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date: 20 April 2024

Narrative Theoryfree

Narrative Theoryfree

  • Didier CosteDidier CosteUniversite Bordeaux Montaigne


The narrative mode of world-representation and world-building is omnipresent and far exceeds the domain of literature. Since literature is not necessarily narrative and narrative not necessarily literary, the study of narrative in a literary context must confront narrative and literature in a dual way: How does the presence of narrative affect literature? And how does literariness affect narrative? The basic terminology needs to be clarified by comparing English with the vocabulary of other natural languages. No consensus has been reached, even in the West, on the nature of narrative discourse.

The entire history of poetics shows that, before the middle of the 20th century, little attention was paid to the narrative components of literary texts qua narrative—that is, insofar as the same narrative elements could equally be found in non-aestheticized uses of verbal and non-verbal languages. Aristotelian poetics, based on the mimesis of human action, keeps its grip on narrative theory. The post-Aristotelian triad separated more sharply the lyric from the epic and dramatic genres, but modern narrative theories, mostly based on the study of folk tales and the novel, have still failed to unify the field of literary narrative, or have done it artificially, dissolving narrative discourse into the undifferentiated experience of human life in linear time.

The Western “rise of the novel,” in Ian Watt’s sense, and its worldwide expansion, turned the question of fiction, not that of narrativity, into the main focus of narrative studies. Later, the emergence of formalism and semiotics and the “linguistic turn” of the social sciences pushed the narrative analysis of literary texts in the opposite direction, with all of its efforts bearing on minimal, supposedly deeper units and simple concatenations. The permanent, unresolved conflict between an analytical and constructivist view grounded in individual events and a holistic view concerned with story-worlds and storytelling leaves mostly unattended such fundamental questions as how narrative is used by literature and literature by narrative for their own ends.

Literary narrativity must be thoroughly reconsidered. A critical, transdisciplinary theory should submit to both logical and empirical trial—on a large number of varied samples—and narrative analyses that would take into account the following concepts used to forge methodological tools: discrimination (between the functions of discourse genres and between pragmatic roles in literary communication); combination rules (whether linear or not); levels (as spatial placing, as interdependence and hierarchical authority); scale and spatiotemporal framing and backgrounding, especially the (dominant) time concepts in a particular cultural context. The preconditions for analysis begin by investigating the relation between aesthetic emotions and narrative in other cultural domains than the West and the English-speaking world.

Literary narrativity and social values concur to link the rhetorical manipulation of narrative with its aestheticization. The pleasure and fear of cognition combine with strategies of delusion to either acquiesce to the effects of time and violence or resist them; routine and rupture are alternatively foregrounded, according to needs.


  • Literary Theory

If we can agree on the common transcultural intuition that literature is another name for verbal art, we will also readily accept that many and indeed most other channels of communication, expression, and information can and do “tell stories,” or at least contain fragments of narrative discourse. The visual arts and instrumental music also often use their non-verbal means to convey narrative meaning beside the symbolic value or emotional significance brought about by formal features. There is no need for a title to perceive that a pietà, a crucifixion, or a Rape of the Sabine Women iconically refer to a particular event, real or imaginary, just like bullet marks on a wall refer to a shooting indexically, in Charles Sanders Peirce’s terms. Some instrumental music (Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica, a military march) and elaborate Maori war cries refer emotionally and or symbolically to the narratable event or collection of events of war. Should we examine verbal communication, oral or written, with no detectable intended aesthetic manipulation and little or no aesthetic added value (when a policeman reports on his night patrols in the morning, when a technician tells you how your computer system crashed), we will equally find that they more often than not tell complete or fragmented stories, or at least propose elements to put to work some kind of narrative program, a more or less open coded pattern that can be played with interactively; such everyday acts of verbal communication are frequently motivated by the narrative drive of the sender or its presupposition in the receiver and simultaneously point to it.

Verbal art may be considered as another anthropological universal. We can easily speculate that it began with the first rhyme, the first pun, the first chanting modulation—in other words, that it was nearly coetaneous with the appearance of articulate speech in homo sapiens sapiens. But rhymes, puns, chanting rhythms are not narrative acts: they can indirectly, through symbolism and sensorial association, evoke, announce, or recall a narrative without formulating one any more than the hand imprints of the prehistoric Cueva de las Manos. We could even say that they may run counter to the narrative potential of the text, like the recurring couplets of a ballad or an insistent leitmotiv in narrative (“program”) music. Repetition establishes constants; it can smother events. Lyric, argumentative discourse, critical commentaries, the questioning, speculative discourse of the essay can be implicitly or explicitly motivated by a subjacent or projected narrative; they can be interspersed with narrative utterances and even sequences without conveying any properly narrative meaning by themselves. The same applies to descriptions that, taken together, can combine and contrast to stimulate or generate the production of narrative but, taken separately, present by definition a static, tabular vision of the world of reference, not a dynamic one.

The logical asymmetry of narrative and verbal art must not be offset by the quantitative prevalence of the former in the latter, from comedy and tragedy to modern drama and film scripts, from myth and epic to the novel and artful historical narratives, from hagiography to autobiography, from fairy tales to fantasy, from anecdote and fable to concise hyperrealist fiction. Even if the use of narrative discourse is the most ordinary and widespread expression of human awareness of life and its transience, of the will to be part of its dynamics, verbal art develops other means to the same effect and also in order to resist transience and refuse to participate in dynamics it cannot control. Synchronic history would be one example of this resistance. Mysticism is not only a quest; it is fascinated by the absent presence of God or the beloved; it does not always lead to silence; it can manifest itself in repetition, verbosity, and verbiage that blur or even destroy any possible kind of narrativity. Incantation and enchantment are part of an arsenal to fight the corrosive action of perceived linear time. Verbal art is sometimes bent on deflecting or turning its back on the sense of mortality involved in narrative just as it can celebrate and enhance the eventfulness of life; it can use devices such as the regular return of certain signifiers and structures in order to conjure up a cyclic notion of time (eternal return), as well as disruptive devices in order to highlight the wonder of birth, innovation, and metamorphosis.

The fundamental disconnection of narrative and literature is often not recognized by Western theorists, mainly because the novel became the dominant genre there between the 17th and 19th centuries and has conquered the rest of the world in the last one hundred and fifty years. This disconnection makes it an obligation to denaturalize, investigate, describe, and sometimes question the workings of narrative in literature and the role of aestheticization in narratives (like those of historiography, cosmology, or biology) that do not a priori require an aesthetic supplement to fulfill their cognitive, social, political, and ethical purposes.

Straightening the Terminological Maze

Since the infancy of modern narratologies, the very notion of “narrative” has never been a consensual object of study. From their reputedly “classical” formalist and structuralist development to the huge diversification of the so-called “post-classical” phase and beyond, with the rise of cognitive theories and the impact of neuroscience, “the appropriation of narratological frameworks by non-literary disciplines often results in the dilution of the narratological basis, in a loss of precision, and the metaphoric use of narratological terminology.”1 In fact, literary disciplines, bending toward “fiction,” are largely responsible for this tension, and the definitions of “narrative,” whether literary or not, vary enormously. They often remain contradictory in themselves and incompatible with those used in other fields of knowledge and practice: linguistic definitions are not shared by law or business. This severe lack of consensus implies that any description of literary narrative results from difficult preliminary theoretical choices heavily influenced by historical circumstances and particular philosophical and ideological positions. In the West and through the global expansion of Western rationalization, such discrepancies may find their origin partly in the persistent authority of Aristotelian poetics. According to it, the enunciative factor, the impersonation or not of the acts of speech that construct a story by the actors of the same sharply divides epic from drama (tragedy or comedy). The tragic mode of drama has curiously provided the prevalent paradigm to analyze and interpret the structures of narrative genres, such as the tale, the short story, and the novel, that use one or more external narrators and thus, if we follow Aristotle, belong to epos, not drama. Aristotle denies poetic and even narrative interest to historia, the plain factual recounting of verifiable events in the world as it is or was; therefore, fiction, in the narrow sense of the representation of possible human action, has come to stand as the most significant type of literary narrative, cut off by a more or less high partition from other narrative texts, on the one hand, and indiscriminately packed with non-narrative fiction (such as imaginary descriptions) on the other hand. The classical Indian aesthetics of rasa, although it concentrated, like Aristotelian poetics, on performed narratives, has had a unifying effect across the arts, but, since it seems to be more concerned with a hierarchic value system of human emotions and the techniques of their representation than with the nature of events and their sequence, it brings closer narrative and non-narrative texts instead of separating clearly the representation of a static world from katha, or the mimesis of an evolutive world. This does not mean that “narrative” should forever remain something completely elusive or that the immense modern investment of the human sciences (from sociology, anthropology, history, and law to the science of literature through linguistics) in its theory, analysis, and interpretation is a futile, wasted effort. It rather means that we should henceforth abstain from talking of “narrative” in any vague or all-embracing sense; instead, we should select and test the approaches that will prove most productive in the critical study and appreciation of literary phenomena. If, for instance, a certain approach helps us to make more sense of complex, borderline generic formations such as the lyrical novel, the prose poem, personal and literary diaries or notebooks, the anecdote, the Hadiths or the Upanishads, if it contributes to enhancing our enjoyment of literary and non-literary expressions alike, bringing enough genres under one roof while maintaining and justifying their functional specificities, we will deem it, for now, appropriate to literary studies and reader education.

The Word “Narrative”

The word “narrative,” in contemporary English, can be either adjective or substantive, as in the expressions “narrative poetry” or “a vivid narrative.” Without any surface determinant, the noun “narrative” further objectifies and universalizes the characteristics contained in the acceptation of the adjective when we say, for example (no matter whether it is true or false): “Narrative is present in every speech act.” “Narrative,” in this case, becomes the concept of the set or sets of features that allow us to call some texts or acts of communication “narrative,” and names the open corpus of all the extant, recorded, or possible/potential texts or acts of communication that do or would manifest “narrative features.”

The identity of signifiers between the English adjective and the two aspects (grammatically determined and not determined) of the noun entails a particular way of apprehending the narrative phenomenon. What this way might be, we can begin to infer from a comparison between the lexical uses outlined in contemporary educated English and those found in other states of the English language and in other languages. Suffice it to note the asymmetry of French and English in this respect: in French, even though the adjective “narratif” could be nominalized like any other similar adjective, this potential nominalization has not been actualized: although the English and French adjectives “narrative” and “narratif” are fully equivalent, we translate the English noun “narrative” as “récit.” This substantive etymologically evokes memory, repetition, quotation, a posteriori telling; it refers more to the oral, written, or visual text of narratives through which the telling is done than to the teller of the tale, who is not necessarily a “récitant”—especially in modern times—and is technically tagged “narrateur” or would be called a “conteur” in an older or an oral context. This fact is all the more important in view of the impact of French or French-inspired structuralism on the worldwide development of narratology and its early insistence on dismissing the figure of the author from this field of study.

