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  • Narratological Plots and Aristotle’s Mythos 1
  • Elizabeth Belfiore

Any analysis of literary works depends largely on the critic’s own prior beliefs about human nature and literature, which are rooted in the society in which he or she lives. Thus, an analysis of criticism must take into account the historically conditioned biases of the critic. Literary theorists of our own age, even while paying lip-service to this principle, are often too ready to assume the universality of their own biases. Claude Bremond (1973.327), for example, warns of the danger of projecting the habits of our own historical and local ways of thinking onto a narrative, yet he and others do not hesitate to appeal to an “intuition” about narratives, an intuition assumed to be shared by all or most readers. 2 According to Gerald Prince, “everybody has the same intuitions . . . about the nature of narratives” (1982.80). In fact, however, different readers have very different intuitions. Jonathan Culler’s reconstruction of “the sequence of events that constitutes the action of the story” of Oidipous is very different from an outline of this story that Aristotle would give. According to Culler: “Oedipus is abandoned on Mt. [End Page 37] Cithaeron; he is rescued by a shepherd; he grows up in Corinth; he kills Laius at the cross-roads; he answers the Sphinx’s riddle; he marries Jocasta; he seeks the murderer of Laius; he discovers his own guilt; he blinds himself and leaves his country” (1981.172). This outline leaves out events that are, in Aristotle’s view, essential to the plot because they best arouse pity and fear: Oidipous’ murder of Laios in ignorance that this man is his father and his discovery that he is Jokasta’s son. On the other hand, Culler’s outline includes events, such as the riddle of the Sphinx, that are not important for an Aristotelian plot.

Since there is no one right way of reading Sophokles’ play, it is pointless to ask which approach to it is “best” in some absolute sense. However, it is essential to understand the assumptions, intuitions, and principles that inform a particular approach. It is especially important to do this in the case of Greek tragedy, where one of our purposes must be to understand the plays as artifacts of fifth-century Athenian culture. Because Aristotle’s views, especially those on plot and character, are very different from those of modern scholars, the Poetics can provide a perspective closer to that of the original audience of the plays, and also help us to escape from the circle of our modern shared intuitions.

In this article, I call attention to some important ways in which Aristotle’s theory of tragedy differs from modern narratological approaches to literature. I stress two main points: (1) the differences between Aristotle’s concept of mythos and that of the English “plot”; (2) the fact that modern literary critics tend to emphasize the psychological aspects of characters and agents and the themes of a literary work, while Aristotle focuses on actions apart from agents and has no discussion of what we call “themes.” I concentrate on narrative theory, because narratology is one of the most fruitful modern approaches, one of the newest, and one that has been most usefully applied to classical texts. 3 Moreover, its emphasis on narrative structure has particular affinities with Aristotle’s views on the importance of the mythos. Narratology, of course, is not a single, unified theory, but includes a great many different and often conflicting ideas. Since it is not possible to survey the entire field here, I focus on some examples that are representative of the tendencies of many scholars. [End Page 38]

1. Narratology and the Poetics

In comparing Aristotle and modern literary criticism, it is important to begin with the understanding that Aristotle is concerned with a very different kind of subject matter from that studied by modern critics. Modern theory must take into account such literary genres as the novel, the short story, and the journal, as well as other media such as film. Aristotle, on the other hand, focuses on a kind of drama, Greek tragedy, which was written for...

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