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  • Expressive Narration in Apollonius’ Argonautica
  • Deborah Beck

More than any other poetic device, similes define the genre of classical epic, since they are virtually absent from other literary genres;1 and the lively vignettes presented by similes are often among the most highly visible and memorable parts of a particular poem. In any poem, whether oral or written, the work an audience has to do in order to figure out the connections between a simile and the narrative makes that narrative more significant and emotionally engaging for the audience because they must actively participate in making its meaning (Tannen 1989: 17). As Fowler says about ekphrasis, which closely resembles simile in this regard, “precisely because ekphrasis represents a pause at the level of narration and cannot be read functionally, the reader is possessed by a strong need to interpret” (1991, 27). Fowler’s phrasing here – “is possessed by a strong need” – exactly captures the allure that similes bring to the audience of a narrative.2 The richly layered allusions to earlier poetry [End Page 33] found in many similes in the Argonautica create a fertile field for this sort of reading. First, they open up a purely intellectual detective story: what is the antecedent(s) of the simile? This leads in turn to a much more wide-ranging emotional involvement with the narrative, because a simile in the Argonautica often shapes readers’ sympathies partly by evoking and reworking specific details from the narrative context(s) in which relevant antecedent(s) appear(s). Finally, on a literal level, similes in the Argonautica regularly illustrate the emotions of characters in the narrative. Indeed, they may appear alongside narrative techniques with expressive force, such as direct speech, which depict the emotions of characters in a complementary way. In this way, similes engage the readers’ own emotions, through both the process of interpretation and the particular understanding of the narrative that readers come up with by engaging in this interpretive process.

Because such narrative techniques arouse readers’ feelings both through and about the reading process itself at least as much as about the characters, the intellectual dimensions of reading Apollonius has often overshadowed, not to say crowded out, its expressive force in critical assessments of the Argonautica.3 In recent years, in contrast, studies of Apollonius as a narrator have shown that his narrative persona does have an emotional dimension, mainly through systematic analysis of the [End Page 34] first-person references.4 In such a study, “expressive narration” essentially means “what does the narrator say in the first person that has emotional force?” This paper, in contrast, asks “how does the narrative of the Argonautica put together its epic building blocks – in particular, similes – to both create and depict emotions for its readers?”

A group of similes and direct speeches in Argonautica 3, portraying the long-awaited moment when Jason and Medea finally meet face to face, shows this process at work in a particular clear and powerful way. All the features of similes described above work together in this scene to highlight the passionate waiting experienced by both the characters and readers, and to arouse in readers a paradoxical mixture of engagement with the story, through their own interpretive efforts to make sense of it, and an ironic distance from the characters, whose actions and choices are consistently (if indirectly) critiqued by the similes. This distance arises partly from differences between the narrative contexts of the antecedents of these similes and the narrative contexts in which they appear in the Argonautica: the context of a simile in Apollonius often differs from that of its antecedent(s) in such a way as to distance readers from the characters by giving them a poignantly and ironically different perspective about the events of the story. Such irony entails a paradoxical (and very Hellenistic) mixture of distance and engagement in the reader, which may easily be mistaken simply for distance by readers whose expectations regarding the expressive dimensions of epic poetry are shaped primarily by the heartfelt sympathy for and with its characters that Homeric epic excites.5 Moreover, similes consistently engage readers with questions about the nature of heroism in the Argonautica by juxtaposing various...


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pp. 33-58
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2021
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