Comparison with other languages would show that the terminology in the semantic field of “narrative” is culturally and historically determined and therefore generates large numbers of “untranslatables” in Barbara Cassin’s sense. The semantic field of “narrative” is covered and divided differently in each language, which does not make it easy for us to speak of “narrative” from the standpoint of modern English while purporting to discuss it as an anthropological universal. If the Arabic word qissa covers virtually any kind of story, anecdotal stories or records of matters of the Minor Way (xiaodao), considered as “fiction” because they did not carry a relevant moral message, seem to be separated from other narrative genres in pre-Ming China.

The use of the same signifier, in English, for the adjective and the concrete and conceptual nouns, and the presence of the same Latin etymon in a large spectrum of the semantic field (with “narrate,” “narrator,” “narration”) involve a serious risk of considering narrative phenomena as naturally unified in space, time, and the logic at work. The Proto-Indo-European root gno, unconsciously shared with “know,” can also perpetuate a confusion of informing and knowledge acquisition in general with narration and its reception. Overlooking heterogeneity is as dangerous as denying the possibility of anthropological universals.

The Word “Literature”

Contemporary uses of the words “literature” and “literary” are fraught with difficulties at least as great as those of “narrative.” The variation of social and philosophical values in the present context of fragmented cultural globalization and acts of resistance to these variations contributes to this vagueness. Where people of widely different backgrounds and persuasion, in different languages, could readily agree that (a) “Peter and Mary got married yesterday” is a narrative utterance, even the closest friends and collaborators might well disagree on whether the above sentence, or, alternately, (b) “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” can be literary at all. An affirmative answer, for the first example, would always depend on a relaxation of exogenous and/or inbuilt aesthetic criteria; with the second example, it would depend on the relaxation of the principle of non-contradiction in the name of an aesthetics of surprise or an anti-rationalist stance. One could say that literariness is subject to much wider socio-cultural and historical variations than narrativity. From the standpoint of the early 21st-century West, the criteria and inclusiveness of verbal art (as opposed to verbal non-art and non-verbal art) might perhaps be reduced to four phases for didactic purposes.

In Greek- and Latin-dominant poetics—more Aristotelian than Platonic—and their afterlife, “poetry” or “poesie” would cover the artful verbal (written and oral) imitation of human action in the two large genres (drama and epic) acknowledged by Aristotle, with the necessary addition of the lyric, not considered extensively in Aristotle’s Poetics. From the low Middle Ages onward, with the development of European vernacular languages in writing, with the first traces of secularization and individualization of art, and with the nostalgia and revival of classical know-how, the belles-lettres gradually separated from popular verbal art, tending to include rhetorical and didactic genres (sermon, discourse, eulogy, apology, essay, etc.) in the field. The novel use of the word “literature” in the 18th century did little more than legitimate a process of integration of written narrative fiction that had begun in the 13th century and had seen successively the transformation of the popular tale into the short story, the gentrification of the novel (including the “romance” as supposed sub-genre), and the defense of the epic in prose as a noble art form. “Literature” (or “poetry”), verbal art—although it had always been opposed or sometimes hated and despised since the times of Plato—had on the whole steadily accumulated a huge capital of prestige by the first half of the 19th century. “Literature,” mostly in its narrative guise, had come to embrace almost all domains of knowledge and expression, except those that made use of specific formal languages rather than natural languages. The fourth phase, of which we have generally become intensely aware only from the late 20th century, had already begun in the second half of the 19th century, under the combined pressure of scientific faith and growing distrust of “the word” associated with manipulation, propaganda, exploitation, war-mongering, and genocide.

The formation of a concept of literariness no longer tied to questions of moral and social value coincided with and probably contributed to the accelerated rise of a disinterested and above all non-mimetic vision of literature. Roman Jakobson’s “poetic function,” for example, conveniently condoned a renewed sharp separation between high and low, abstract and concrete, pure and pragmatic uses of aestheticization, favoring self-reflexive poetry or the formal structures of narrative over any “referential” semantic contents or conative intention and effect. The polysemy criterion of Mircea Marghescou anticipated a post-communist attitude at odds with the actual or imagined demands of the city;2 Roland Barthes’s “readerly” regime, reception aesthetics, and reader-oriented criticism, as well as the demise of the author and the foregrounding of the unconscious, all tended to turn literature into a playground for language games. The denunciation of universals by many postcolonial and “decolonial” theorists, together with the postmodern deconstruction of a coherent logos and the bewildering changes in the human perception of time and practice of memory—all these factors combined to support the idea that literature, at least as we had known it in our lifetimes, was indeed coming to an end. If we are to talk of literature at all, were it to accept or rejoice that it is no more, it is nevertheless a logical necessity to either describe “what was literature” or define what it could be in a differently configured world. It would be meaningless to declare dead a concept that was always empty. Moreover, there are too many traces and records of it—whether official, secret, or unacknowledged—in ordinary language and our everyday lives not to attempt to propose some ample but not vague working definition of what is literary in literary communication. It is a basic requirement here when the current corpus of what passes for “literature” is more dominantly narrative than ever, thus tightly, if unduly, conjoining two universals.

“Literature” must not be equated with the sum of supposedly literary genres any more than “narrative” with the sum of genres conventionally labelled “narrative” in any one cultural context. The fact that, before, during and after the rise of structural narratologies, the theory of literary narrative was always rooted in the study of a limited number of emblematic genres, such as the epic and the fable in the neoclassical period, the fairy tale3 and then the novel4 in the long structuralist period, or historiography, comics, and digital games more recently,5 never stopped generating as many conceptual distortions as useful insights. The diversity of historically inscribed genre-based theories should, on the contrary, motivate us to work our way toward features that have a chance to be anthropologically, transculturally, and transhistorically shared.

Here, then, an act of literary communication is any cooperative speech sequence that fulfills three minimal conditions: (a) its effectiveness depends on intertextual linkage at least as much as on its internal coherence and its reference to a non-textual world; (b) the resolution of ambiguities and the reduction of tropes and other figures leave a positive surplus to the act of communication; (c) this act of communication actually generates or has the potential to generate some kind of aesthetic satisfaction in the empirical or virtual participant subjects. Literariness, thus broadly defined, can be historically modulated; it is not a static, immutable property of some classes of “texts” that other classes would not possess, but its existence does not depend on particular historical circumstances or on a grand evolutionist narrative of progressive achievement or rise and decay.

A Brief Narrative of the Poetics of Narrative

The word “poetics” rather than “theory” is preferred: first of all, narrative meaning and resonance are held to be the result of a making, a collaborative fabrication, not a given of a “text” as it stands in its own space, as early textual structuralism saw it, or a ready-made code or pattern that would reside in the minds of both receiver and sender and could be called upon, activated at will without undergoing important modifications, as some cognitivist views, like those popularized by Jonathan Gottschall would have it.6 Second, a poetics has a normative aspect that a theory lacks: until the second half of the 20th century, all concepts of literary narrative were largely motivated by a quest for moral and/or aesthetic added value, even when they purported to be amoral or immoral and cultivated ugliness or negligence. In fact, the demand for such values or their deliberate denial still weighs upon most contemporary theories of narrative. Even though Lubomir Doležel validly argued that a change of paradigm in Western poetics,7 from an anatomical, taxonomic view to a morphological, organicist one, emerged in the Romantic period, it is obvious it has been and is still, two centuries later, at pains to replace the earlier one.

The Aristotelian Conundrum

Aristotle’s Poetics remains, after twenty-four centuries, by far the single most influential treatise of its type in the West and, by colonial extension, worldwide. What were the motivations of such a persistent impact in spite of the Judeo-Christian revelation and revolution, when a very different attitude to the Book was now carried by the three monotheisms, when divine authorship and its truth-value imposed a unique, linear master narrative of the history of mankind always already pre-written by God? The Enlightenment; the destabilizing, iconoclastic avant-gardes; the formalist, structuralist, pragmatist, cognitivist, and deconstructionist perturbations of the basic Aristotelian tenets have also proven unable to uproot them. Whether this inexpugnable resistance is due to an ever-renewed tragic vision of life that neither eschatological monotheism nor radical skepticism could seriously alter, or whether it was propitiated by the foundational character of the Poetics, by an incompleteness that gave rise to a number of equally plausible interpretations, or on the contrary by the often schematic pronouncements it makes, pre-figuring a culture of manifestos, its system is still at the heart of contemporary narrative theories that do not refer to it at all.

“Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation.”8 If man is a born imitator, if this is one of his key defining features, his dignity and his limit, he can imitate good or evil and his innate imitation skills must be guided: the main function of art, itself imitative qua human, will be to guide imitative behavior by the receiver. And the role of poetics will be to guide art—for which a description and an evaluation are necessary. Evaluation selects the best objects and the most adequate manner within each kind of means/vehicles. But Aristotle, in these lessons, considers only the art or set of arts that uses language as its means, independently of music or meter, prose or verse, a subset that still lacked a name. We could say that this field delimitation is the one in which the notions of “poetry” and later “literature” originate. The focus is not on the materiality of the signifier but on the process of signification and how it achieves the goals of mimesis in the minds and hearts of the receivers, influencing their view of themselves in the world and therefore their actions.

“The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad.”9 “Action” (praxis) or actions, “human affairs” (pragmata), are at the core of Aristotelian poetics. The mimesis of human actions is for Aristotle at once the shared and the sole determinant feature and primary purpose of all the arts, considered themselves at all levels as “makings of,” practicing a technique to pursue a goal. Regarding “narrative,” this choice has wide-ranging philosophical implications and hermeneutic consequences that will always complicate and sometimes hamper the task of contemporary narrative theory. On the one hand, it potentially unifies all the arts under the common denominator of narrative, allowing and even encouraging inter-artistic and trans-medial comparison; on the other hand, it excludes from the artistic domain and aesthetic enjoyment, in an unjustifiable way according to our modern view and practice, any act of expression and/or imitation that is either conceptual or merely descriptive or yet refers to natural, non-human events. Unless the making of a house, a decorative frieze, or a symphony is taken as imitation of human action, which is certainly not the primary purpose, an architectural realization, a landscaped garden, or a piece of non-imitative music are not objects of art.

Second, but more important, if non-human events such as meteors, geological, astronomical, physical events at large, or the life events of animals and plants are not valid objects of representation by literary language (unless they serve as metaphors of human actions, as in some parallels and allegories), a radical dichotomy is maintained between human nature and culture, on one side, and nature (what there is or what might be without mankind or discounting man’s action on it) on the other; we could even wonder whether this severance of man from the rest of the universe is not constitutive of the tragic condition that motivates for Aristotle the highest form or genre of “poetry.” Catharsis would serve as the fantasized healing of the repressed but active subconscious separation.

