Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.12

Irene de Jong, A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001.  Pp. xix, 627.  ISBN 0-521-46478-1.  $110.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-46844-2.  $40.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (
Word count: 3039 words

Since much of this review will register theoretical and methodological disagreements, let me start by saying that the book is extremely helpful and a very good use of a limited book allowance. The literary study of classical texts is already greatly indebted to I.F. de Jong. Narrators and Focalizers not only changed the way many of us read Homer, but made basic narratological terms and concepts regular currency throughout the discipline, to our great benefit. This book is more welcoming to general readers, since it does not use the abbreviations that made Narrators and Focalizers intimidating. It also defines "narratology" more broadly. Because D. Lohmann's Die Komposition der Reden in der Ilias has no parallel for the Odyssey, de Jong analyses the organization of speeches. The book is clearly written and I hope that the many colleagues in other disciplines who teach the Odyssey, as well as high-school teachers, will use it. It is full of fine observations. The discussion of simultaneity is sensible and clear, and I was much enlightened by her comments on emancipation of speech. Her explanation of the actorial motivation of Hermes' inaccurate summary of Odysseus' adventures in 5.108-11 made me wonder why I had been so stupid as not to see it. The note on pronouns in 9.39-66 is beautiful, as is the treatment of the Argus-scene. That Polyphemus stands for nature rather than culture is familiar, but it never before occurred to me that his failure to collect and use the dung produced by his sheep stood in contrast to the pile by Odysseus' palace. De Jong has a fine eye for such details: 13.20-22, for example, where she notes how Alcinous personally stows the gifts to keep them out of the way. Her comments on the variants of the sleep motif are excellent. And so on.

The commentary does not include neo-analytic issues -- variant versions and Homer's sources. This may have been wise, since G. Danek has recently provided an exhaustive commentary on these.1 However, it is inherently limiting to ignore the audience's possible prior knowledge or the influence of variant versions. The commentary is very concerned with inconsistencies of focalization, but not with other small narrative problems. On 9.331-5, for example, she notes that drawing lots indicates that the task ahead is dangerous but does not comment on the weirdness of drawing lots before the Cyclops' return, when he could happen to eat those selected -- a peculiarity that incensed Page. Nor does she comment on why Athena takes from the end of 13 to the beginning of 15 to go from Ithaca to Sparta. Sometimes the commentary seems untroubled by things that drive me crazy (17.363-64, for example, on which see Danek 1998, 335-38).

The commentary incorporates three main strands in the study of Homeric storytelling. There is structuralist narratology, specifically that of Mieke Bal. Then there is the unitarian tradition, which sought to identify the particular characteristics of Homeric narrative, often in refutation of analytic assumptions -- the narratology of Rothe, Bassett, Hölscher, and Fenik. Finally, the oralist tradition is interested in type-scenes and recurrent motifs.

The commentary thus invites reflection on what structuralist narratology can and cannot do. Close attention to the character-language makes it possible to read Homer far more sensitively. When de Jong demonstrates, for example, that Menelaus' account of his Egyptian adventures is more like narrator-speech than other character-narratives by a variety of measures, the method shows its use. It opens a whole new question. Yet it also sometimes tries to offer too easy answers to the very questions it teaches us to ask.

The issues appear at the start, in the glossary of terms. This is an extremely valuable section, which I shall recommend to all my students. Paralipsis, for example, is defined generally, and then in terms of two Homeric narrative methods, gradual revelation and piecemeal presentation. Footnotes guide the reader to scholia and modern discussions. (Unfortunately, there are no references to Homeric passages or to the commentary, and the index does not include these terms.) At the same time, the glossary oversimplifies, saying simply that "actorial motivation is usually explicit while "in Homer narratorial motivation always remains implicit." Yet elsewhere, in defining ellipsis, de Jong includes personality traits and motivations among matters that can be left to the audience to infer. Again, on narratorial motivation, de Jong says later (p. 11) that Athena is in some ways a figure for the poet in shaping the plot. If this is so, and the audience recognizes it, we have something like explicit narratorial motivation. Surely all references to fate, and authoritative prophecies, approach explicit narratorial motivation by telling the audience that these items are traditional and thus fixed. The definitions are precise, but the phenomena are less tidy.

