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Recent Trends in Narratological Research

John Pier


John Pier

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1When, in the 1960s, the study of narrative became self-consciously systematic, seeking to elaborate categories and models for the theory and analysis of literary narration, a term was required for what, it was felt, had become a branch of literary studies in its own right, and this was narratology. Narratology was not, however, so much a new field of study as it was an innovative convergence of already-existing specialties, for the theory of the novel had developed considerably since the time of Henry James's reflections on the subject (to mention only the English-speaking world). Although the new approach did, to varying degrees, take into account questions of plot, point of view, time, character, etc., its novelty consisted, at least in part, in its appeal to research being done in fields such as folktale analysis, structural anthropology and particularly structural linguistics which, up to this time, had had little influence if any in Western literary scholarship, but it was furthered by the discovery of Russian Formalism and Czech structuralism and the desire to establish a rigorous methodology for the study of literature. The theory of the novel gradually gave way to a theory of narrative, inspired, at least in some quarters, as much by the social sciences as it was by the belletristic tradition and focusing on textual criteria that had previously drawn little attention in literary scholarship.

2The limitations of narratological models soon came to be appreciated, however, for while gains were made in formal and methodological rigor, this was accomplished at a price. Narrative grammars, for instance, proved to be better adapted to the analysis of folktales than to a critical understanding of literary texts whose plot structure may have little explanatory power for other features of the text; endeavors in this area also led to questions about the semantics of the text that revealed the limitations of heavily syntactic theories. The drive to establish models having a general validity, i. e. models sufficiently abstract to account for all narrative structures, encountered the need to differentiate narratives typologically, but also historically, and found it increasingly difficult to reconcile formal models with the particularities of individual authors and the texture of specific works. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the "pilot" science of linguistics was evolving rapidly and no longer provided the paradigms initially relied on by narratologists. Others perceived the necessity of confronting narratogical categories with or of returning to more traditional questions such as point of view, character, reliability, fictionality, style, etc. And finally, the growth of deconstructionism, poststructuralism and cultural studies has in some cases led to questioning the need for or the basis of narratological reasoning.

3However the situation is to be assessed today, there is little doubt that the legacy of narratology has left its mark on the way critics and scholars study and understand literature, including those who may have had little training in the field — be it due simply to the currency of certain narratological terms and concepts. The publication of specialized manuals and glossaries over the past two decades has also contributed to the systematic study of narrative both in teaching and in scholarship, but this has not been without the risk of a certain codification and mechanical application of narratological principles, on the one hand and, on the other, a tendency to employ narratology as an adjunct to traditional stylistics, explication de texte, etc., relying on it in a piecemeal way whenever this might be helpful, rather than to carry out literary analysis based on or with reference to a comprehensive narratological theory.

  • 1 These are the contributions by Dieter Meindl, Gordon Collier, Monika Fludernik, Elizabeth Deeds Er (...)

4The studies included in the present volume bear witness to the vitality and diversity of research going on in narratology more than thirty years after this approach to the study of narrative first took shape. For the most part, they were initially presented at the narratology round table convened by Professor Monika Fludernik of the University of Freiburg at the Fourth Congress of the European Society for the Study of English held Debrecen (Hungary) in September of 1997.1 No common or centralizing theme or doctrine binds these articles together, unless it be the desire shared by all of the contributors to study narrative through the critical elaboration and clarification of theoretical concepts coupled with appropriate analytical and critical practices. The theoretical bases, objectives, methodologies, types of narrative and narratological problems focused on differ in ways that the reader of this volume is invited to ponder and evaluate for him- or herself. One possible line of reflection for bringing together the various orientations adopted by the authors — and one which may have the further advantage of putting the contributions into perspective with theories of narrative as they have existed at various times in the past — is to read the articles against the backdrop of three general and interrelated aspects of narrative that, to varying degrees and in different forms, have always been taken into consideration in theoretically-informed studies in the field: narrative contents, narrative signifiers and their configurations, the dynamics of narrative deployment. While none of the articles is concerned with defining a clear-cut position on each of these aspects, they do, generally speaking and in different ways, reflect the long-standing tendency of narrative studies, and particularly of narratology, to seek out some articulation between them as well as the historical movement of narratology away from the predominance or generative power of narrative contents towards a finer perception of the supple and multifaceted interplay of these three aspects.