Third, the confusion of event with (human) action limits the scope of narrative discourse to its transactive level (A acts on B, there is an agent and a patient), making strangely irrelevant to poetry/literature those events and processes that involve only one (human) entity without any necessary and knowable action on its part, such as being born, growing, falling in love, becoming sick, old or stupid, and dying. Moreover, all human events that occur without the intervention of a third human party would have to be caused by the action of one part or side of a human being on another part or side of the same: the human, causal, and transactive Aristotelian notion of event paradoxically implies the universal responsibility of a subject that is at the same time inevitably fractured. Freudian psychoanalysis could be seen in this light as an attempt not only to explain and overcome the tragic burden, but to open up the Western poetics of narrative to alternate stories in which responsibility is measurable and the purgation of guilt is not the only answer.

Fourth, if the restriction of literary (meaningful) narrative to the telling of human action implies a tight bond to ethos, to character (as a quasi-person), there can be no proper narrative without the continuity demanded and provided by individual human lives and consciousnesses and their continuous interactions: the unity of argument or story line and its successiveness, conveniently reflected by textual unity and/or unity of performance (“the work”), the careful disposition of parts, the clear framing of the whole, all point at a narrativity that depends on the role of the narrator (in epic) or the concerted conjunction of players (in drama). Fragmentation, unsolved riddles, the breaking up of a spatiotemporal continuum, precisely what an event does as such according to most narrative theories, would appear as detrimental to narrativity.

Finally, since faithfully, neutrally imitating uninterpreted past human action, as in historia, would be useless from a moral and social point of view that actively concerns itself with the present and the future, the Aristotelian literary narrative is bound to embrace at least a certain degree of fictional world-making: this narrative, whether it is based on historically recorded facts, on supposed facts, or on myths and the imagination, needs fiction as much as faction, and its storytelling implies a willing suspension of disbelief, a “let us suppose that,” virtually experiencing “what it’s like.”10 Planning a future is always, after all, a conspiracy.

It is no great surprise then that, although Aristotle’s Poetics focused on drama, it could still easily fit the semiotics of tale and the theory of the novel, as long as they could be forcibly reduced to some form of compositional and referential unity (a storyline and a story-world), and as long as their perceived purpose could be held as at least partly social, ethical, educative, and therapeutic. But, when these two conditions appeared increasingly difficult to fulfill with the formal contortions, the self-referentiality, and the proclaimed disengagement of a not so large but widely publicized and very visible fraction of 20th-century experimental writing—narrative by default—some literary theorists with an interest in narrative were forced to discard post-modern, non-“prototypical” narratives from their investigative scope, assuming also that a lower “consciousness factor” lessened the narrative experience.11 They are doubly wrong when they treat the French nouveau roman, American metafiction, or other unconventional 20th-century prose forms as alien to the representation of consciousness, and when they think that its conventional representation, as in the “psychological” novel, enhances narrativity. From Homer to James Joyce and beyond, the contours of literary narrative cannot be drawn by story fetishism. Literary narrative uses it and questions it at once, as it swings between defamilarization and re-familiarization.12

Problems in Contemporary Western Narrative Theory

A comparative history of modern and contemporary narrative theory remains to be written. It could certainly not be linear and its findings would doubtless be somewhat puzzling, but many of these difficulties have to do with four persistent, rarely challenged beliefs: (a) that narrative discourse and “story” or “plot” are coextensive; (b) that narrative is a kind of “language” and it has some sort of universal “grammar” or “logic”; (c) that narratives, especially literary ones, are necessarily about humans and human kind; (d) that narrative interest is provided by anomalous, unexpected events, developments, and resolutions rather than by the repetition and confirmation of standard schemata. These beliefs impose undue limitations on the theory of literary narrative.

Event, Change, and Action

The notion of “action” is related to the philosophy of action or ethics, and it is etymologically cognate to those of “author” and “actor.” It assigns an identifiable origin to the telling of the tale and also to the events told, or at least it manifests the relevance of origin and launches a regressive quest of origins that has no reason to stop or pause unless an all-powerful, all-embracing deity makes the search redundant, since every event then belongs to a self-caused world. The only difference between author and actor being that between a gesture that will be repeated and the imitation/the serious or playful repetition of this gesture, “action” tightly binds the authorial figure with character, and those two with a reader or receiver who will identify with them and re-enact what was acted by the character in the presented world. Since, additionally, one cannot just act but has to act, retroactively or proactively, on something or someone, all the elements of plot (sequentiality; connectivity; interactivity; plurality of actants; actual or potential causality; directionality, i.e., time-oriented events with a finality) are already given by the notion of action. This troubles any narratology that wishes to distinguish deeper and more elementary levels, steps or stages of meaning formation from the articulations that operate at the levels of story (fabula) and textual actualization (szuzhet). Eliminating all stratification, as did Philip Sturgess, is conducive to erasing the very specificity of the texts we commonly perceive and classify as distinctly narrative together with the difference between action and mere event or process (the difference between “John starts watering the garden” and “it starts raining” or “Marcel becomes a novelist”).13

J.A. García Landa rewrote “action” (acción) as “event” (acontecimiento) in his early forays into narrative theory; he also rewrote “action” as a collective, holistic noun, always already sequential.14 In his later work, he fortunately denounces the illusion produced by “hindsight bias,” renamed by him “narrative fallacy”: “The configuration effected by narrative is imaginatively projected backwards and transformed into the reified structure of experience before it is narrated—and before it unfolds, actually.”15 Nevertheless, when the same author, together with Sturgess and many others, insists on an “inherently retrospective logic of narrative,” he still collapses the post hoc of the narrated with the propter hoc of narration. A concept of narrative logic, unavowedly placed under the aegis of “action,” conflates prior narration and its pre-formation in the mind of the narrator/author with the narrated as it is concretized by the receiver. As a result, one could not take at face value the narrative present tense, let alone the use of the future: “And then the blade (of the guillotine) falls,” or “The just will be rewarded on the Day of Judgment” do not, we contend, use these verb tenses “to mask the inherent retrospectivity of narration.”16 Indeed, the present and future tenses of testimonial, forecasting, and prophetic narratives are more effectively narrative because they point at an event as it is happening or in its promising or threatening imminence, while the past is past, as people say, and past, preterit events exist only in the form of inert traces, inscriptions, states, however hard we try to make them come to life.17

Narrative discourse, in its most general sense, is the discourse of change, not action; it provides a transitive view of the world.18 Daniel Punday is eager to add a spatial dimension, one of movement, to what he sees as limited to change in time in Didier Coste’s definition of narrative meaning.19 But, if “sic transit gloria mundi” could be the blasé motto of narrative discourse, then the spatial dimension is ipso facto already present in the inevitable metaphors of “passing,” “going to,” and “going through” (the Catalan language strangely uses the auxiliary verb “va” for its narrative preterit). None of these conceptual features is a priori dependent upon the supposedly logical priority of narration over the narrated, but they are not intrinsically textual either: “Far from being dependent on universal, context-free structures and traits, narrativity is largely tied to pragmatic, functional, contextual, generic and cultural circumstances.”20 Without effacing the ontological distinction between stasis and change, what counts as event or process, what is construed as change in the elaboration of narrative meaning, certainly depends on the play of foregrounding and backgrounding.

Narration and Narrated

In his foreword to Raphael Baroni’s La Tension narrative, Jean-Louis Schaeffer states, perhaps slightly hastily, that narrative theory, after a peak in the so-called “structuralist period,” had fallen into dire disgrace in the final two decades of the 20th century, since the findings of structural narratology were held by some as definitive and obvious, while, for others, “theory” itself had become a dirty word and the very idea of a general narratology chimerical.21 Schaeffer’s vision is probably too influenced by his focus on the French and Francophone scene. Bibliographies of narrative theory in other languages (English, German, Spanish, Portuguese) show that there was a steady flow of important books and collections in the new discipline all along those twenty years.22 What is true is that there happened a marked shift away from “deep structures” à la A. J. Greimas toward the modalities of narration and the question of fictionality, and away from intra-textual considerations toward intertextual hermeneutics, pragmatics, reader-oriented criticism, and cognitive or psychological approaches. Not all of this research has had the same impact on the discipline. Some of the newer “post-structural” research enriched the bases provided by formalist-structuralist theories, corrected their rigidities and blunders, brought enlightening inflections. But, curiously, the development of enunciative stylistics, the study of embedded and mosaic composition, metalepsis, overwriting, pastiche, parody, and metafiction did not significantly help to strengthen the non-porous, epistemic, and pragmatic border between narration and narrated.

In a glossary entry for “Narration, narrative act,” Monika Fludernik defines these (for her) synonymous expressions as follows: “The telling of a story by a narrator, who may address a narratee. The narrative act, which corresponds to Gérard Genette’s level of narration, forms the communicative framework of the narrative.”23 Here, at first sight, a clear-cut distinction seems to be drawn between narration as act and narrated as object produced. But many ambiguities and potentially risky presuppositions derived from the central role given to experientiality mar the simple definition:


What is told is a “story,” something sequential, coherent, presumably with a beginning, a middle, and an ending—“first things first,” as Aristotle would say—implying once again that there is a pre-formed story to be told, that “telling” is primarily “re-counting,” a repetition with or without variations. Why not, if this is what happens when a child asks Grandma to tell him the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or when I was eyewitness to a cat and dog fight and I shaped the scene into an anecdote that I will re-cite to my neighbor—and much literature relies on these rituals? But a story can never be transmitted whole and intact by the narrative act, or the narrator would be reduced to the status of a robotic tape recorder. Even the story of Snow White owes its existence, like a Rorschach test, to its myriad collaborative reconstructions by the millions of receivers it has accumulated in the course of time. “Narration” should be understood as the enunciation of a discourse or parole from which it is inferred that a story might be constructed. The “narrated” is not a story, but a program to build one in agreement or disagreement with the intentions that are deemed to underlie the text in which narrative discourse is used. The juxtaposition, in one textual frame, of two incompatible descriptions—like the before and after pictures in weight-watching advertisements—is both a program of the sort and an incentive to activate it.


If the formula “narration is the telling of a story by a narrator” is not an empty tautology, it implies that the narrator is not just a role, function, or device but that he/she is a quasi-person who should be and is usually perceived as a character active in the narrative of narrating: “According to Ansgar Nünning (2001), this narrative act is often portrayed in such a lively manner that it constitutes a ‘secondary mimesis’ of the act of narration: the narrational process itself and the figure of the narrator seem to be part of a second fictional world, that of the narrator as s/he tells the story.”24 Autobiography and autofiction are ready examples to support this remark. Such a superimposition of “stories,” even when it is a mere projective fantasy, can be profitable to complicate literary narratives and enrich their hermeneutic ambiguities, but it can also be circular and drastically reductive, if the story of narration is expected to explain the narrated contents and their form. The most banal readings of autobiographical narratives, those destabilized by Marcel Proust and autofiction, offer arch-examples of circular reasoning in this respect. We could call this convenient naiveté the “narrational fallacy,” one so successfully exploited by self-reflexive narratives of all times, fictional or not, from Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy to critical accounts of the latest terrorist attack.