This may be true also of focalization. There are at least two critiques worth considering. The distinction between narrators and focalizers, speakers and perceivers cannot always be sustained, since sometimes, in both Homer and Henry James, we suspect implicit character-focalization because the language is more appropriate for the character than the primary narrator. The distinction between perceiving and telling thus collapses. The other is that of Don Fowler: interpreters, by attributing disturbing language to characters, can avoid troublesome implications.2 This is a bigger problem in the Iliad, where the narrator's views are more complex, but the basic question of how we are to decide who sees and who speaks are still there. De Jong thinks that in the formula "They marveled at Telemachus, because he spoke boldly," the suitors focalize. This reflects the discussion in Narrators and Focalizers (112), where she argues that explanatory clauses that closely follow verbs of emotion are best analyzed as embedded focalization, "as they describe the content of that emotion." Yet surely that is not exactly what they do; they explain the emotion, not describe it. If this description of Telemachus' speech is truly focalized by the suitors, there is no reason for us to share it; but I feel sure that we do. When Antinous then uses the word at 1.385 (she is very helpful on the variants of the catch-word technique), the point lies in his very different response to a boldness that nobody questions. On the other hand, she thinks that "hateful" in similes at 5.396 and 22.272 is character language in the narrator's voice, although it could belong to the children and birds in the similes. Sometimes, I think, the narrator sympathetically speaks from a position that combines his own and the characters', and if this seems like a move backward to the bad old days of imprecision, so be it.

The commentary repeatedly describes arrival scenes as focalized by the arriving character with paralepsis (intrusion of narratorial knowledge) by the narrator. So we are told the background details of the wedding at Sparta at the opening of Book 4, or a great deal that Odysseus does not know about Alcinous' palace at 7.84-111. Yet the narrative intrusions are typical of these scenes. The visual perspective is that of the character, the knowledge often that of the narrator. Structuralist narratology does not ask what the focalization is for (Fowler's point), but we cannot even decide how it works without some understanding about its rhetorical function. Sometimes, we are clearly invited to share the character's viewpoint (Hermes' admiration of Calypso's island). Sometimes we share it, but are simultaneously distanced (Telemachus' wonder at Menelaus' house conveys both its splendor and Telemachus' inexperience). We also want to ask to what extent the details are those of most importance to the "focalizing" character, and to what extent they have been selected for the benefit of the audience. Even if Eumaeus and Odysseus both know who built the fountain at 17.205, is this fact on their minds at this moment?

What, that is, can narratological categories do for us?. De Jong repeats her earlier suggestion that Eurycleia focalizes the narrative of the scar at 19.393-466. The suggestion is welcome, like an excellent conjecture one wouldn't put in the text: for no other person would the scar-story be ordered precisely this way, with its strong connection between the moment of Odysseus' naming, when Eurycleia handed him to his grandfather, and the boar-hunt. Yet the objection to calling this "focalization" is not just that Eurycleia was not present at the hunt, an objection that de Jong answers by pointing out that Odysseus is said to have reported what happened, or that Eurycleia is named in the passage. One issue is that Odysseus is thinking about the scar, too (19.390), and so it is likely to matter that the story combines a scene Eurycleia witnessed and Odysseus did not, and one Odysseus witnessed and Eurycleia did not.3 The passage includes such typically narrator-information as Hermes' gifts to Autolycus. It does not imitate "what goes through her mind." Nor is there any significant filtering function -- the story is true and complete. On the other hand, the details are those that matter to the characters -- even if they are not focalizers, they are certainly filters.

