovers that these are his daughters, but they don’t believe him when he tells them. Everett had left when they were young, so their memory of him is foggy. Nevertheless, they lead him to their mother, Penny, who is engaged to another man, despite her marriage to Everett. This seems to be where O Brother transitions to the second part of “The Odyssey”. Everett’s daughters do not recognize him, just as Telemachus does not immediately recognize Odysseus. Penny’s engagement to another man is a reference to the suitors that overtook Odysseus’s home. However, there is a stark contrast between the Penny of O Brother and the Penelope of “The Odyssey”. Penelope is consistently faithful to Odysseus, and does not take another man as her new husband. However, Penny is engaged when Everett returns. Additionally, something to note is that Penny is often used as a nickname for someone named Penelope.

Everett and Delmar move on to discover that Pete is alive, and free him from jail. They also save the life of a man named Tommy they had encountered earlier in their journey. These do not directly correlate to “The Odyssey”, but they help advance the plot.

Finally, Everett convinces Penny to marry him again. Her one condition, however, is that Everett retrieves her old wedding ring from their old home. Everett agrees, and brings Delmar and Pete with him to his old house. However, once they arrive, they are confronted by law enforcement seeking to hang them. They are detained, and Everett finally gives into the religion he once thought of as foolishness and prays. As he does this, water gushes from what appears to be thin air, allowing the trio to escape. As they flee the scene, Everett finds the ring Penny wants. They return to Penny who points out- much to the trio’s chagrin- that it is the wrong ring. This final episode shares several common threads with “The Odyssey”. First, Penny’s test is similar to Penelope’s test, even if they are for different reasons. Second, the random gush of water represents a supernatural force- perhaps even a god- looking over the trio, specifically Everett. This is similar to how Athena looked after Odysseus. Albeit, it’s a tad bit ironic, given the god of water in Odysseus’s case- Poseidon- was in deep opposition to Odysseus in “The Odyssey”.

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