It is therefore of crucial importance to avoid using the adjective “narrative” indiscriminately for phenomena and structures that pertain to narration, focalization, presented world, and gloss. In order to describe the relations between two or several narrating instances within a narrative, the unfortunate expression “narrative levels” should be replaced by “narration levels” or “narrating levels” or, better, by “narrational levels.”25

Narrative and Narrativization/Denarrativization

If “narrative” is so pervasive in the human world that it is finally our only way of making sense of the world and of ourselves, if we are redefined no longer as mimetic (imitative) animals but as narrating animals, if speech is narrative in essence, and if we are ipso facto more human and more alive when we are more “narrative,” “tale-men” like Ulysses, there is no point in distinguishing “narrative” acts of communication from any other act of speech. Moreover, a tall tale would be more “graphic” than a sound, precise description, and the curse on the “accursed kings” a better explanation of their evil behavior than the anarchy that marked the coexistence of late feudalism with the budding nation-states of Europe.

In other words, we would deprive ourselves of the higher understanding of social and personal phenomena accrued by the two opposite mental gestures of narrativization and denarrativization, and their various modalities, depending on the shape, nature, and dimensions of time that condition these processes. Let us consider, for instance, one of the most famous among the many still renderings of the “death of the lovers” final scene from the Greek legend of Hero and Leander, a painting by Paul Rubens, c.1604 (figure 1).

Figure 1. Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577–1640, Hero and Leander, c.1604.

Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery.

Its general structure is characterized by a circular or rather elliptical convolution of the figures, the visible shape of a whirlwind or a maelstrom, caught at a particular moment, but not situated in linear time and endless in principle. The decorative and erotic/anatomical values, typical of baroque art, are complemented by the presence, obscure but close to the few sunrays—a source of light often encountered in Christian devotional painting—of two tiny figures that seem to be flying above the main scene but are also embedded in a secondary marine landscape, under clouds shaped like eagle wings. These figures, whatever they are supposed to represent, contribute to an allegorical interpretation of the painting. If it were only for the livid, presumably dead male body floating on the surface of the sea and surrounded by very lively, full-fleshed Nereids, we could be satisfied with reading the scene as one more representation of “death and the young man,” the fragility of human lives exemplified and exalted by the age and beauty of the young deceased adult. But one human figure, on the far right side, departs from the overall structure and conventions in two remarkable ways: it is partly clad, in a red robe, and it is upside down, falling from nowhere toward the rocks or the foamy waves underneath; we cannot tell. This figure breaks the unity and permanence of the whole. We have to question it in the specific terms of “What is happening?”—“What happened?”—“What will happen next?”—“How will it end?” This figure therefore constitutes what we could call a “narrative prompter.” It is a readerly way of seeing what Amy Golahny already noted about Rubens’s innovations: “Rubens enhanced the dramatic content of his literary and pictorial sources—achieving a marked synthesis of action and expressiveness—by juxtaposing the two deaths and by giving such prominence to the nereids.”26

In another painting, Romantic this time, by William Etty, first exhibited in 1829, the naked, lifeless, livid body of a young man is stretched on a rocky ledge, the abrupt shore of a stormy sea.27 A young woman, over him, upside down, embraces his torso and presumably touches his neck with her lips. Beside its somber and hesitant eroticism, beside the absence of warm colors and the shocking encounter of dominant verticality with the narrow horizontality of the sea horizon, and other formal and symbolic features that generate a whole set of emotions—sadness, admiration, fear, and compassion—in the beholder, the situation depicted is one that cannot last forever in human time, and it cannot have frozen a long time ago. The traumatic moment needs to be motivated in order to transcend trauma and achieve catharsis or at least some sort of moral recovery, and it also wants to be prolonged and/or transformed into an actualizable not-yet. This is when we narrativize our vision of the painting, supposing prior events and events to come without which the present of the scene would not be a present, could not be embedded in our experiential lifetime. We will say that the young man has drowned in the sea a short while before the moment depicted, that the young woman who expresses extreme grief may not survive the death of the young man she loved. The long title given by William Etty to his painting, “Hero, Having Thrown herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, Dies on his Body,” does half of the narrativizing. But it is the paradoxical stillness of the painting itself that accomplishes implicitly the eventual denarrativization without which the events would remain gratuitous in the ethical realm of legend and myth. The immobility of the bodies in their perfect pose, beyond any movement and defying any alteration, tells us silently that “the lovers are now united for ever (in death as they were in life).” The chain of events also needs to be denarrativized in order to transcend transience and abolish precedence and successiveness so that narrative meaning can eventually be transformed into moral law and injunction.

In a silent movie, the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, we can see successively a figure with similar features acting good, then bad, then good again: if we say that they are the same person, we also see this person as changing, transforming, time and again; we narrativize the filmic text. But, if we say that they cannot possibly be one and the same, that there are two different characters to carry out good deeds and crimes, we have two parallel, contrasting portraits, but no change; we de-narrativize the sequentiality of the movie. And, if we hesitate between these two interpretations, endlessly oscillating between ontological identity and non-identity of the two human figures, we relativize the notion of change itself as we are tempted to refuse to choose between the different meanings generated by a linear, a circular, or a spiral vision of time. Italo Calvino has played very cleverly with successive narrativization, de-narrativization, and re-narrativization in his moral tale The Cloven Viscount.

As Jan Alber noted very aptly, Hayden White and Monika Fludernik agree that the general purpose of narrativization (“giving narrative form to a discourse”) is to facilitate “a better understanding of the represented phenomena.”28 For White, it is a manipulation of the reader with ulterior motives—the reader is always in need of coherence, reassured by a causal chain. Fludernik argues on the contrary that “experientiality both subsumes and marginalizes plot.”29 Her “natural” vision of narrativization, that, out of basic necessity, “applies one specific macro-frame, namely that of narrativity, to a text,” aligns once more with Aristotelian thought, and fails to see how the denarrativization of possible plots, by synchronic historiography, lyrical poetry, or even the final stasis of happy and tragic endings, fulfills the equally basic human need of resisting the tear and wear of linear time and confronting mortality with the inscription of permanence: the image of Charles Bovary sitting dead on the bench at the far end of the garden is not there just for the sake of narrative coherence, but because his clumsy love of Emma is now liberated, as it enters the non-time of metaphor.30

Narrative Mimesis: Fiction or Non-fiction?

In the West and elsewhere, the theory of narrative and narratology (the study of narratives) at large originates in a poetics of fiction, understood as the art of “as if” and the mimesis of possible worlds based on human experience and the supposed spiritual, psychological, and physical nature of man. David Gorman notes, sadly and quite rightly, that “throughout the history of literary study, the overwhelming majority of narratives of interest to critics have been fictional; indeed, the terms fiction and narrative seem often to be used as synonyms.”31 In spite of this initial warning, though, this author proceeds as if there were a necessary link between “narrative,” “fiction,” and “literature.” But the consequences of the reification of “fiction” are disastrous for the understanding of the phenomenon of narrative. For sure, “possible worlds,” in the sense of Pavel, Ryan, or Doležel, are crafted by the human mind; they are no longer transcendent, metaphysical objects to be discovered as they were for Gottfried Leibniz, but it does not mean that they are representations of a human world.32 A man-made tool, including computers, is first of all a tool before it can symbolize, let alone represent, the human mind and the human condition. An encounter with the non-human has always been what happens most strikingly to humans in realist narratives as well as in fantasy. Denying the narrativity of social realism, chronicles, or scientific cosmologies, as does Herman among others, bars us from understanding the full richness of the games literary narratives play with time and being.33

With or without boundaries between fact and fiction, three assumptions are made by most theorists who place the question of fictionality at the center of both literary and narrative theory:


Fictionality depends on the intentionality of the human/anthropomorphic sender of the message, typically a non-deceptive intention to convey meaning through the fabrication of something inexistent as if it existed. This is in apparent contradiction with Lavocat’s contention that fictionality (or “fiction”—she uses the two words interchangeably) boosts the hermeneutic drive of the receiver by creating an obstacle to the automatic, straightforward transmission of information based on a strong belief in the referentiality of the message, thus de-automatizing literal comprehension.34 In this case, the most efficient booster of interpretation should be our wariness about the sincerity and truthfulness of the sender. As far as narrative is concerned, though, Hayden White’s rhetorical approach is the most convincing at a basic level: the narrativization of the relation between discrete objects consists in supposing an ontological continuity of these objects through (linear) time, so that discrepancies of one or more features of these objects can be interpreted as events. Narrative as such could therefore be seen as a special metonymic operation that substitutes contiguity in time to spatial contiguity, while fictionalization, indifferent to the time factor, is more akin to metaphor.


The second assumption is that since human beings experience their lives as narratives, narrative discourse is the most natural or spontaneous tool to convey meaning. This idea is a generalization of a notion acquired through the analysis of myths and fairy tales and is generally supported by both psychoanalysis and causal history, based therefore on a deterministic rule of origin: a tribe is a community by kinship, a church is a community of worshippers of the same creator and the same prophet/founder; members of the community identify with a story of themselves that was already told/written before the event. But literary narratives, from the very beginning, are different from sacred texts; they are not only the repetition of a myriad-times-told tale; their looseness turns them into a breeding ground of emergence, of the unexpected. In each embodiment of a preformed story there must appear elements that are at variance with this original story; the tension between portrait and change, between different or even antagonistic spatiotemporal coordinates, opens the playing field of possibilities that is constitutive of literariness, even for Aristotle. Narrative, insofar as it leaves these options open, can serve literariness. If it does, it is not past-oriented: you cannot change the past. If fiction was that which “makes exist what does not exist,” or was “presenting as existent what is non-existent,” it could not be differentiated from lie or error. We must sever all a priori dependence, all supposedly “natural” or experiential links between fictionality, literariness, and narrativity in order to observe their interplay and the added value that this interplay can bring to human communication. To take one obvious example, look at what happens in a modern Western secular context to canonical literary narratives such as Hellenistic romances, Hamlet, Don Quixote, Great Expectations, Mrs Dalloway, or Waiting for Godot. Each of these narratives gives an unforeseen twist to temporality.


The third assumption equates the difference between fiction and non-fiction to the opposition between referentiality and non-referentiality, referentiality being taken here in the sense of pointing at something that “exists,” that belongs to the sphere of “the real.” In the framework of a reflection about literary narrative, we will provisionally leave aside the relevance of “fiction” in communication through media other than natural languages. The reduction of “referentiality” to an empirical or scientific notion of the real is highly detrimental to a historical apprehension of both narrativity and the fluctuating ontological status of the objects involved in events. If we understand fictionality as polyreference to two or more universes characterized by incompatible features, such as sacred and profane, real and imaginary, virtual and actual, or concrete and conceptual, etc., panfictionality theory does not run against the ethical “Auschwitz test.”35 It is not liable to accusations of negationism, as Lavocat is prone to hint.36 Nevertheless, we have to accept that, where narrative is concerned, the principle of panfictionality generates the risk of substituting pseudo-cognitive events to material events, the story of the discovery of a “hidden truth” to the story of what happened or probably happened. Since narrative meaning is not a natural given but cooperatively constructed, negotiated, narrative truth is not a given; it can only be established through an argumentative dialog.

