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  • Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film
  • James Naremore
Seymour Chatman. Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990. 240 pp. $32.50 cloth, $10.95 paper.

This gracefully written volume consists of eleven essays on "narratology," a term Seymour Chatman dislikes but cannot avoid. Chatman, the author of several excellent studies of fiction and film (including Story and Discourse [1978] and Antonioni; or, The Surface of the World [1985]), is an urbane guide who wears his erudition lightly, and who usually couches his arguments in nontechnical language. Throughout, he offers lucid explanations of difficult concepts, making intelligent and unpretentious use of American and continental theorists. He also gives straightforward answers to traditional but important questions: How does narrative differ from other "text types," such as description and exposition? How can we modify central concepts in the theory of narrative—especially "narration" and "point of view"—in order to better explain the workings of actual texts? And how can we isolate the distinctive features of cinematic narrative, the century's dominant way of telling stories?

Chatman has useful things to say about everything he discusses, although I am skeptical of certain arguments and examples in his early chapters. Like David Bordwell and many others, Chatman believes that narrative rises out of the interaction between two levels of temporality, sometimes called "story" and "plot." (Chatman's terms are "story" and "discourse," whereas Bordwell prefers the Russian formalists' syuzhet and fabula ). In my own view, "story" and "syuzhet " are Platonic ideas, existing only in the minds of theorists; even if some viewers mentally transform the plot of a movie like Citizen Kane into a neatly chronological sequence of events or an ideal story, they are unlikely to agree about exactly what events the story contains. I am equally dubious of Chatman's attempts to locate specific instances of description and argument in narrative. Does Mrs. Dalloway contain a "plethora of description but a dearth of commentary"? (For one instance of protracted commentary, consider pages 109-113 of the Hogarth edition). And is the "Ithaca" chapter of Ulysses best [End Page 429] described as "an argument in the service of an overall narrative"? (As Chatman himself notes, "Ithaca" is written in the form of a catechism; a better case could be made for the argumentative nature of "Proteus" or "Aeolus").

Similar objections could be raised at later points, especially when Chatman proposes "cinematic narrator" to describe an implicit agency governing narrational devices in film. Here and elsewhere, however, my reservations should be understood as a sign of my full engagement with the book. Chatman is a reasonable and generous thinker who encourages debate, and who writes brilliantly about the novels and films he admires. Among other things, he offers a spirited reassessment of Wayne Booth's concept of the "implied author"; a useful commentary on literary versus cinematic types of narration; a fascinating analysis of "aleatory narrative" in a Benson and Hedges cigarette advertisement; and a provocative discussion of the film adaptation of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. In each case, Chatman prompts his readers to rethink their fundamental assumptions. His work is highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand the complex logics and possibilities of narrative. [End Page 430]

James Naremore
Indiana University


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pp. 429-430
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