BMCR 2024.03.27

Ancient Greek texts and modern narrative theory: towards a critical dialogue

, Ancient Greek texts and modern narrative theory: towards a critical dialogue. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 224. ISBN 9781009339599.



Ancient Greek Text and Modern Narrative Theory seeks to critique and rethink the use of narratology in the interpretation of ancient Greek literary texts. A central premise of this monograph is that the categories of narratological inquiry that classicists have applied to readings of ancient Greek texts do not actually map onto the inner workings of those texts, insofar as they are most often borne out of scholarship on modern realist novels. Grethlein names several works in classical studies that have deployed modern narratological methods and categories in search for points of continuity between ancient and modern textual mechanisms; he contends that this practice has “the unfortunate side effect of detracting from what distinguishes ancient from modern literature” (6). Aware of the shortcomings of narratological analysis for its own sake and of the impossibility to theorize ancient categories of narratological inquiry in a transhistorical vacuum, Grethlein proposes to maintain the ancient-modern comparative framework but to “zero in on fault lines” (13) between ancient narratives and modern notions of narratology. In four thematically organized chapters following a thorough overview of the history and the stakes of the interdisciplinary dialogue between classics and narratology (chapter 1) and leading to a theoretically rich conclusion (chapter 6), the author persuasively shows that ancient Greek literary narratives did not always share the same priorities as modern and contemporary fictions and that they display a different understanding of how foundational elements of a narrative—such as that of narrator, fictionality, voice, motivation, and plot—come together in a text.

The first chapter functions as an introduction to the book. The author first offers a historical account of the role of narratology as a sub-discipline in the (now mostly outdated) polarity between theoretical and philological approaches to classical texts. Then, he presents the main issue about the dialogue between Classics and narratology, that is the belief in the transhistorical potential of narratological tools of inquiry, which has facilitated the misapplication of narratological taxonomies to the analysis of ancient texts’ inner workings, before offering an overview of his contrastive comparative methodology and a synopsis of the following chapters.

In chapter 2, the author takes on the question of fictionality. While in modern and contemporary theories of narratives semantic, syntactic, and formalist approaches (among others) have been deployed to theorize what qualifies a text as a fiction, the author argues that metaliterary reflexivity on the nature of fiction was less prominent in ancient literature. The author offers many examples of ancient Greek writers who seemed to be interested in the fact/fiction divide but without making it the lynchpin of their narratives. Odysseus’ Cretan tale in Od. XIII, Aristotle’s distinction in the Poetics between the task of the poet and that of the historian, Gorgias’ claim about tragedy and deception, and Plato’s account of poetic inspiration in the Ion are just a few pieces of textual evidence of a literary world in which the moral quality of characters and emphasis on immersion (especially the concern for enargeia) took precedence over metaliterary musings about fictionality.

Chapter 3 offers one of this book’s most provocative arguments: ancient criticism ignored the category of the narrator. While modern narratives “assume that the author installs a narrator who resides on a different ontological plane” (52), ancient narratives hinge on an author-character binary. The author proves this by focusing on passages from Plato and Aristotle’s works on the nature of literature and poetry that take on the notions of authorial impersonation, of phantasia, and of metalepsis. Grethlein argues that the worlds of the author and that of the characters were not always strictly demarcated: in the case of direct speeches, the ancient reader was to imagine either the voice of the character or that of the author who was perceived to have morphed into a character; in the category of phantasia, the narrated actions are reproduced before the audience’s eye, therefore placing both the author and its audience within the same diegetic space. Grethlein’s reformulation ) of the category of metalepsis follows from these premises: while in modern criticism, metalepsis designates the moving across the imagined frontier between the “real” world of the author and the fictional world of the characters, Grethlein argues that “ancient understanding of narrative does not assume this frontier” (75).

