Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.09.18

Irene J. F. de Jong (ed.), Space in Ancient Greek Literature. Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, vol. 3. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 339.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. xiv, 610.  ISBN 9789004222571.  $252.00.  

Reviewed by Jonas Grethlein, Ruprecht-Karls-Universtität Heidelberg (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

“Il peut sembler paradoxal de parler d’espace à propos de la littérature: apparemment en effet, la mode d’existence d’une oeuvre littéraire est essentiellement temporel”.1 Drawing implicitly on Lessing’s famous juxtaposition of the temporal nature of narrative with the spatial nature of painting and sculpture, Genette uses the paradox of space and literature only as a springboard for elaborating on the spatial dimension of literature. Others have tackled space and narrative too, some focusing on space in literature, others on the space of literature, but the variety of approaches to both questions indicates how tricky this subject is. While the first two volumes of Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative dealt with two firmly established categories in narratological research, namely narrator/narratee and time, in the third volume Irene de Jong and her team of distinguished scholars turn to an aspect of narrative that is harder to grasp. As in the two preceding volumes, the chapters are devoted to individual authors, roughly in chronological order, and cover in eight individual sections the genres of epic and elegiac poetry, historiography, choral lyric, drama, oratory, philosophy, biography and novel.

In the introduction, de Jong “brings together those theoretical concepts that [she] consider[s] most useful for an analysis of space in ancient narrative texts” (2). On analogy with “fabula-time” and “story-time”, she distinguishes between “fabula-space” and “story-space”: “the fabula-space” would be a (theoretically) complete depiction of the location(s) of a narrative, while the story-space is the actual space as the text presents it to us” (2-3). “Story-space” embraces both the setting of the action and “frames”, that is, “locations that occur in thoughts, dreams, or memories” (4). In addition, there is the “space of the narrator,” as when the narrator talks about his own spatial surroundings. Space can be introduced in synoptic descriptions as well as in “stray indications sprinkled over the text” (5). Both can be focalized by the narrator or by the characters who can also create an object as does Hephaestus in Iliad 18. Concerning the spatial standpoint, de Jong lists a panoramic viewpoint, a scenic viewpoint and the close-up. The final point on her agenda is function: space is thematic especially in city novels and travel stories. Descriptions can also serve as a mise en abyme and mirror the narrative. Space is often charged semantically and has symbolic significance. Reflecting the feelings of a character, spatial surroundings serve a psychologising function.

The categories of integration, spatial standpoint and function form a crisp agenda for the analysis of space in literature. There are, however, theoretical issues that deserve more reflection: the analogy between “fabula-space” vs. “story-space” and “fabula-time” vs. “story-time,” which de Jong adopts from Chatman, is flawed.2 An analogy would require that the relation between the duration of the events in the “fabula” and “the time it takes to peruse the discourse”3 correspond to the relation between the space of the action and the physical space that the story occupies, e.g. the format of a book or, in the case of theatre, the stage. De Jong, however, following Chatman, juxtaposes the complete locations of a narrative with the “actual space as the text presents us to it” (3). The asymmetry seems due to the fact that Chatman developed the concept for cinema, whose sign system is not only sequential, but also visual and therefore intrinsically spatial (if only two-dimensional). For the primarily temporal sign system of narrative, however, the analogy between time and space in fabula and story is ill-aligned. Of course, it makes sense to assess the narrative presentation of space by comparing it with the hypothetical space of the narrated world, but this is by no means analogous to the comparison of narrated with narrative time. My critique may sound like nit-picking, but reflection on this issue would have paved the way for a deeper reflection on the medium of narrative and a fuller understanding of how it can represent space.

There also seems to be confusion in the application of this concept when in one of the later chapters “story-space” seems to be limited to the setting of the primary action while the places referred to in embedded narratives are referred to as “fabula-space” (557-9; 577). This clashes with the claim in the introduction that “story-space” also embraces “locations that occur in thoughts, dreams, or memories” (4), and does not conform to the conventional definitions of fabula and story.