The future remaining generally more hidden, less knowable than the past, grand predictive narratives (apocalyptic, millenarist, or on the contrary, eutopian, idealistic projections) are a privileged terrain for preferring the neatness of a narrative Gestalt to the incoherence produced by lawless chance.

Narrative Versus Non-narrative in Literature

When Genette affirmed that there was no difference of ontological status between narrative and description, he could be held partly responsible for later developments of narrative theory that would self-defeatingly hollow out the narrative specificity of certain texts. But literature uses narrative in order to fulfill its aesthetic, ethical, and political purposes, and narrative uses literature to fulfill its own political agenda, conservative or revolutionary, communitarian, cosmopolitan, or disruptive, in particular traditions and at specific cultural moments. Storytelling is of all times, but non-narrative discourses can counter it as much as they can support it.

Narrative As a Genre of Discourse

Narrative discourse is the whole set of what is said and thought, in a cooperative or conflictive fashion, when the world of reference is seen as actually or potentially transitive, subject to change. This set of communicational transactions is the locus of narrativity.

“The degree of narrativity of a given narrative depends partly on the extent to which that narrative fulfills a receiver’s desire by representing oriented temporal wholes …”37 Discourses can be called narrative when they manifest their participant minds’ desire or acceptation of a world view according to which existents are subject to change at one or several points of a linear temporal continuum. Although story-logic adepts38 minimalize their role in the construction of narrative meaning or experientiality and sometimes risk confusing narrational speech events with change in the presented world,39 events—i.e., the manifestation and perception of change—are unanimously held to be the nucleus of narrative discourse, as maintained by Genette.40 Reis also comes to this conclusion in his commentary of Van Dijk.41 No narrative is ever self-contained; it neither can nor has to represent a temporal whole: a closed temporal whole would cut off the temporal continuum that is the possibility condition of events. Many narratologists, confusing narrative with plot, demand a sequence or series of correlated events to label a text “narrative,” but, if all these events were locked into a closed temporal whole, with no before or after, they would amount to a static world-description, uniformly valid for a certain duration, as in synchronic historiography. Narrative discourse, as the eventful or processual discourse of change, operates in specific contradistinction with various kinds of non-narrative discourses.

Figure 2. Coste’s (1989) transformational tree, from Narrative as Communication, University of Minnesota Press, 49.

Reproduced with permission.

Consider one of the narrative statements presented in figure 2, “Peter died.” It reconciles in terms of an “event” the contradictory descriptions “Peter is alive” + “Peter is dead” by indicating that they describe the entity “Peter” at two discrete moments on a linear time axis. This kind of narrative is not or is little interested in action and causality; its point is not concerned with who or what killed Peter. Such narratives are more about time (and space) than about agents. The statement “John killed Peter” combines two non-contradictory but otherwise unlinked non-transactive narrative statements: “John became a murderer (or: turned out to be a murderer)” and “Peter died.” Obviously, one key locus of narrative interest, or narrative tension, is the grey zone between the two narrative levels of discourse whose analytical complexity already invites us to indulge in multiple, or even endless, interpretation, with its accompanying emotions (hence, very probably, the temptation to equate literature with the thrill of narrative discourse).42 More intricate and more aesthetically and cognitively exciting yet is the game played by those literary narratives of process, of becoming—the Bildungsromanen of Henry James and Marcel Proust—or of decay and decline (Franz Kafka) that hesitate deliberately between mere sequentiality (chance) and a deterministic system of causality.

Narrative discourse, whose precondition is the relevance of linear time to its meaning and significance, should not only be analyzed in this respect but also contrasted with other genres of discourse, such as argumentation, commentary, and the lyric, that have little to do with linear time or at least try to negate it through strategies of effacement and dismantling of linearity. For instance, two aspects usually studied are the prevalent question of enunciation (who speaks?) and that of the presence or absence of narrative discourse and narrative programs among the lyric: “the more a poem foregrounds vocal effects, … the more powerful the image of voicing, oral articulation, … the less we find ourselves dealing with the voice of a person.”43 In other words, the more lyrical a poem is, the less it relies on “character,” which is still a way of making out the lyric from narrative in Aristotelian, actional, and anthropomorphic terms. Thus, along the lines of a case grammar, narrative would rather be dominated by the nominative and the accusative, while the lyric would foreground the vocative and the dative, since it is primarily concerned with calling what it names to existence and presence and seducing whoever it addresses with free offerings that would hopefully generate counter-gifts. In the European 18th century, the critique of a futile rhetoric of ornament in the lyric was followed by the Romantic surge of the expressive function: the speaking subject, in a dramatic revolutionary context, became a kind of narrator as he told his transience in an accelerated time stream.

Units and Concatenation

The Quarrel of Minimal Units

When Prince defined a “narrative statement” as “an elementary constituent of discourse independent of the particular medium of narrative manifestation,” adding that “the discourse can be said to state the story through a connected set of narrative statements,” he seemed to accept a commonsense constructivist view of stories.44 But the issue becomes immediately blurred by the subdivision of narrative statements into “process statements (in the mode of Do or Happen) and stasis statements (in the mode of is),” implying that stasis statements are also narrative.45 True, a text certainly does not need to contain any explicit “process statement” for us to construe its meaningfulness qua narrative; when we are told somewhere that Julien Sorel climbs a ladder to court Mme de Rénal, and, somewhere else in the same volume, that his severed head lies in the lap of Mathilde, the principle of non-contradiction requires that we situate the two stasis statements at different points along a linear temporal axis. Even if both statements were in the present tense and the second were textually placed before the first, we would have to bind them in linear time and choose between the event of death, if we do not believe in miracles, or resurrection, if we believe in them. When contradictory “stasis statements” alternate randomly, the formation of consistent, safe narrative meaning is impeded by apparent textual incoherence and the lack of allegiance to a linear notion of time. The nouveau roman as well as fantasy, surrealist texts, and magical realism have often played with the juxtaposition of incompatible “stasis statements” in this way: an excellent example is found in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes (The Erasers), whose Spanish translation was published under the title La doble muerte del professor Dupont (Prof. Dupont’s Double Death). But the narrative drive, however unfulfilled, remains the motor of reading; its presupposition and its astute deception oblige the reader to pay attention to the dispositio of signifiers where another kind of aesthetic enjoyment will take root.

Unlike Revaz, we should therefore remain attentive at once to the rhetorical uses of narrativization/denarrativization and to the frame in which minimal narrative (or non-narrative) units are considered.46 Both Barthes and Genette were intuitively right when they proposed that a (coherent) narrative of any size could be seen as an expansion of a single process statement (the famous “Ulysses returns to Ithaca” for The Odyssey, or “Marcel becomes a writer” for Remembrance of Things Past), but they erred in two ways: such minimal narrative or “process” statements, nowhere to be found in the texts under scrutiny, should also be considered as condensations or summaries of many narrative and non-narrative statements rather than minimal units similar to “Zorro has just arrived.”47 A minimal(ist) narrative (“recit minimal”) must be viewed as a self-contained or self-framing act of narrative communication, but minimal units are building blocks that may fit or not in a frame drawn to satisfy our anthropological needs for continuity and coherence. Narrative syntax, in the etymological sense of “syn-tax,” is the articulation of minimal narrative units in the textual, experiential, and diegetic spatiotemporal frames required to obtain coherence, sequentiality, and, eventually, sometimes, causality.

Kinds of Narrative Syntax

Narrative syntax is far from being uniform; it does not espouse a single model: for example, “states” and “events” can be textually juxtaposed (in close succession) without necessarily inferring a referential relationship between them in the presented world, or they can appear far apart and be construed by narrative memory as bearing a necessary causal relationship—without which their co-presence in a text (in a set of acts of communication that constitute a whole) could not be justified. When we read or hear that “a bird soared, the bathtub overflowed, a dart was shot,” asyndetic parataxis does not operate in the same way as in “John met Mary, Peter threw a tantrum.” If, to put it in Laurence Sterne’s own words, “Great wits jump,” they can do it in two very different ways, either jumping to the side, in order not to be crushed by the tragic demands of narrative determinism (this is when digressions occur and at times multiply), or jumping to conclusions: if we discover, after any number of pages, that “Peter threw a tantrum” and his anger cannot be explained by anything else, we might promptly relate it to the earlier statement that “John met Mary,” inferring for example that jealous Peter was secretly in love with his virtual friend Mary, but, contrary to John, never had a chance to meet this remote screen princess in real life … In classical detective stories, clues, true or false, emerge retrospectively, hindsight fabricates past omissions and dissimulation on the background of which otherwise far-fetched causal links, newly forged, shine all the more strikingly. To quote Sterne again: “It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates every thing to itself, as proper nourishment … This is of great use.”

Not only is narrative syntax diverse with regard to parataxis, hypotaxis, and their more or less strict separation and/or their more or less complex combination, but it can be put to widely different uses, employed as a decoy or turned into a tremendously powerful hermeneutic and heuristic machine. Whatever these uses, deceptive or enlightening, narrative syntax is one of the main means of production of aesthetic emotions in literary narratives. Loose syntactic links, those of simple verbal consecution, often require considerable effort on the part of the interpretative community and the individual receiver at the time of putting two and two together; their fatigue and frustration may lead to an entropic or a chaotic perception of the presented world and of language itself that is not infrequent in Samuel Beckett’s works or in American metafiction but was already found in the medieval Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes—not only because it is unfinished. The wasted effort to achieve narrative coherence must be compensated by another kind of reward, an aesthetic reward. Conversely, with conspiracy theories as well as tragedy, the prevalence of tight syntactic links, a high degree of indexicality (owing to the systematic use of appropriate shifters, for example) will easily lead to the notion that everything fits all too well, that nothing happens by chance, that the fatal issue (or the happy ending, why not?) were literally bound to happen, and modern aesthetic sensibility—touchy about subjective freedom—can be hurt by the authoritarian resonance of an apparently implacable, deterministic logic.

