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  • You Too: The Narratology of Apostrophe and Second-Person Narrative in Virgil’s Georgics1
  • Robert Cowan

Narratological approaches to classical literature have long since extended beyond the limits of the conventionally narrative genres of epic, historiography, and the novel to encompass less obvious genres such as lyric, elegy, and tragedy.2 Didactic poetry, however, has received relatively little attention. There has been some work on “narrative technique” in the more obviously “narrative” sections, such as the Athenian plague in de Rerum Natura (DRN) 6 or the “Aristaeus” in Georgics 4, but these episodes, though integral to the didactic project of their respective poems, are nevertheless the least characteristic of didactic’s distinctive qualities.3 The excellent studies by Don Fowler (2000), Monica Gale (2004), and Simon Trépanier (2007) [End Page 269] adopt more holistic approaches to the poems themselves, but focus almost exclusively on the narratological aspects of plot (closure, order, rhythm, and repetition) at the expense of issues relating to narrators, narratees, and focalization. Again, this approach ignores what is narratologically the most distinctive and arguably most interesting aspect of didactic, the fact that its protagonist is addressed in the second person or is, in other words, the poem’s narratee. This narrative peculiarity produces striking similarities between didactic poetry—the Georgics in particular—and the largely postmodern genre of second-person narrative. I have shown elsewhere (Cowan 2019) how the insights which narratologists have made into such modern narratives can illuminate the Georgics and how consideration of Virgil’s didactic technique can, in turn, offer insights into Michel Butor’s La modification and its successors. This article will briefly summarize the main features of the scholarship on second-person narrative and their relevance to the Georgics before focusing on the specific case of apostrophe, the principal site of tension between second- and third-person narratives in epic.


Although there has been a good deal of scholarly debate about the precise definition and parameters of second-person narrative, its fundamental feature can be easily described:4 the narratee is identical to the protagonist (or at least a major actant), who is thus referred to using second-person pronouns.5 This narrative must be distinguished from first- and third-person narratives which include the occasional apostrophe of the “dear reader,” but where that reader plays no other role in the narrative itself. Second-person narrative has a number of antecedents and disputed early examples, but most literary histories of its development start with the late Michel Butor’s 1957 novel, La modification (English translation retitled Second Thoughts [End Page 270] or Change of Heart). Notable later uses of the technique include novels by Edna O’Brien, Italo Calvino, and Jay McInerney, and short stories by John Updike, Julio Cortázar, Lorrie Moore, and Pam Houston. It is also prominent in the children’s literature genre of “choose-your-own-adventure” stories and in interactive and digital fiction.

The affinity of this kind of narrative with didactic poetry, especially what the Tractatus Coislinianus calls ποίησις ὑφηγητική, or “howto” didactic (as opposed to purely informative ποίησις θεωρητική like the DRN), is clear, and, indeed, Brian Richardson observes in a different context that second-person narrative’s “non-fictional analogues [are] the pseudo-narrative forms of the cookbook, the travel guide, and the self-help manual” (1991.313). Yet the similarities go beyond a superficial formal resemblance, and it is striking how many of the same critical preoccupations feature independently in scholarship on the Georgics and on second-person narrative. Serious scholarly interest in the latter began with a 1965 article by Bruce Morrissette, but only really developed in the early nineties with the work of, among others, Richardson, Ursula Wiest, James Phelan, and, especially, Monika Fludernik, who, in addition to her own contributions on the subject, edited an influential 1994 special issue of Style.6 In the subsequent quarter century, research has expanded into areas such as conversational storytelling and the new narrative forms of digital and interactive fiction and computer games.7 Classical scholarship, with two small exceptions, has not explored the mode.8 Before outlining the critical approaches most relevant to the...


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pp. 269-298
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