The author dedicates chapter 4 to the theme of the “mind” and argues that ancient narratives’ predominant investment in plot over character (and character consciousness) allows recalibrating key elements of cognitive narratology that have been downplayed. Grethlein persuasively proposes that Heliodorus’ Ethiopica is representative of ancient narratives’ tendency to insert the reader into the plot rather than offering the reader a perspective  on characters’ consciousness. The author concedes that Heliodorus was invested in the psyche of his novel’s characters but did not intend it to be the driving force of the reading process, which was instead rooted in the temporality of the plot, as confirmed by recurrent attempts to elicit the reader’s curiosity and to create a sense of suspense. The chapter concludes by showing that Aristotle’s Poetics upholds the perspective on plot that the Ethiopica implicitly reproduces. The comparative reading is probing and convincing, although the initial promise to redress shortcomings of contemporary cognitive narratology remains somewhat unfulfilled.

Chapter 5 addresses the notion of “motivation” as a means of structural coherence. Pointing to the prominent influence that the Odyssey’s plot pattern exercised on writers ancient and modern in the Western literary tradition, Grethlein critiques studies of ancient narratives that take their cue from an understanding of motivation that arose from the criticism of modern realist novels. In particular, Grethlein targets the assumption that what motivates character action and psychology ought to provide or reinforce structural unity; instead, he shows that the creation of a sense of suspense and/or surprise in the unfolding of actions takes precedence over the need for thoughts and feelings to be reconciled with character action. The chief case study is Penelope’s contradictory behavior in books 17 to 19 of the Odyssey. Her announcement to the suitors in book 18 that she is ready to remarry and the bow contest in book 19 seem at odds with the optimism that Theoclymenus’ prophecy about Odysseus’ imminent return (at the end of book 17) should provide Penelope. Grethlein reads the sequence as an example of “retroactive motivation,” where perceived causes hinge on the result. Rather than seeing elements of emplotment and psychological development as linearly lined up in a coherent narratological structure that abides by (modern) rules of causality, the Penelope case study proves that the character behavior did not need to be psychologically or causally motivated.

Chapter 6 takes stock of the findings of the previous chapters and launches an eye-opening hypothesis: that the focus on points of discontinuity between modern narrative theory and ancient narrative patterns might be as valuable as a dialogue between premodern and postmodern understandings of narrative. Grethlein argues that prima facie “ancient and postmodern literature and criticism appear to share common ground” (151) insofar as they both underscore, more or less deliberately, the unstable tension between language and reality.  But a closer comparative look reveals that the importance of moral exemplarity as a narrative-building force in ancient literature does not find correspondence in postmodern fiction, that the fantasy of unmediated movement between the world of the author and that of his characters is “diametrically opposed to the post-structuralist emphasis on mediation” (154), and that metalepsis is therefore a disruptive force in postmodern narratives rather than a means of involving the reader. Ultimately, the distance between premodern and modern narrative strategies can be understood as the product of historical changes that Grethlein, in chapters 1 to 5, proposes to analyze by focusing on points of difference.  By contrast, postmodern narratives generate difference deliberately, as an open and proud challenge to modern narratology.

By the author’s own admission, this monograph is not the conclusive study about the narratology of ancient Greek literature, but rather an important first step in redressing biases that continue to be applied in approaching ancient literary works. The ample and ambitious scope of this study entices the reader who, admittedly, might feel overwhelmed rather than guided by the number of case studies in some chapters. On the more granular level, I found that: in chapter 2, two ancient Greek (meta-)literary moments about fictionality (Lucian’s opening statement in the True Stories and the statement about truth and falsehood in Hesiod’s Theogony) are discussed only in passing and do not reinforce the central argument of the chapter. Chapter 3 lacks a thoroughly developed, core case study through which to parse and digest the chapter’s complex theoretical formulations (something similar to what the author does with Heliodorus’ Ethiopica in chapter 4). In chapter 5, the author seeks to reinforce an argument about motivation already made compelling by his analysis of Penelope’s behavior in Odyssey 17 to 19 through comparative readings of (among others) the teichoscopia in Iliad 3, the carpet scene in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the ending of Heliodorus’ Ethiopica, but these comparisons come across as somewhat hurried. I mention these individual weaknesses as a potential source of inspiration for other projects to follow in the footsteps of this study and with the proviso that they do not detract from an overall original and significant monograph whose combination of theoretically sophisticated examinations of key concepts of narratology with innovative and persuasive close readings of texts from Homer to Heliodorus attest to its potential to cut across disciplinary boundaries and to attract not only classicists but also scholars in comparative literature, in medieval and modern languages, and in performance and media studies departments.