5This tendency is reflected in Dieter Meindl's "A Model of Narrative Discourse along Pronominal Lines." Meindl's contribution focuses on the consequences of the division between first-person and third-person narration, addressing issues that have not been dealt with extensively by those working within the scope of French narratology. Starting with a number of principles established by Franz K. Stanzel, Käte Hamburger and Harald Weinrich (key references for Germanspeaking narratologists), the author explores the interaction between enunciation (cf. Benveniste's discours) and illusion (cf. histoire) and then goes on to delineate four frames of reference in the narrative text (comment, report, scene, metaphor) together with the various types of transposition to which these frames of reference are subject, thus putting into a new light the problem of narrative levels.

6Martin Löschnigg's "Narratological Categories and the (Non-) Distinction between Factual and Fictional Narratives" scrutinizes a number of key points debated among narratologists in the wake of Paul Ricceur's Temps et Récit, showing that narratology, in spite of its predilection for the study of fictional narratives, also provides categories that are pertinent to historiography. Taking issue with Hamburger's tenet that fictionality is definable in terms of atemporality, thus driving a wedge between factual and fictional discourse, Löschnigg finds that in principle, time is not a determining factor for distinguishing historywriting from fiction-writing. More pertinent are the narratological categories of mode and voice, particularly as concerns focalization and the ever-resurgent paradoxes of the author/narrator axis, while any blurring of the lines between factual and fictional writing (as in postmodernist writing, for example) underscores the necessity for a narrative theory capable of discerning the differences between the two forms of narrative.

7The problem of fictionality also figures prominently in Uri Margolin's "Story Modalised, or the Grammar of Virtuality." Margolin is one among a number of theoreticians who, following the demise of structuralist narratology, has sought a new paradigm for narrative studies in the logic of possible worlds, thus addressing questions of semantics that had earlier been sidestepped. In this article, he singles out prospective narratives — those that tell stories that have not yet occurred — as opposed to retrospective narratives and simultaneous narratives. He then examines four different modalities in future-oriented texts, with stimulating insights into the formulation and mediation of narrative contents.

8In his "Reconceptualizing the Theory and Generic Scope of Unreliable Narration," Ansgar F. Nünning offers a valuable critique of Wayne Booth's widely and diffusely employed notion of unreliability, dissociating it from the implied author (itself never satisfactorily defined) so as to provide it with a new basis, grounded in the conceptual framework brought to the text by readers. Unreliable narration involves "an interpretive procedure," and this results partly from grammatical signals picked up by the reader, but also from various anomalies in the narrative determined on the basis of the reader's experience and other literary criteria. The shift towards a reception-theoretical approach to unreliable narration is further evidence of how current research in narratology is seeking to rethink traditional categories of narrative studies.

9In a similar spirit of reformulation of narratological concepts, Manfred Jahn's "More Aspects of Focalization: Refinements and Applications" takes up one of the most extensively debated issues of modern narrative theory, arguing that the "Who sees?/Who speaks?" distinction of Genettean and post-Genettean narratology should be replaced by a more general model of perception which, at the level of focalization, is revealed through "vectored indicators of subjectivity." Accordingly, Jahn proposes to reframe the whole question of focalization by asking "Whose affect, perception, conceptualization orients the narrative text?" He goes on to outline a four-level gliding scale to account for varying degrees of focalization, and in an allusion both to Henry James's "house of fiction" and to computer technology, the term "window shifting" is introduced in order to designate variations in focalization, while the related problem of "deictic diffusion" in certain problematic passages is explained in terms of interferences or "window overlap" between the narratorial and reflectorial modes.

10An age-old and recurrent problem in reasoning about narrative is that of time. Structuralist narratology has on the whole tended to approach time in terms of the spatial categories of the text, most conspicuously so in the case of Genette's model of narrative time (although Paul Ricceur's and Käte Hamburger's writings, for example, have had an impact on the situation). From the perspective of narrative explanation, Jon-K Adams, in "Order and Narrative," provides a critique of the structuralist understanding of chronology, showing (among other things) the difficulties it encounters when a narrative includes multiple chronologies or embedded chronologies. Thus, in a work such as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the textually given order of events does not wholly coincide with the order of events in Gatsby's experience and with the order in which the narrator has gained knowledge of those events.