Roles in Literary Narrative Communication

Without extrapolating the roles of anthropomorphic entities (author, narrator, character, receiver) from narrative to all literary communication or reducing these roles in narrative communication to their common denominator with other forms of literary communication, it is desirable to examine them at least in one of two ways: as virtual positions filled, when possible, by actual agents, or as empirical behavioral sets (groups of actions) conceptually projected as quasi-subjects. Actual authors, storytellers, receivers and commentators, members of interpretative communities are not only the effective human beings who carry out certain roles without which narrative meaning or significance would not happen or would not be traded and transformed into world descriptions or supports of ethical and political values. They are also those who watch their own images in the narrative text, draw them from the manipulation it exerts upon them and forge flattering or disparaging self-portraits from its interpretation. Considering that the nucleus of “narrative” is a statement of change (in the world of reference), with the status of “event” if it fulfils some particular additional conditions—of relevance, irreversibility and (perhaps) unexpectedness48—narrative effect consists not only in breaking a temporal continuum but also in disrupting a principle of identity or consistency. The most characteristic and striking events that can affect an entity or a character, such as birth, metamorphosis, death, name change, kinship and relationship mutations, point at the paradox of narrative: they radically alter a subject at the most fundamental semantic levels (descriptive, definitional, or even ontological—“she/he has become unrecognizable,” “she is not the same,” “she is no more”)—while at the same time identifying the altered subject as the one to whom “it” happened to become other or another. The eventness of narrative defeats our need for coherence, persistence, and stable definitions in the first place; it makes us shout “What?” or exclaim “Wow!” orally or using digital emoticons and stickers, but, at the same time, it is our readiest recourse to restore coherence, the easiest prosthesis of identity. The difficult path from trauma to reconciliation, from time as killer to time as healer, with its many setbacks, cannot be trodden by a lone subject; it requires complex games of projection and introjection, identification and dissociation; it wants a dialogical, conversational cooperation that is at once polemical and geared toward conflict-solving through negotiation and role playing. Following the track opened by The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, Don Quixote, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past are among the most magnificent and increasingly self-conscious illustrations of how narrative struggles with its own paradoxical assumption that the subject can only manifest itself in the alterations that make it different from itself. All the theories of narrative that assign to the teller (the enunciative instance, author, narrator, or “unmediated” performer) the entire intentional responsibility of narrativity are blind to the necessary cooperation of participants in the narrative act of communication. Their collaboration consists not only in playing their respective nominal roles (“the author writes, the reader reads”) but in trying out or impersonating all the other roles: the author reads, the teller listens, the reader writes, etc. Understanding and coming to terms have a cost. The double-edged economy of narrative communication is thus similar to the oscillation between defamiliarization and refamiliarization adumbrated by Russian formalism and Victor Shklovsky. “The better a story is, the more text-like and meme-studded, the more cognitive labour it paradoxically requires, not only from tellers, but also from the hearers who become totally engaged in the process of drawing out its multifarious implicatures. This seems … certainly true of the high literary texts of a culture, where not only individuals but institutions make it their business to obsessively interpret.”49 The same theorist pursues: “My further … contention is that the pleasure we take in retrieving perlocutionary effects … from stories, remains observable in the most ordinary of our conversational anecdotes.” This approach comes with two very important implications. First, the visibly complex narratives of high literary culture—like Joyce’s Ulysses—can and should be distinguished from simple conversational anecdotes that they do not just amplify or load with ornament, but there is no difference of nature between supposedly natural and unnatural narratives: high narratives do not necessarily proceed from low ones, or vice versa. Instead, the production of narrative significance always engages the same cooperative processes. Aesthetic and cognitive pleasure, pathos and gnosis, are intimately linked in the training of emotional intelligence, “which is to say, our skills at interpreting, simulating, and responding to emotions.”50 The protracted debate between a merely semantic, denotational concept of narrativity and a relative, gradational notion has to do with the separation or not of sense and intensity but also with framing, contextualization, models, intertextuality, and intermediality.

Absolute or Scalar Narrativity

“Narrative designates the quality of being narrative, the set of properties characterizing narratives and distinguishing them from non-narratives … It also designates the set of optional features that make narratives more prototypically narrative-like, more immediately identified, processed and interpreted as narratives. In the first acceptation, narrativity … is usually considered a matter of kind … In the second acceptation, narrativity is a matter of degree …”51 According to these definitions, narrativity would depend on substantive features or properties that presumably pertain to a text in which they are somehow inscribed (or missing), features ready to be recognized by a reader before he can consider, process, and interpret the said text as (a) narrative.

At the level of elementary units (sentences or even simple clauses), the presence or absence of a predicate of change is certainly decisive. Out of context, the receiver has no choice but to perceive “John came over” as narrative and “John is a boy” as non-narrative, just like a “no smoking” or “no parking” sign posted anywhere must be understood as injunctive, if they are understood at all. When the text exceeds the single sentence or clause in extension and complexity, or when a single sentence needs context to be disambiguated, interpretation is required prior to the attribution of narrative meaning. This attribution depends on framing and selection, on the readiness, desire or fear of the individual or collective receiver: the interpretative communities to which they belong will play a key role. Narrativity, then, is no longer just a matter of verifiable presence or absence of certain features in the text but a matter of intersubjective negotiation. In this sense, there would be three rather than two modes of existence of narrativity, in literature as elsewhere: the absolute and scalar modes described by Prince, but also an optional mode that occurs when we ask: “Did something happen, or what?” or when we deny the eventness of something that did happen in the world of reference, calling it a “non-event” or commenting in a jaded tone: “nothing new under the sun.” Narratives with an open ending—those, like The Magus by John Fowles, that maintain cliffhanging suspense intact until the last word inclusively, or indefinitely, suspended searches like unresolved criminal cases or filiation quests—can by no means be deemed less narrative as a whole than a conventional love romance that in the end happily marries the suitable boy with the suitable girl. Even the disjointed structures, the elusive endings, and the probabilistic futurity of so-called post-modern literary narratives have generally not met with an appropriate revision of narrative theory.

Questioning whether we are dealing with a static world (describable once and for all for the duration of its existence), with one that is in process (becoming, growing, blossoming, or aging, shrinking, and vanishing), or open to change is an essential aspect of narrative communication. Audet, quoted by Porter Abbott, makes an important point when he proposes a notion of “eventness” (not “eventfulness”) “where the tension between a before and an after seems to generate a virtuality, that of a story to come.”52 If narrative tenses are most commonly of the accomplished past, the orientation of narrative discourse as one genre of discourse among others, or as a mode among others, is turned toward the future, the possible but not-yet.53 Past counterfactuals, for example, mediate analogically with possible things to come. Again for the same reason, many forms of the disnarrated (“John did not come,” “Mary would not wait for John,” “Mary did not realize that John was always late,” etc.) or juxtaposed incompatible descriptions are indeed more narrative, that is more prone to induce narrative meaning than chronological lists of events (“George W. Bush was elected president, then Barack Obama was elected president, then Obama was re-elected for a second term, etc.”). The former phenomena are pro-narrative; they imply a narrative program; they call for projective narrative thinking to make sense of them. Conversely, consistent cumulative eventfulness will automatically tend toward a static worldview: a character portrait (“as eternity changes him into himself”); descriptions; physical and moral laws (“natural disasters occur whenever man neglects his duty to the divinity”). Beyond the paradox of emplotment, but similarly to its effects, the heuristic value of narrative is equally threatened by its accumulative quest of mimetic exhaustivity: “It has often been said that narrative somehow banishes chance. Leland Monk says this in his study of chance in the British novel, that ‘chance is that which cannot be represented in narrative’ despite the manifest efforts to do so in the novel of the late Victorian and modern period.”54 Totalization, therefore, is equally “catastrophic for the categories of choice and freedom, … even while the efforts to represent free choice have produced some of the most important developments in modern narrative technique.”55 Narrative theory should now follow the example of such developments; it must not forfeit the unexpected to satisfy the foreseeable.

This is why a distinction between quantitative and hierarchic dominance of narrative discourse remains useful. With quantitative dominance, in narratives of adventure, travelogues, picaresque romances, surreal and fantasy narratives, biographies rich in varied experience, national histories full of Sturm und Drang, something new happens all the time (discoveries and encounters, victories and defeats, gains or losses, mysteries and explanations …). In vast architectonic epics (John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri) or elongated Bildungsromanen (Great Expectations, Remembrance of Things Past), a comparatively small number of major incidents are highlighted, but all descriptions, non-events, imperceptible changes eventually converge toward the formation of a single and simple summary (“Mankind was—or will be—saved,” “Marcel becomes a writer”). Since the genre of the classical, realist short story or nouvelle (not the anecdote or the folk tale) has a vocation to concentrate on a single story line and only one or a few protagonists and must at once provide enough context to make sense of the key event or process, it will often combine the quantitative and hierarchic or qualitative dominance of narrativity, as in Stefan Zweig’s works—or Guy de Maupassant’s or Henry James’s.

But literary genres like those just evoked are not abstract, transhistorical kinds; they are deeply rooted in historically inscribed, cultural conditions of production, transmission, and reception that orient the production of aesthetic and ideological value without which narrative interest would be reduced to an empty game.

Toward an Aesthetics of Literary Narrative

When a narrative is judged to be “well formed,” its emplotment, the progression of action, the spacing and collocation of incidents (events), correspond to certain narrative patterns that recall canonical/patrimonial literary, historical, sacred, or mythical narratives stored in the collective cultural memory of a civilization and/or a natural language. This aesthetic judgment bears specifically on literary narratives as narratives. Other aesthetic aspects, such as rhetorical and stylistic ornament or the lack thereof, enunciative devices like prosopopeia, or a lyrical (vocative) mode of address, may either reinforce narrativity or run counter to it. Both ornament and the well-formedness of literary narrative have been the object of many attacks over the centuries in the West, especially in certain periods, such as the baroque, the avant-gardes, and postmodernity: we will examine these attacks and their effects under the rubric of “dissident aesthetics.” Finally, we shall confront the Western tradition of narrative aesthetics with one non-Western tradition that still keeps a hold and a creative impact on contemporary literary narrative production.

Well-formedness; or the Legacy of Beauty

Even after successive ur-narratives, foundational fictions, master-narratives, and grand historical narratives all started to crumble under the combined fire of the sciences (each with its own field restrictions and limited purpose), the defeats of utopias, the experience of disaster, and the rebellion of the masses, a global narrative vision of the world (in the sense of trying to read it as a single coherent story) keeps creeping back, recalling all the losses suffered with the death of the king, the death of God and the death of empire. Ancient mythical, religious, and genealogical narratives (or their substitutes generated by and for market economy), democracy or human self-rule, the theory of evolution, and physical cosmologies share a sense that a lost order, or one that never was, must be restored or established in the end. Once the epic and even the novel were all but stripped of their credibility and relevance, the object of nostos could no longer be a fatherland; it became the art of narrative itself, in which the deepest truth and the utmost beauty were one and the same (anagnoresis and catharsis hand in hand). But, as the human subject, now a self-made man, no longer preexists its representation, this art in turn is also threatened to be dislocated from the mimesis of action to the mimesis of mimesis.