Then there are the issues of "transference" (when a character has information known to the narratees but not, realistically, to the character) and other forms of non-motivated knowledge. Narratological method makes it easy to reify terminology distinctions, especially if the scholia have a term for a narrative practice. So when a character knows too much, we can try inference or hindsight within the narrative world, ellipsis or perhaps transference at the level of the narrator. I am not always clear on how de Jong thinks we should choose among these (she tends not to favor inference), but the distinction between transference and a character's knowledge of "new" information is interesting. Eumaeus' knowledge of the suitors' ambush is attributed to transference, while in passages where Odysseus reports events he did not witness or reports others' thoughts (10.34-46, 12.339-51, 10.448), the desire to show how foolish the companions are "overrules narrative logic" (p. 224). Yet transference is just as illogical as other unmotivated knowledge, and in traditional or folkloric narrative the audience may know more than it "knows" from the particular telling. It is true that the instances that extend the limits of inference allow the speaker to characterize others negatively. Still, Odysseus' companions had ample opportunity to tell him what happened when he was asleep, and hindsight/human experience provide a basis for inference. At 10.34-46, he reports the companions' views as anonymous-speech, a form that is not really direct quotation (since it summarizes the similar comments of various speakers); it is thus well suited to a dramatic rendition of what Odysseus learned or realized later. The report from Thrinacia, on the other hand, could easily reflect the companions' desire to blame Eurylochus (as Eurymachus tries to blame Antinous at 22.48-55). I doubt that these were the only stories/versions Homer's audiences had heard where followers caused disaster while the leader slept, and the traditionality of the pattern helps hide any flaws in logic. At 10.448, Odysseus guesses that Eurylochus is afraid of him -- he knows Eurylochus, after all. In Eumaeus' tale at 403-84, which is the most difficult to accept as first-person narrative, sex and a promise of return home are the obvious motives for Eumaeus' Nurse. At 12.277- 308, Odysseus may infer that it is Hermes who helped him, or Circe may have told him later.

When Odysseus in his lying tale at 14.295-97 says that he suspected that the Phoenician meant to enslave him, and then that he suspected it when he boarded but had no choice, the commentary argues that his suspicion mitigates Odysseus' mind-reading. Rather, it makes it literally mind-reading rather than unmotivated knowledge, but the plot here genuinely requires that the character-narrator know something he would have no chance to learn and nobody would tell him. And the plot is important, because near-enslavement is the special theme of this lie. On the other hand, enslaving people is what Phoenicians do; again, the internal and external narratees will not worry too much about the unmotivated knowledge because they are so familiar with such stories (and the speaker needs to mention his suspicion because he would seem a fool otherwise). I would suggest that there is considerable flexibility at the boundary between inference and omniscience. What matters most is how and where unmotivated knowledge is limited. As de Jong points out, "the restriction of understanding concerns mainly the role of the gods."

One special form of unmotivated knowledge comes in ethnography. When Odysseus knows more about Cyclopean and Laestrygonian society than he could learn during his visits, the commentary suggests that he should be understood to have heard stories about them (pp. 225-26). There were, doubtless, stories about Cyclopes, Laestrygonians, and Aeolus, but, the narrative effect of travelers' tales demands that they be accounts of what the traveler has learned. Odysseus might have acquired this knowledge from Circe or Calypso, or we can accept (my preference) that the narrative drifts towards omniscience because Odysseus needs to have seen the cities of many men and learned their minds. She also comments that these introductions serve "to bias his narratees against his opponents," but at least some of the information he provides, such as the Laestrygonian 24-hour economy, is completely irrelevant. Indeed, there is a significant contrast between the early Golden Age life of the Cyclopes described in 9.106-115 and the life of the hard-working Polyphemus (the commentary, typically, ignores this issue). These introductions are probably best understood as a particular sub-genre unto themselves. They use the present tense, not because the information they provide is story-knowledge, but because it is ethnography. Even though it is focalized, or quasi-focalized, by the speaker, it is offered not just as experience but as knowledge.

De Jong points out that that the narrator at 13.120-24 and Athena at 13.304-5 exaggerate Athena's role in Odysseus' obtaining gifts from the Phaeacians and suggests that the claim is intended to prepare for Athena's leading role as Odysseus' helper. If only Athena spoke this way, she would surely call it rhetorical. Again, narratology tends to such purely rhetorical explanations of the differences between the main narrative and character mirror-stories. Most of these are convincing, at least in part. But since occasionally the narrator himself offers a different focus on events he has told, we should perhaps be open to other explanations for differences between characters' and narrators' versions. In this case, the Greek is a little vague. The Phaeacians bestowed gifts on Odysseus, οἴκαδ' ἰόντι διὰ μεγάθυμον Ἀθήνην (121), ἐμῇ βουλῇ τε νόῳ τε (305). The gifts are part of an overall plan that is clearly Athena's, and in such a context of double motivation there is a basic ambiguity about how much the person has done, how much is owing to the god.

