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Irene de Jong. Narratology and Classics: A Practical Guide.

Irene de Jong. Narratology and Classics: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 240 pp. $35.00 paper.

In this introduction to narratology, Irene de Jong tries to cross disciplinary boundaries. As a classicist, she has been inspired by narratology; and now she wishes to reciprocate, to offer something in return for narratologists, namely to show information how much of narratology is relevant already for the study of classical texts. In other words, the book makes a strong statement for diachronic narratology, illustrating how almost all of the aspects and concepts of narratology can be demonstrated to be applicable to Greek narratives. These findings are somewhat paradoxical: On the one hand, a diachronic approach to narrative suggests a modification of categories, possibly an addition of narrative categories based on features which existed in Greek narratives but perhaps disappeared at later periods; on the other hand, what de Jong's book actually achieves is a corroboration of narratology's universalist qualities--basically, all her categories are illustrated by examples from Greek texts. The main thrust of the book is to pair passages from Greek and English literature, category by category. In Part II of the book, three passages from different genres are discussed in detail--one from epic poetry, one from historiography, and one from drama--thus arguing that the narratological approach to Greek antiquity extends across a wide spectrum of texts.

For non-classicists, this is an astounding work of criticism since narratologists as a rule have not been following classical studies closely and therefore will tend to be duly impressed with the mass and quality of criticism in classicist narratology. Each chapter has a bibliography which contains a section on classicist narratological work relevant to the issues under discussion. Irene de Jong herself has been involved in a multi-volume project on narratologic analyses of Greek literary texts. (1) Much work has also been done by scholars in ancient history, among which Jonas Grethlein is one of the most prominent. There exists, thus, a flourishing community of narratologists dedicated to the literature of antiquity (de Jong unfortunately does not mention the Latin side, which--for the non-classicists--would have been useful).

The book is, however, also an introduction to narratology for classicists, providing a survey of major narratological concepts with illustrations. After the introduction, there are four chapters of this survey entitled "Narrators and Narratees," "Focalization," "Time" and "Space." Part II then provides in-depth analyses of the Aphrodite and Anchises love affair in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite; the story of Atys and Adrastus in Herodotus' Histories (Book I); and the death of Pentheus in the messenger report from Euripides' Bacchae. All the Greek quotations are cited with English translations, thus making it easy for non-classicists to understand how similar the Greek examples are to their English equivalents.

The four theoretical survey chapters will strike narratologists as somewhat odd. Although de Jong, as she says herself, espouses the model of Gerard Genette, a four-part schema "Narrators"--"Focalization"--"Time"--"Space" does not at all correspond to the Genettean framework. One would either have expected Tense (Time)--Mood (Focalization)--Voice (Narrators); or Narration--Discourse--Story. For one, de Jong is trying to modify Genette (and narratology in general) by adding space as an important basic aspect. She says a great deal about description in this chapter, distinguishing a variety of functions of the descriptive (123-30) and providing excellent insights into narrative texts applicable to all kinds of stories. She also notes examples where description does not merely provide a pause, but narrative time moves on during the descriptive passage (114). An especially striking point is her discussion of spaces in drama (109-10).

More problematic, though, are the subjects mixed (from a Genettean and also more generally narratological perspective) in the other chapters. Thus, the narrator-narratee chapter also includes material on embedding. The chapter on focalization is extensively concerned with speech and thought representation (an issue of voice in Genette). Finally, the chapter on time goes beyond a treatment of anachrony and frequency to deal with metanarrative commentary and also with issues of foreshadowing later plot developments, and it includes a fascinating array of remarks on the linking of plot strands, the managing of textual opening and closure strategies.

I will start by noting some especially fruitful insights, but I would like to first point out what I consider to be the most disorienting feature of this book, namely its terminological innovation. Obviously, adding new terminology, per se, is a good thing, provided there is either a new concept to be labeled or the current terminology is inconsistent and requires reconceptualization. De Jong usefully introduces some new terms at several instances. For example, she distinguishes between "completing analepses, which fill in events that had been passed over in the main story, and repeating analepses, which cover the same period as the main story" (81). She also points out that completing analepses often go "hand in hand with narrative delay" (81); they therefore correspond to a narrative tactics of strategically withholding information. Another excellent category to introduce is what de Jong calls "implicit foreshadowing," for instance the scene in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, where Lennie remembers killing mice almost involuntarily, a plot element that foreshadows his later murder of a woman (see de Jong 85-6). She also introduces the term "seed" to refer to information given in an early passage of a narrative which will turn out to be significant later, thus echoing Chekhov's bon mot that the revolver on stage in Act I signals its fatal use in Act V as it does in Ibsen's Wild Duck.