From the beginning of the 20th century, reactions to this state of affairs have been very diverse; they are all manifested in dominant narrative theories concurrently with the steady production of mainstream literary narrative and the prosification of the lyric. Early structural and formalist narratologies dealt preferentially with simple, popular, traditional types of narrative (Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk-Tale, 1928; Andreas Jolles’s Einfache Formen, 1930) or with the short story (Algirdas Julien Greimas’s, Maupassant: La sémiotique du texte, 1976). French structuralism, in its softer, more flexible version, with Genette’s Narrative Discourse (Figures III) (1972) after Roland Barthes’s S/Z (1970), multiplied grids and codes to deal with the underlying structures of complex and ambiguous works. It is striking that the choice by Genette of Proust’s magnum opus to nourish, develop, and test his reading grids applies to a monument with a “good shape,” beginning with the evocation of a preterit habit and ending with salvation (the promise of the recovery of a past wasted because it had not been processed and recorded). The many characters, scenes and incidents in La Recherche appear in this light as so many single-minded moments and objects of a long struggle to retrieve (the memory of) the time lost and therefore become a writer. The condensation of the narrative skeleton into a single backbone (“Marcel becomes a writer”) and the imposition of a hierarchy between the red thread of a life story and its fleshing out with details (the level of “écriture”), was attacked by some early reviewers of Genette’s work, approved by others.56 Both blame and praise were motivated by Genette’s openly anti-aestheticist attitude at the time. His structural method of description, like other methods introduced in the 20th century (literary psychoanalysis, sociocriticism), was an easy target for the “old” critics prone to accusing the “new” ones of ignoring the differential value of high literary language, the impact of stylistic complexities and ornament. In fact, we can now realize that Genette, his supporters, and his detractors alike had it all wrong in this respect: the aesthetic criterion was left intact but it found the quality of Proust’s monument in its overall design, in its engineering rather than in the refinement of the stained glass work of the “cathedral.”

Other major and massive narrative fictions of the first half of the 20th century, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses or Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities, were not favored by “classical” structural narratology because they did not fulfill the conditions of a successful account imposed by its methods: the outline of Ulysses purports to reproduce that of The Odyssey, but it shockingly combines the complex narrational levels and episodic elements of the epic of nostos with the unities of time and place of classical tragedy, the end product having to be read consequently as a critical, deconstructive parody of the demands of classical narrative aesthetics; Musil’s work, as a “story of ideas” and an errant quest for sense without any likely place to look for it, departs in too many respects from the goal-oriented Aristotelian notion of mimesis of actions; it was unfinishable in its principle and remained unfinished. Theorists were bound to leave most so-called postmodern and postcolonial literary narratives out of their field of inquiry, labelling them anti-narrative, if not non-narrative, or they tried rather obscurely to design specific, dissident narrative theories in order to accommodate the new dissident narrative aesthetics and the parallel oppositional tradition (Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, not The Faery Queene or Pilgrim’s Progress or even Robinson Crusoe) on which the “new narrative” drew heavily to try and secure a place in the canon while at the same time finding in it “room for maneuver.”57

Dissident Aesthetics

Dissident narrative aesthetics follows many different strategies of estrangement, disturbance, and renewal: foregrounding banality or accident, blurring the ontological statutory difference between objects and events, minimalism, maximalism, self-reflexivity, abstraction, fragmentation, rejection of the principle of non-contradiction, open choice between universes of reference, straining distortion or cutting up of linear time, warped frames, relative or irreversible spaces, etc. These strategies can operate at all “levels” or at any step of narrative communication, one of them can be hegemonic, or they can subtly complement each other to alter and rethink the values borne by “well-formed,” readerly, straightforward, easily recognizable narratives. An unreliable narrator (the liar, the uncontrollable chatterbox, the amnesiac, the mentally deficient, the taciturn and secretive calculating mind) will afford a ready justification for gaps and ellipses, digression, repetition, incoherence, inconclusiveness, over-information and disinformation. Conversely, ironic uses of the disnarrated, denial, and absurd maxims can build the figure of an all-powerful, manipulative author that may draw the receiver’s attention to the unconfessed manipulation carried out by whatever apparently clean narrativization of any represented world. Here, we can only sketch out a few examples of how dissident narrative aesthetics operates and how a self-labelled “postmodern narrative theory” tries to account for the varied operations of dissident narrative aesthetics.58 Seemingly contradictory labels for the same work alert us to the high ideological stakes of tampering with the traditional ingredients of narrative significance: When Raymond Carver’s short stories are alternately or simultaneously labelled “minimalist” or “hyperrealist,” is a stock paradox like “less, sometimes, is more” sufficient to sweep off the etymological and conceptual contradiction between these terms? In the worlds of Carver’s short stories, very little happens; what is expected to happen according to the conventions of tragedy, romance, or drama fails to happen, and what does happen is reduced to triviality since it eventually does not achieve the status of story point. If we ask “so what?” the apparently pointless narrative will only echo back: “… what? … what?” The minimalist foregrounding of the trivial and/or the hyperrealist leveling out of the trivial and the non-trivial underscore the arbitrariness of the dispositio of events and the artificiality or utter lack of a causal system, the ideologically determined manipulation of literary as well as historical narratives at large.

Another interesting case is that of the comical, nihilistic, or absurdist narratives of untellability that abound in Western literature from the 18th century onward but have proliferated after WWII, with the nouveau roman, American and non-American metafiction, and Borgesian aporetic constructs. As Mark Currie remarks, “it would be misleading to describe new directions in literary theory as the cause of fictional change. There is a chicken-and-egg problem with fictional and a more general linguistic self-consciousness.”59 If theory is not the motor of practice, or vice versa, their changes nevertheless share the same external, socioeconomic, political, or epistemological causes. The progressive but not smooth secularization of philosophical thought was concomitant with the discovery of the autonomous, exorbitant power of language and its dysfunctionality: our stories were no longer always already written by the sure hand of God, language was no longer a precious gift, the instrument of revelation, a tool meant to inform, tell the truth, and pass fair judgments; it could no longer even name mystery; its power of seduction and delusion was now other and proportionate to its inability to truly represent, to say things as they are or even as they might be, to tell (count) events as they happen(ed) or even as they might happen. When the authorship of our life stories was finally transferred to human responsibility without the means to forge a new language, fictional (and historical) literary narratives had to face the inadequacy of language, its vagaries, its constitutive incapacity to stick to experience, its usurpation of experience itself. Hence, in Tristram Shandy, the narrator’s questioning of the irresponsible behavior of his parents when they authored him, and the resolution not to do the same as the author of the book of his life. There is always an irony: the resulting theoretical fiction ponders its possible defects so thoroughly that it has to be content with describing and exemplifying the impossibility of a proper or prototypical narrative (traditionally: a mimesis of actions). The adventure (or the misadventure) of narration, as a substitute for the narrative of adventure, to use Jean Ricardou’s60 famous chiasm once again, manifests a deep distrust of the narrative condensation of phenomena, of its facile seduction, of the relevance and accuracy of “narrative intelligence.” Theoretical fictions and metahistories deconstruct and kill narrative seduction, which may be a good thing for the critical mind and a bad one for the senses.

Are there any alternatives to this quandary? Could we find them in post-colonial narratives, and do non-Western works have a local narrative poetics of their own to rely on?

A Different, Non-Western Aesthetics? Rasa, Katha, and Narrative Emotions

Beyond implicitly recalling the principle of anthropological unity, hardcore structural semantics has little to bring to the narrative comprehension of a world increasingly divided by its push for globalization and its resistance to it. In particular, any narratology that fails to take into account the different and often complex sets of time concepts that prevail in any one culture, or its current and historical system of universes of reference, is bound to err grossly even at the elementary level of the definition and identification of narrative discourse and what it stands for.

Because some languages may foreground aspect rather than tense in verb phrases, and some cultures prefer relative to absolute dating, because some prefer to measure distances in time of transport and others in length units, we can no longer accept the diktat that the preterit or “simple past” is, generally speaking, both the natural and dominant narrative tense. Rejecting the hegemony of any one locally anchored notion of narrative does not amount to a dangerous first step toward radical cultural relativism, but to recognizing a systemic variety of contrastive processes by which narrative communication operates as a factor of negotiation—identity and consent, differentiation and dissent. While “West” and “non-West” or “North” and “Global South” may not refer to anything more than historically restricted cartographies of power and values, the objects and methods of narratology have, by definition, an anthropological dimension that makes them responsible to both the unity and diversity of humankind.

Narrative, as we already knew before Benedict Anderson, is heavily involved in the socio-historical processes of colonization and freedom struggles, globalization and resistance. Inevitably it is also, as testimony and as interpreted retelling, at the heart of discourses produced by the social sciences and/or the humanities about these modern cultural and political phenomena. In his suggestive but cautious advocacy of a “postcolonial narratology,” Gerald Prince states that “just as it endeavors to trace explicitly the definitional boundaries of narrative … , narratology tries to account for narrative diversity (for what allows narratives to differ from one another qua narratives).”61 He insists that categories of time, tense, space, and person should be investigated across cultures. Nevertheless, no sustained effort has yet been made to relate postcolonial or non-Western practices and poetics of literary narrative communication to their respective aesthetic traditions or linguistic conceptualizations.

Indian aesthetics and poetics can be located at a safe and measurable but obvious distance from the Western (Aristotelian) tradition, with which it shares Indo-European linguistic structures and the centrality of the dramatic and epic modes of representation but not the same hierarchy of emotions or time concepts. At first sight, the combination of rasa (flavor, emotion, mood) and dhvani (suggestion)62 that appears to be prevailing in long eras of Indian aesthetic thought in the past (although with marked variations of status) and has made a forceful comeback since the middle of the 20th century is much more closely associated with music, dance, and the performing arts, especially stage drama, than it is with verbal narrative, or narrative qua narrative. One contemporary theorist goes as far as saying that “in Indian aesthetics, the moral function of art has never been given a primary place as in the West (e.g., Plato, Aristotle et al.). Bharata in Natya Sastra … justifies dance, which fulfills the simple function of being beautiful, for leading us to delight.”63 And again: “Morality has never been the main issue. One might find this strange. But … the rasa experience is a kind of delight that transcends ordinary levels of reality … Nonetheless [with] santa rasa … rasa experience does serve a moral function—it helps one overcome one’s worldly desires and achieve transcendence to a higher level.”64 There are however, even in ritual practices, forms of katha that are told with an avowed moral, didactic purpose, and there are prayers, forms of puja (worship), that require the story of the prayer to be told in order to make the devotion efficient.

When Priyadarshi Patnaik applies rasa theory to Western narrative literature, he tends to denarrativize it, or at least to substitute a mimesis of mind events for a mimesis of actions.65 This is particularly obvious in his choice of Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus and its proposed interpretation,66 according to which purity of mind and detachment through the experience of emotions and their universalization lead to santa, the rasa of bliss: “he is superior to his destiny and stronger than his rock,” writes Camus. The presentation of Sisyphus accepting his absurd destiny as a victory is not a narrative reading; a narrative reading would show that, by eternally repeating the same useless action, Sisyphus at best defines himself and depicts his (our) world as totally iterative, unchanging.

