restricted access Recent Books on Narrative Theory: An Essay-Review
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Recent Books on Narrative Theory:
An Essay-Review

Contemporary narrative theory is concerned with the analysis of narrative discourse and narrativity in order to explain the many forms and structures of storytelling in world literature and their implications. It also focuses on possible relations existing among mythic, historical, and fictional narratives, and it reflects on the possibility and implications of reconceptualizing these relations for literary, cultural, and historiographic theory. The books under review here* are too diverse to allow for an integrated account that would make possible a hierarchical or some other larger context in which to place precisely and without distortion the theory presented, or the theories criticized, by each of the books in relation to one another. My attempt in the limited space here is to identify some of the central threads in each book in order to remark rather generally [End Page 559] and all too briefly on their usefulness to narrative theory.

In Time and Narrative Paul Ricoeur defines temporality as "the structure of existence that reaches language in narrativity." He conceives the truth of narrative to depend on the narrativistic nature of time itself, and accordingly he identifies the three central forms of narrative discourse—mythic, historical, and fictional—and describes each one as representing a kind of truth about the experience of temporality. Although their divergence springs from their relation to the truth-claim, historical and fictional narratives share a certain property stemming from the same configurating operations. These are among some of the themes Ricoeur explored in the first volume of his magisterial Time and Narrative, and now in the second volume he accords to fictional narrativity a deeper insight into temporality than he does to either mythic or historical narrativity.

One of the persistent concerns of this volume is the notion of emplotment, which Ricoeur explores together with the notion of time related to it in order to articulate the resources of narrative configuration peculiar to fictional narrative. Literary critics unwilling or unprepared to grapple with the intricacies of semiotics will nonetheless find his discussion of emplotment in "The Metamorphases of the Plot" richly rewarding. His explication of and commentary on Frye's theory of modes and Kermode's theory of narrative endings are among the best discussions of these theories.

Ricoeur next attempts what is surely the subtlest discussion of the usefulness and limits of semiotic inquiry. Semiotics, he argues, is motivated by the aspiration to ground certain persistent modes of emplotment throughout history on rules independent of history. He outlines and critiques several central conditions of semiotic inquiry. It must employ as far as possible a purely deductive procedure. Because narrative semiotics deals with the facts of language, it must construct its model on the basis of that employed in linguistics. By this Ricoeur means of course the structural principles of linguistics. A third condition comprises the organic character of the structural properties of a linguistic system. This means that the whole has an absolute priority over the parts, making possible the hierarchy of levels that results from the whole. Narrative semiotics fulfills these conditions when it succeeds in both "dechronologizing" and "relogicizing" narrative. Ricoeur then explicates and critiques the attempts by Vladimir Propp, Claude Bremond, and A. J. Greimas at "logicization" and "dechronologization" of narrative structures. In what seems to me a brilliant critique of these three theorists, Ricoeur shows that plot [End Page 560] is a moment that must inevitably bring in chronology and configuration, muthos and dianoia, that plot emerges from a praxis of narrating that one cannot grasp within the framework of the grammar of rules, that our understanding of the plot, characterized as our narrative understanding, is presupposed by, precedes, any reconstruction of a narrative on the basis of a logical syntax.

In "Games with Time," Ricoeur illustrates the complexity of the relation between the time of fiction and the time of phenomenological experience. Here he discusses at some length various theories by Käte Hamburger, Harald Weinrich, Günther Müller, and Gérard Genette. He shows how fictional narrative develops resources that historical narrative seems to be prevented from exploiting. With fictional narratives the maker of plots multiplies the distortions...


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