11In what he terms a "stylistics of narrational techniques," Gordon Collier, in his "Apparent Feature-Anomalies in Subjectivized ThirdPerson Narration," examines in close detail, not the "deviations" of traditional stylistics, but the use of gnomic statements and the naming of characters in Patrick White's The Solid Mandala that reveal domains for the expression of subjectivity which can be accounted for only to a limited degree by free indirect discourse. Unlike most works using this device, White s novel does not include a narrator whose discourse seeks to mould itself into the character's consciousness (cf. figuralization and reflectorization), but instead is built up out of two central consciousnesses in such a way that the characters in effect narrate themselves in the third person.

12Interpretative strategies take a turn that has been little explored by narratologists in works where the gender of narrators and protagonists remains indeterminate. Monika Fludernik deals with this question in "The Genderization of Narrative," where she examines in some detail three first-person novels that deliberately forestall facile conclusions as to both the biological sex and the gender roles of the characters. In these works, the textual inferences made by readers on the basis of proper names, pronouns, anaphors, etc. may not be wellgrounded, and at the same time they leave considerable latitude as to the cultural markers and frames that readers are inclined to or even encouraged to bring to the text. Here again, we see evidence of the tendency of current narratological research to focus on the dynamics of narrative deployment.

13The study of narrative has become increasingly attentive to the misfit or differential relations between plot and the discursive forms by which it is expressed or conveyed. The tendency of narratives themselves to exploit parallel but non-convergent patterns of the two levels becomes particularly striking in postmodern works of a parodic bent. This question is taken up by Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth in "Parody as a Practice for Postmodernity" with a discussion of Nabokov's Transparent Things, the findings from which are interestingly corroborated with Jon Jost s film All the Vermeers in New York, where the cinemagraphic medium opens up a plurality of sequences and values between narrative codes and the camera — an "in-between" emerging out of a simultaneity of codes.

14The syntagmatics of the written narrative text is explored by John Pier in "Three Dimensions of Space in the Narrative Text." With attention given to the graphic aspect of narrative (as opposed to the referential space of description) as well as to the semiotic categories of icon, index and symbol (rather than to the "linearity" of the signifier), texts by Dos Passos, Nabokov, Barth and Melville are taken into consideration, and emphasis is laid on space in this sense as a feature of intertextuality.

15Pierre Gault's "Rhématique/Thématique, ou les élans de la syntaxe" focuses on the interferences in a number of narrative fragments between the pre-constructed (thematics) and the non-presupposed (rhematics). While the syntactic operations put into play by these two "phases" and the modalities of their interactions act on the reader's affect, the thematics/rhematics pair also raises questions concerning, for example, hypotaxis/parataxis, metonymy/metaphor, lapsus/condensation and neurosis/psychosis.

16Individually, these articles approach narrative from various angles, focusing both on matters that have been debated since even before the advent of narratology and on questions that have been dealt with in only a limited way in the past; together, they show that narratology, far from being a method defined by fixed procedures, is diverse in its theoretical orientations and analytical practices and responsive to the evolution of literary theory and criticism. Modelbuilding — inherent in all forms of narratological research — has taken on a less monolithic character as researchers in the field have sought to account for the multiplicity of the fine points of literary expression that the highly differentiated corpus of narratives provides. As suggested above, it may well be appropriate to view work being done in narratology today as a new chapter in the study of how narrative contents, narrative signifiers and their configurations and the dynamics of narrative deployment interact. The articles in this volume are offered as a contribution to the writing of this new chapter.


1 These are the contributions by Dieter Meindl, Gordon Collier, Monika Fludernik, Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Jon-K Adams and John Pier.


Professor of English at the Université de Tours. Specialized in narratology and semiotics, his articles and reviews have appeared in Style, Ars Semeiotica, Poetics Today, Bulletin de Stylistique Anglaise, Poetics Today, GRAAT, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, etc. as well as in a number of collective works, and they include studies of Sterne, Joyce, Nabokov, Max Frisch and others. He is currently researching intertextuality in modern fiction

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1999

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