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  • Narrative Engagement with Atonement and The Blind Assassin
  • James Harold

I must begin with a warning. In this article, I give away the endings of two wonderful books: Ian McEwan's Atonement and Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin.1 If you haven't read these books already, you may want to stop reading now: you'll enjoy reading the books much more if you don't know the details that I reveal below. These books are philosophically interesting, I argue, because they reveal something about the nature of the understanding and appreciation of narrative. They show us that an audiences' participation in narrative is much more subtle and complex than philosophers generally acknowledge. An analysis of these books reveals that narrative imagining is not static or unified, but dynamic and multi-polar. I argue that once the complexity of narrative engagement is better understood, some prominent philosophical problems and debates concerning narrative dissolve.

I have in mind a set of interrelated problems and debates concerning the nature of the imagination and narrative identification or viewpoint in narrative. (I focus on literature in this article, but much of what is said here can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to other narrative genres, such as theater, television, film, comics, and so on.) These questions have been much discussed in the recent philosophical literature on narrative: (1) Is it necessary that the audience imagine an implied author when engaging with a narrative? How does the perspective of the implied author figure into the experience of reading? (2) When one engages with fiction, does one typically imagine centrally (that is, from a character's point of view), or acentrally, as a neutral spectator on the fictional scene? (3) Given that audiences are sometimes emotionally affected by narratives, by what means are they affected? Attention to [End Page 130] which aspects of the narrative provokes these responses? In what follows, I look more closely at each of these problems in turn. Each of these problems, I suggest, arises out of a philosophical tendency to simplify a complex phenomenon. Once the full complexity of narrative engagement is appreciated, these problems dissolve (or, at least, they take a quite different shape).


What is an implied author? What role does the perspective of the implied author play in the experience of the reader? The term "implied author" is Wayne Booth's,2 but it is closely allied with Kendall Walton's "apparent artist,"3 and Alexander Nehamas's "postulated author."4 These terms do not designate exactly the same thing, but they are fairly close in meaning. For Booth, the implied author is a species of narrator (TROF, p. 151). Booth says that even in works where the narrator is not dramatized, readers form a conception of the consciousness responsible for creating the work. The implied author is the reader's conception of the agent who makes the decisions about what story to tell, and how to tell it. Booth is particularly interested in the moral character of the implied author, and he argues that readers either form or fail to form friendships with implied authors based partially on the extent to which the reader and the implied author share a moral sensibility.

Walton's apparent artist applies to all the arts, even non-narrative arts. The apparent artist is similar to Booth's implied artist, though Walton's focus is different. Walton treats the apparent artist not primarily as a center for a moral sensibility, but rather as a source of apparent aims and intentions in the work. On Walton's view, the work can prescribe us to imagine that the apparent artist had characteristics and aims that the real author may or may not have had. For this reason, the apparent artist can be an important part of the imaginative experience of the work.

Alexander Nehemas's postulated author is slightly different. Nehemas formulated the concept of the postulated author in response to Barthes's and Derrida's claims about the death of the author,5 and Nehemas's postulated author is meant to solve some of the problems posed by the death of the author. Specifically, Nehemas claims that it is possible to create...


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pp. 130-145
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