De Jong does not explicitly present her own expectations of the text. Interpreters of Homer disagree about the extent to which they consider it appropriate to infer actorial motivation or necessary to find it. Many modern readers, at least, do not think that the explicit actorial motivation for Penelope is adequate. De Jong is, in practice, not inclined to let narratorial trump actorial motivation: she accepts, for example, Mattes' argument that Odysseus does not reveal himself to the Phaeacians because he is psychologically as well as physically exhausted, while pointing to the importance of delayed recognition in the poem more broadly. Generally, the commentary wavers in how literal-minded it is. It tends to normalize Homeric narrative. It points out Odysseus' emphasis on his own foresight in the Cyclops episode, but de-emphasizes how strange this foresight is. Odysseus brings strong wine because he expects to meet a strong man. Yet de Jong (237) regards his characterization of the Cyclops at 214.215 as, again, hindsight "which subtly suggests that even the Odysseus-actor already suspected the violent nature of the Cyclops." If so, why did he stay in the cave? Again, Odysseus not only conceals his name (ordinary prudence, perhaps), but tells a lie whose usefulness he could not really have predicted. Perhaps I fuss too much, but it would be helpful to have a discussion about what we ought to fuss about.

Obviously, there is plenty of room for disagreements of all kinds. Some are interesting. She describes Menelaus as "materialistic," and stresses that he wandered for seven years gathering wealth while affairs at home went wrong, but still invites Telemachus to go on a gift-collecting tour. Yet it is largely thanks to the sensitivity to individual speakers that she has herself so encouraged that makes me resist her reading here. Nestor implicitly uses Menelaus as a negative example for Telemachus, so the negative interpretation of Menelaus' delay is rhetorical. Odysseus himself briefly delays his return for profit (as de Jong points out on 11.330-84). The disguised Odysseus tells Penelope that Odysseus would have been home sooner, had he not thought it more profitable to wander collecting gifts (19.282-86) and praises his own craftiness. Here de Jong calls it "a perfectly acceptable excuse." There is a genuine tension here in Homeric attitudes. I am not entirely certain that we are to assume that Telemachus' decision to evade Nestor's hospitality is wise. He receives no guest-gift, after all, and he exposes his friend Pisistratus to his father's anger much as Odysseus, in another "open end" of the poem, causes Poseidon's anger at the Phaeacians. (On 13.363-71, de Jong also compares Odysseus' treasure, left in the cave, and the fate of Theoclymenus as "open ends".) Telemachus needs to hurry home less because of the situation as he knows it than because Odysseus is on Ithaca, so the narrator combines the character's youthful impatience with Athena's manipulation to make him hasten.

The index directs the reader to the most important discussion of a particular topic, where there is a full list of parallels. Alas, this index, is, like most indices, not complete (nothing on "piecemeal presentation" "zoom-in," or "plug," for example).

The book has an extensive bibliography, but is not heavily footnoted and rarely refers directly to earlier work, whether in agreement or disagreement. That makes it more pleasant to read. Although the bibliography officially closed in 1997, it is sketchy for a few years before that.


1.   G. Danek, Epos und Zitat. Studien zu den Quellen der Odyssee. Wien 1998.
2.   "Deviant Focalization in Virgil's Aeneid," PCPS N.S. 36 (1990) 42-63, reprinted in Roman Constructions. Readings in Postmodern Latin, Oxford 2000: 40-63.
3.   I discuss this at "Homeric Signs and Flashbulb Memory," in Epea and Grammata: Oral and Written Communication in Ancient Greece, edd. I. Worthington and J. M. Foley, Leiden 2002: 99-117.

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