If we take it for granted that the essence of Indian art (verbal or of any other kind) lies in a total identification of the receiver with the work of art, be it a monument or a performance, “frozen at a moment of time for posterity [or] live for the moment in specific duration,”67 and that it always and only moves outward in expanding circles from the still center so as to return to it, we would find it difficult to accommodate in this aesthetics any of the constitutive elements of what we have called narrative communication and narrative significance so far. Furthermore, Kapila Vatsyayan insists that “neither character nor plot is important in itself. They are interwebbed as a labyrinth and drama is always cyclic in nature.”68

When one cares to demonstrate the autonomy of Indian narrative by listing aspects, such as interiorization, serialization, fantasization, cyclicalization, allegorization, anonymization, elasticization of time, etc.69—some of which are supposed to be present in all Indian narratives but all being in principle absent from Western narratives unless they were influenced by the former—there is nothing much left to compare, and the anthropological notion of narrative itself is dismembered. But, as Amya Dev observes pointedly, a closer analysis would probably show “that there is more in common between the Indian itihasa [epic] and the Homeric epic than not.”70 He explains immediately that he cannot “fully understand the distinction … between temporal and spatial narrative. All narrative to my mind is an excursion in time.” Amya Dev had detected that the nationalist effort of dedicated Sanskritists to free the roots of Indian poetics from any proximity or affinity with the West is counterproductive insofar as it enforces a radical discontinuity between Vedic and medieval narratives, on the one hand, and modern narratives, on the other, while continuities exist and should be found, also in the permanent hybridity of all cultures, India included. Sri Aurobindo’s successful fusion of Milton, Ramayana, and modernist narrative poetry in Savitri is a striking piece of evidence to support Amya Dev’s views. Paniker, while acknowledging the deficiencies of Indian “critical discourse on fiction [that] was somewhat stillborn in the Indian tradition,” takes the notion of narrative for granted and limits himself to proposing a typology.71 However, several of the listed features, such as serialization, provide very vivid insights into universal functions of the more participative narratives, from African griot epics to interactive digital stories. We might suggest that anthropological continuities of narrative functions across cultural spaces and historical times could be found in a non-dualistic or a minima a dialectical relationship between body and mind that are shared by Greek tragedy and the ever-revisited tragicomedy of Shakuntala, in which the key events of abandonment, encounter, loss, and recognition are all present and bodily inscribed, however differently they are ordered and with whatever different outcomes.

When Rukmini Bhaya Nair dismantles the metaphysics of the one and ineffable event presented by Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster as “the ultimate experience, because it is indescribable,” she confirms the necessity of reintroducing affect and individuation in historical telling: “Numbers make history … But in order to render emotion, you need the individual mode, which can only be literary and artistic. That is the paradox.”72 Handling this paradox is exactly what has made the modern Western novel since Cervantes possible. Rather than a free-floating postcolonial narratology, this is a good example of a hybrid, glocal narrative theory, one that reintroduces traditional Indian aesthetics along with carrying out sophisticated discourse analysis and displaying a self-reflexive awareness of the theorist’s inscription as a historical (narrated) subject in argumentative dialogue. Such a narratology, fundamentally based on conversational, other-directed oral enunciation, skillfully avoids the shortcomings of both the sublime on the horizon of European romantic thinking—or on that of the suprasensuous achievement of unity in Indian philosophy—and the postmodern sacralization of antinarrative open-endedness. Narrative can easily be another opium of the people, but, if we make out its variations from the constant pleasure generated by its experience, it is also one of the best sites to investigate the verbal ways of telling and showing how self-conscious bodies change and move in space-time—that is, how to cope with the inner and mutual otherness of humans and their worlds. In Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the book itself metamorphoses all the time as its characters do. Genre shifting and distortions mutually correlated with narrated contents is a shared property of all but the simplest formulaic literary narratives. “Narrative is a moderately historical concept … While narrative reflects particular historical conditions in how it became an object of study and in how it is given cultural meaning at different moments, it nonetheless describes a type of discourse that transcends a number of specific historical manifestations …”73


Narrative discourse or communication is about the world as it changes, about things that move and people who travel and are perceived differently as they change location. It is a way of registering past and present novelty and imagining, simulating, planning, or calculating novelty to come, for the sake of decision-making, of action and reaction, and also to experience and ponder the pain and pleasure of being alive. But patterns of change and novelty repeat themselves, identities are acquired through repetition of these patterns schematized as typical origins, destinations, and itineraries, so that change can be perceived or constructed anew. For these purposes, there are recurrent modes of telling without which a compelling complicity could not develop and generate a measure of consent on what happens, on how things go, tightening the links that forge and stabilize (narrative) communities for some time. When people start telling themselves different stories, when they start telling them differently (in writing instead of orally, or vice versa, in a monological or in a dialogical mode, in a chorus or taking turns of speech, etc.), the contours of the community itself change and there may or may not be someone left to tell this story. From cosmogonic myths to the storytelling of advertising and propaganda, narratives and narrations are always in a tension between scandal and banality. The verbal arts have several functions within the social, psychological, ideological, and political inevitability of narratives: they help memorize and naturalize them, strengthening the community; they manipulate them rhetorically, turning into an event something that has always been there—we call this a discovery—or turning an emerging phenomenon into a non-event—a revolution being seen as a return to a previous state of things. Thanks to “poetic license,” grammatical loopholes and language anomalies, artful narratives devise parallel worlds, possible or impossible, against which what is held as the real takes its specific shape; and they produce the pleasure, guilty or not, of seriously playing the emotions of the other, combining empathy with distinction, projection with introjection. But all art, narrative or not, must negotiate its way with and between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Literary narratives are neither natural nor unnatural; they do not belong to the id any more than to the superego. “Identifying narrative as the fictional par excellence” generates more problems than it can solve.74

Even when an aesthetics of emotions aims at doing away with change and difference altogether, an affective narratology will always help understand why literary narrative is the privileged playfield of the anthropological game between desire and delusion, between estrangement and recognition. The claim that “story structures are fundamentally shaped and oriented by our emotion systems,”75 if it was supported by strong evidence and eventually proved to be true, should nonetheless be complemented by an in-depth investigation of the moving frontiers and the grey zones of narrative communication. For example, if there is no such thing as a narrator-less story, one that “tells itself,” and if no story can ever exist in “real time,” since stories always rely, even in orature, on their own deferral, any narrative will still form an odd couple with its narration. The narrative of narration, cooperatively constructed by the receiver who needs to retrace the origin of information and track down the steps of its expression, may seem to duplicate the narrated; it may overlap with it or entertain a polemic, absurd, or aporetical relation with it, but in every case, the relative porosity of narration and narrated is put to test: What happens when a reputed liar recounts only historically recorded “facts”? How does the lyric generally shun narration? How does an extended metaphor, or an initially argumentative digression, almost always slip into a narrative?

Cognitivism—the many facets of the cognitive sciences in the last fifty years—has made much, perhaps too much, of “narrative” without taking into account these fuzzy borders and grey zones that play an even greater role in literary narratives than in “ordinary” (i.e., merely referential, informative) narrative communication. Jerome Bruner says that a story occurs “when you encounter an exception to the ordinary.”76 The intuition may be right in standard conversational situations: I will not tell my family the details of my road trip if it went smoothly, but I will tell once and again how an accident occurred, how the clutch of the car suddenly broke or I saw an elephant at the gas station. But literary, aestheticized verbal creativity will often (in traditional societies as much as in modernity) make the exactly opposite move, called ostranenie by the Russian formalists, especially Shklovsky: when banality becomes oppressive, when you need to expose its terror, you invent a story to animate it. In fact, it is exactly what realism, from the picaresque or before down to Dickens, Balzac, Zola, or Premchand, has always done. Symmetrically, in times of great plague, millennial fears, or disruptive sociopolitical changes, narrative literature will need to develop reassuring tales of ordinariness.

When Daniel Dennett gloats over the stupidity of “someone, a benighted literary critic, perhaps, who doesn’t understand that fiction is fiction,” arguing that “with regard to any actual man, living or dead, the question of whether or not he has or had a mole on his left shoulder blade has an answer,” his brand of rationalism superbly ignores that the “actuality” of “Aristotle” (the man) is only inferable in a similar fashion to that of the original Eve, that no living person will ever be able to experience Aristotle’s bodily presence any better than that of those other paper creatures called Ophelia, Catherine Linton, Emma Bovary, or Molly Bloom.77 Dennett’s axiom ignores that narrative is not about having or not having a property or feature, but about acquiring or losing it. Literary narrative intelligence remains the best safeguard against the so-called “narrative paradigm” that posits an all-embracing maxim where narrative is any verbal and nonverbal interpretation arranged logically to generate a meaning.78 Literary intelligence teaches us that narrative, as it plays with what was not but now is and with what now is but may not be later, is as much a device used to dissimulate an unchanging nature of things as it helps come to terms with an ever-changing world, enjoying the benefits of emotional education in the process.

Further Reading

  • Alber, Jan, and Fludernik, Monika, eds. Postclassical Narratology: Approaches and Analyses. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010.
  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Rev. ed. Translated by Willard R. Trask, with a new introduction by Edward B. Said. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.
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  • 2. Mircea Marghescou, Le Concept de littérarité: Critique de la métalittérature (Paris: Éditions Kimé, 2009).

  • 3. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968).

  • 4. Gérard Genette, Figures III, Poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), trans. Jane E. Lewin as Narrative Discourse (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980).

  • 5. Françoise Lavocat, Fait et fiction: Pour une frontière, Poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2016).

  • 6. Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Boston: Mariner, 2012).

  • 7. Lubomír Doležel, Occidental Poetics: Tradition and Progress (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); and David Herman, “Histories of Narrative Theory (I): A Genealogy of Early Developments,” in A Companion to Narrative Theory, eds. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 19–35.

  • 8. Aristotle, “Poetics,” in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, vol. 2 of Bollingen Series 71 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 2317–2318.

  • 9. Aristotle, Complete Works, 2317.

  • 10. David Herman, Basic Elements of Narrative (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 137–160.

  • 11. Herman, Basic Elements, 139.

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  • 21. Raphaël Baroni, La Tension narrative: Suspense, curiosité et surprise, Poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2007), 11.

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  • 27. William Etty, Hero, Having Thrown Herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, Dies on his Body, 1829, oil on canvas, The Tate, London. Reference no. T12265.

  • 28. Gerald Prince, “Narrativity,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, eds. David Herman, Manfred Jahn, and Marie-Laure Ryan (London: Routledge, 2005), 386–387; Jan Alber, “Narrativisation,” in Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, eds. Herman et al., 386–387.

  • 29. Monika Fludernik, Towards a “Natural” Narratology (London: Routledge, 1996), 311.

  • 30. Fludernik, Towards a “Natural” Narratology, 34.

  • 31. Prince, “Narrativity,” 163.

  • 32. Lubomír Doležel, Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 14; Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 29; and Thomas Pavel, Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 50.

  • 33. Herman, Basic Elements of Narrative, 137–160.

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  • 38. David Herman, Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 27–51.

  • 39. Herman, Story Logic, 40–41.

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  • 60. Jean Ricardou, Pour une théorie du Nouveau Roman, Tel Quel (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971).

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  • 76. Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 46, quoted in Hogan, Affective Narratology, 77.

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