A particularly interesting section concerns different spatial standpoints (discussed in the focalization chapter rather than the space chapter), where de Jong distinguishes between a "narratorial panoramic standpoint" (61), a "narratorial scenic" (62) one and an "actorial scenic standpoint" (63), adding "close-up" (64) as a fourth category. Particularly in dealing with descriptions, this terminology deserves to be taken into consideration.

A term in Greek poetics, sphragis, which marks a final concluding passage in a narrative (de Jong 89-90), is another concept that might usefully be employed in narratology and adds an additional feature to the analytical toolbox of narrative studies. This is the only such new concept derived from the study of classical texts, whereas most of the other suggestions of de Jong can be said to apply equally to inspiration from modern and classical sources.

Where de Jong's terminology in my view becomes counterproductive is where she relabels familiar terms for no really convincing reason. Thus, she makes a distinction between homo- and heterdiegesis and extra- and intradiegetic narration, but relabels these as internal versus external and primary versus secondary narrator figures. Thus, the extradiegetic narrator of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is called an external primary narrator (20), and Pip's description of the marsh country in Great Expectations is attributed to an internal primary narrator. The stories told by Sheherazade to the king are said to be narrated by an external secondary narrator (i.e., Sheherazade), and Mrs. Dean's narrative in Wuthering Heights, which is part of Lockwood's first-person narrative, is referred to as an internal secondary narrator's story (21-22). Not only does de Jong introduce this new terminology, she moreover does not discuss why she has decided to set aside the familiar terms "first versus third person" or "homo-/heterodiegesis," and she does not even mention these, thus risking confusing readers raised on the standard narratological models.

A similar conundrum emerges with Chapter 3 and the terminology on focalization. Again, de Jong leaves Genette and Bal to one side (not discussing them at all) and focuses on what she defines as the "viewing of events of the fabula" and "the seeing or recalling of events, their emotional filtering and temporal ordering, and the fleshing out of space into scenery and persons into characters" (47). As emerges in the following pages, de Jong's focalization, which seemed to refer to visualization, in fact includes the evaluation of events by the "narrator-focalizer" (48; a term that is not explicitly linked to Bal), thus completely going beyond Genette's model and echoing Uspensky's ideological point of view. She then introduces "embedded focalization" (51), which one recognizes as thought representation by means of free indirect discourse and psychonarration. In another section on "focalization and information" (56-60), issues of omniscience, prolepsis, gnomic utterance, but also mind-telling, are taken up. I found it difficult to see a link between these items, particularly because de Jong's rejection of classical narratological models is not motivated by any theoretical discussion of her reasons for this departure from familiar terminology.

In the same chapter she also relabels the experiencing self and narrating self terminology of Stanzel (not cited by her) as "experiencing focalization" and "narrating focalization," thus mixing the issues of narration (voice) and mood (focalization), which Genette wanted to keep separate. Another new dichotomy which de Jong introduces in the "Space" chapter also strikes me as confusing rather than helpful: "When analyzing space we may further distinguish between setting; that is the location where the actions takes place, [...] and frames, locations that occur in thoughts, dreams, memories, or reports" (107). Overall, de Jong's Narratology and Classics is a brave attempt to put classicists and modern-language philologists into contact with one another on the playground of narratological study. The result of this attempt is a fascinating book that contains much material apt to get non-classicists to muse about the diachronic applicability of narrative features familiar from the modern literatures. I hope it will also be a beacon for classicists, motivating them to see how similar narrative discourse is in non-classic storytelling. If there is a second edition to this volume, I would, however, recommend a revision of the terminology, or at least a discussion of why familiar terminology has been replaced, and an illustration of the advantages of the new terminology over that of Genette.


(1.) See de Jong, Nunlist, and Bowie; de Jong and Nunlist; de Jong, Narrators and Focalizers; and her homepage, content/j/o/i.j.f.dejong/


de Jong, Irene J. F. Narrators and Focalizers. The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad. London: Duckworth/Bristol Classical Press, 2004. Print.

--, ed. Space in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative. Mnemosyne, Supplements, 339. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Print.

de Jong, Irene J. F, and Rene Nunlist, eds. Time in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Print.

de Jong, Irene J. F, Rene Nunlist, and Angus Bowie, eds. Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative. Vol. 1. Leiden: Brill, 2004. Print.


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Author:Fludernik, Monika
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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