Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts
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This book provides students and scholars of classical literature with a practical guide to modern literary theory and criticism. Using a clear and concise approach, it navigates readers through various theoretical approaches, including Russian Formalism, structuralism, deconstruction, gender studies, and New Historicism.
  • Applies theoretical approaches to examples from ancient literature
  • Extensive bibliographies and index make it a valuable resource for scholars in the field


Thomas A. Schmitz is Professor of Greek Language and Literature at the University of Bonn, and is one of the founding members of the Centre for the Classical Tradition. He has previously held positions at Paris, Harvard, Heidelberg, and Frankfurt. He is the author of over 40 books and articles including Bildung und Macht: Zur sozialen und politischen Funktion der zweiten Sophistik in der griechischen Welt der Kaiserzeit (1997) and Moderne Literaturtheorie und antike Texte: Eine Einfuhrung (2002).


Acknowledgments ix

Acknowledgments for the English Translation x

Introduction 1

What Is, and To What End Do We Study, Literary Theory? 1

Literary Theory and Classics 4

Objections Raised against Literary Theory 6

How to Use This Book 11

Introductions to Literary Theory 13

1 Russian Formalism 17

The Question of Literariness 19

Roman Jakobson’s Model of Linguistic Communication 21

Poetic Language as Defamiliarization 23

Further Reading 25

2 Structuralism 26

The Founder of Structuralism: Ferdinand de Saussure 27

Saussure’s Definition of the Linguistic Sign 29

The Meaning of Differences 30

Structuralism and Subject 33

Structural Anthropology 34

Is Structuralist Interpretation Possible? 38

Structuralist Definitions of Literary Genres 40

Further Reading 42

3 Narratology 43

Vladimir Propp’s Analysis of the Folk Tale 44

Greimas’s Actantial Theory of Narrative 47

Roland Barthes and the Study of Narrative Texts 50

Structuralist Plot-Analysis: Gerard Genette 55

Irene de Jong’s Narratological Analysis of the Homeric Epics 60

Further Reading 62

4 Mikhail Bakhtin 63

Bakhtin’s Life and the Problem of His Writings 64

Dialogism and the Novel 66

The Carnivalization of Literature 69

Menippean Satire and Ancient Carnivalesque Literature 71

Further Reading 76

5 Intertextuality 77

Leading the Way: Julia Kristeva 77

Further Developments of Intertextuality 78

Gerard Genette’s Model of Hypertextuality 80

Intertextuality in Virgil 83

Further Reading 85

6 Reader-Response Criticism 86

Empirical Reception Studies 87

Aesthetics of Reception 88

American Reader-Response Criticism 91

Wheeler’s Analysis of Ovid’s Metamorphoses 94

Further Reading 96

7 Orality – Literacy 98

Oral Cultures: The Theses of Goody and Watt 99

What Does “Orality”Mean? 102

Oral Poetry 104

The Homeric Epics as a Test Case 106

Further Reading 111

8 Deconstruction 113

The Foundations: Derrida’s Criticism of Logocentrism 114

Deconstruction in America 120

Objections to Deconstruction 122

The Role of the Author 124

Stanley Fish’s Model of “Interpretive Communities” 127

The Responsibility of the Interpreter 130

Deconstruction’s Merits and Demerits 136

Deconstruction in Antiquity? Socrates und Protagoras 137

Further Reading 139

9 Michel Foucault and Discourse Analysis 140

The Power of Discourse 141

Objections to Foucault’s Analysis of Discourse 145

Foucault and Antiquity 149

The Debate about Foucault’s Interpretation of Ancient Sexuality 153

Further Reading 157

10 New Historicism 159

New Historicism and Deconstruction 160

New Historicism and Michel Foucault 165

Objections to New Historicism 167

New Historicism and Antiquity 172

Further Reading 174

11 Feminist Approaches/Gender Studies 176

The Feminist Movement and Definitions of “Woman” 176

Feminism in Literary Criticism 178

French Feminism 180

Pragmatic Feminism in Literary Criticism 182

From Images of Women to Gender Studies 187

Queer Theory 189

Gender Studies and Attic Drama 191

Further Reading 193

12 Psychoanalytic Approaches 195

Interpreting Dreams, Interpreting Literature 197

Three Attempts at Psychoanalytic Interpretation 200

Language and the Unconscious: Jacques Lacan 202

Further Reading 204

Conclusions? 205

Whither Now? 207

Additional Notes 209

References and Bibliography 215

Index 233


"A major aspect of this book is Schmitz's refreshing modesty and candour." (Journal of the Classical Association of Canada, Winter 2009)

“…a clear and engaging introduction to some of the most important areas of modern literary theorizing.  What sets this apart from a simple introduction, however, is the way that the general theoretical position outlined in each chapter is keyed into the context of modern classical studies…a useful book and one that can be strongly recommended to undergraduates and even intrepid sixth-formers…” (Greece and Rome, Vol 55 No. 2 2008)

“Brief description of theoretical approaches …[in] frank manner of discourse … Schmitz tries to help students understand the concepts he explains.” (Bryn Mawr Classical Review)

"As a reference guide, a bibliographical resource and an engaging read, this book should prove an asset to many." (Journal of Classics Teaching)

“Schmitz is clearly an intelligent reader and advocate of theory. It is a solid piece of work which will, I hope, serve as a starting point for acquainting many classicists with the questions and challenges theory has to offer. The field as a whole will only benefit from Schmitz's contribution.” (New England Classical Journal)

"Thomas Schmitz’s book provides a clear, lively and intelligent guide through most major areas of modern literary theory and their application to the study of classical literature. It neatly identifies key theoretical texts and thinkers, and provides telling examples which lend colour and life to the impressive range of concepts discussed. He is refreshingly honest about his own prejudices and difficulties, while remaining even-handed and balanced in discussion; his presentation of the problems and objections faced by each theory is especially helpful. This excellent book has something to offer for every serious contemporary student of classical literature."
Stephen Harrison, University of Oxford