Despite the admirable succinctness of de Jong’s introduction, there are other points where one would have wished for more engagement with conceptual issues. In her first footnote, de Jong relies on a brief quote from Bal’s Narratology to explain why her discussion of space also includes objects: “The filling in of space is determined by the objects that can be found in that space. Objects have spatial status” (1). Of course, we did not have to wait until the “spatial turn” for the container-view of space to be discarded, but it would nonetheless be nice to learn more about how the relation between space and objects is to be envisaged. Do all descriptions of objects define space to the same extent or are there differences? It is striking that while de Jong’s chapter on Homer focuses intensely on objects, they are barely mentioned in other chapters. This may reflect the scarcity of information on landscape in the Iliad and Odyssey, but all this would have merited some discussion. Description is another topic that is touched upon only perfunctorily. De Jong perceptively notes that the boundary between description and narrative is fuzzy, but the statement that “we usually recognise a description when we see one” (6) is less than satisfying. Recent attempts to conceptualize description as semiotic mode or cognitive frame would have added depth to her exploration of space in literature.4

I also wonder if the presentation of space in narrative can be adequately explored without linguistic tools. Among the various linguistic concepts dealing with space, deixis is obviously crucial to understanding how a sense of space can be evoked by narrative. Bühler’s comparison of deixis ad phantasma with deixis ad oculos still offers a valuable starting point, to be complemented by more recent works such as Zubin’s and Hewitt’s concept of deictic centres.5 A chapter on spatialization in Herman’s Story Logic, for example, illustrates the benefits that narratology can expect from the adoption of these and other approaches in linguistics and cognitive science.6

The subsequent chapters do not slavishly execute the agenda laid out in the introduction, but, in general being well- adjusted to the features of the texts under discussion, use it with reasonable leeway. Given the limited length of the chapters, many points will be known to experts in the field, but I found all chapters interesting and rewarding. Particularly compelling, however, are those chapters that depart furthest from a mechanical application of the categories laid out in the introduction, and put select observations on space to work in the service of interpretation. I can only touch upon two examples here: Rush Rehm’s chapters on tragedy show great sensitivity to the interaction between the imaginary space of the world of the play and “the real space of those who had gathered to watch it” (307). The most striking case may be the finale of the Eumenides, in which the imaginary space of the play and the real space of the audience are blended together (324), but the focus on the interaction between the two spaces also proves fruitful for the interpretation of other plays. Take, for instance, Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. The nautical metaphors featured in this play “seem odd for the landlocked city of Thebes, but they would appear natural to an Athenian audience, with the Saronic Gulf visible in the distance and their vaunted navy (in which many would have served) in their minds” (312). Here, it is not the imaginary space of the action on stage, but the space evoked by imagery that interacts with the spatial world of the audience, thereby thwarting an all too easy identification of Thebes with the Other (311-2).

I was particularly intrigued by the metapoetic interpretation of space in J. R. Morgan’s chapter on Longus (552-5). Pointed verbal echoes support an interpretation of the rural space as a mirror of the text: the narrator wishes that his narrative be a “delightful property” (ktema terpnon) just as the estate is called a “most beautiful property” (ktema kalliston). Strikingly, the same verb (ekponoumai) is used for the labour of the narrator and the work of Philetas on his garden. Longus, it seems, gives a nod here to Theocritus who employs that very word when he refers to the the poet Philetas of Cos. The garden as a combination of nature and art mirrors an art that “imitates and improves upon nature” (553). Comparing Philetas’ garden with Dionysophanes’ paradeisos, Morgan ingeniously proposes that the latter “embodies the dangers of Alexandrian poetics carried to an extreme, of the primacy of art over nature, explicitly reducing nature to an imitation of art” (555).

To sum up, is Space in Ancient Greek Literature useful? Yes, it is. The third volume of Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative offers a handy survey of space in authors from Homer to Heliodorus. It is probably a work that only reviewers will read from cover to cover, but it will be a welcome starting-point for anybody interested in the treatment of space in a specific text or author. A qualification concerns the poor index. I do not see the use of an entire column with references to “description” without further lemmata, and I wonder about the logic of including “Acherusian Headland” and “Troy”, but not “Athens” or “Thebes”. The entries for, say, “piecemeal description” are far from complete; even a reference to the discussion in the introduction is missing (5). This does not affect the usefulness of Space in Ancient Greek Literature to those readers who will take their start from authors, but it is a serious obstacle to a thematic use of the volume.

Do I find Space in Ancient Greek Literature exciting? No, I don’t. In the article quoted at the beginning of this review, Genette points out that the issue of the space of literature is far more interesting than that of space in literature. He goes on to sketch four spatial aspects of literature, namely the spatial character of meaning in language, the graphic dimension of literature, the prominence of figural meaning and the entirety of literature as embodied in a library. Arguably the most ardent advocate of the spatial dimension of literature is Joseph Frank, who maintained that especially modernist poets and novelists “ideally intend the reader to apprehend their work spatially, in a moment of time, rather than as a sequence.”9 Frank does not give us a full-blown theory, but his idea of “spatial form” has been applied fruitfully to premodern texts.10 Of course, de Jong’s volume is dedicated to the representation of space; and yet I may not be the only one who finds it disappointing that a project which praises itself as “pioneering” (IX) does not even touch upon these deeper aspects of space and literature. This is a pity, seeing that a Classicist, Nick Lowe, has recently theorized about spatial aspects of literature and its reception.11 Moreover, antiquity offers us terrific material to stimulate our thinking on space and literature. Just think of the tabulae Iliacae: in The Iliad in a Nutshell, Michael Squire brilliantly interprets them as a sophisticated play with image and word that raises questions about the spatial dimension of narrative as well as about the narrative capacity of images.12 A discussion of such material, while transcending the limits of traditional narratology, illustrates to what exciting uses its tools can be put.

This leads me to a final point: I am not sure that a history of ancient literature organised around narratological categories such as narrator, time and space is the best use to which narratology can be put. In my understanding, narratology is in an ancillary position and works best when it serves interpretive concerns and is integrated with other approaches.13 As the examples discussed above illustrate, the authors of Space in Ancient Greek Literature try to link their investigation of spatial description to larger questions of interpretation, but due to the book's format as a history of Greek literature these readings must remain perfunctory or go over well-known ground. There is not much gained, on the other hand, from a treatment of space from Homer to Heliodorus. Narratological categories, I suspect, do not lend themselves to being the focus of a history of literature, they are far more efficient as part of in-depth readings of individual works.

Table of Contents

Narratological theory on space, I.J.F. de Jong
Epic and elegiac poetry: Homer, I.J.F. de Jong
The Homeric hymns, I.J.F. de Jong
Apollonius of Rhodes, J.J.H. Klooster
Callimachus, M.A. Harder
Theocritus, J.J.H. Klooster
Historiography: Herodotus, T. Rood
Thucydides, T. Rood
Xenophon, T. Rood
Polybius, T. Rood, Josephus L. Huitink and J.W. van Henten
Appian, L.V. Pitcher
Pausanias, J. Akujarvi
Cassius Dio, L.V. Pitcher
Herodian, L.V. Pitcher
Choral lyric: Pindar and Bacchylides, B.G.F. Currie
Drama: Aeschylus, R. Rehm
Sophocles, R. Rehm
Euripides, M. Lloyd
Aristophanes, A.M. Bowie
Oratory: Lysias, M.P. de Bakker
Demosthenes, M.P. de Bakker
Philosophy: Plato, K.A. Morgan
Biography: Plutarch, M. Beck
Philostratus, T.J.G. Whitmarsh
The novel: Chariton, K. de Temmerman
Xenophon of Ephesus, K. de Temmerman
Achilles Tatius, K. de Temmerman
Longus, J.R. Morgan
Heliodorus, J.R. Morgan.


1.   Genette, G, “La littérature et l’espace”, in: Figures II. Paris 1969, 43-48.
2.   Chatman, S. (1978) Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: 96-107.
3.   Chatman 1978: 62.
4.   M. Fludernik, “Genres, Text Types, or Discourse Modes? Narrative Modalities and Generic Categorization” Style 34/1: 274-292; W. Wolf, “Description as a Transmedial Mode of Representation. General Features and Possibilities of Realization in Painting, Fiction and Music”, in: W. Wolf/ W. Bernhart, eds. Description in Literature and Other Media. Amsterdam 2007: 1-87.
5.   Bühler, K. (1934) Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: 121-40; Zubin, D.A./ Hewitt, L. E. (1995) “The Deictic Center. A Theory of Deixis in Narrative”, in: J. Duchan et al., eds. Deixis in Narrative. A Cognitive Science Perspective. Hillsdale: 129-55.
6.   Herman, D. (2002) Story Logic. Problems and Possibilities of Narrative Lincoln: 263-99.
9.   Frank, J. (1963) “Spatial Form in Modern Literature”, in: The Widening Gyre. Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature. New Brunswick (first publication in: 1945). For further material, see Frank, J. (1991) The Idea of Spatial Form. New Brunswick.
10.   See the contributions to Smitten, J. R./ Daghistany, A., eds. (1981) Spatial Form in Narrative. Ithaca.
11.   Lowe, N. (2000) The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Literature. Cambridge.
12.   Squire, M. (2011) The Iliad in a Nutshell. Oxford.
13.   Cf. Grethlein, J./ Rengakos, A. (2009), “Introduction”, in: Grethlein, J./ Rengakos, A., eds. Narratology and Interpretation. Berlin/ New York: 1-11.

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