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  • Theory and the Novel: Narrative Reflexivity in the British Tradition
  • Susan L. Ferguson
Theory and the Novel: Narrative Reflexivity in the British Tradition, by Jeffrey J. Williams; 204 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, $59.95.

In his introduction to Käte Hamburger’s The Logic of Literature, a book too little known in the United States, Gérard Genette suggests that there are three possible ways of considering what is happening in fiction: first, the naive perspective of accepting what is said as true; secondly, to proceed in the tradition of most narrative theory, that is to consider the narrative as containing “events” and discuss how they are “represented.” The third possibility, which is Hamburger’s and, in many respects, Jeffrey Williams’s, is to recognize that “nothing whatever happened, we have before us neither story nor narrator, but only a ‘narrative function’ which progressively constitutes what it pretends to represent” (Genette, p. xvi).

Williams’s aim in Theory and the Novel seems to be to revise or even reverse the narratological tendency to speak of novels as narrated representations of events. It is his stated intention to collapse the distinction between those things [End Page 447] which are usually identified as events in the plot (“story”) and those things which are usually discussed as the aspects and modes of representation (“narration,” “récit”). Williams asserts that there is no “story” of which the novel is the “telling.” Rather, there is only the telling and, according to Williams, that narrative may be even more about itself than about the events of the “plot.”

Working with this assumption, Williams argues for and demonstrates what he calls a “reflexive criticism,” one that “examines more explicitly the ways in which critical narratives reflexively thematize their mode and institution of production” (p. 20). What Williams means by this is that rather than presuming that aspects of a novel which refer to its production are peripheral to the real purpose of the narrative, the critical act does well to center on such moments. Williams does so, discussing what others have called “authorial intrusion” (in Joseph Andrews), frame narratives (in Turn of the Screw and Lord Jim), and embedded narratives (in Wuthering Heights). His central point, developed through discussion of the novels mentioned and a few others, most notably Tristram Shandy, comes down to this: “Reading and narrative scenes reflexively inscribe aspects of literary desire, production, participation, and consumption, in a sense as mirror aspects of the dynamic of narrative exchange” (p. 144).

Williams’s point and his desire to deflate the idea of “levels” that is so crucial to the narratological project are both well founded. Surely as early as Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, books in which the crucial transformations come from the reading of a book, narratives have had a tendency to inscribe their own consumption within the boundaries of their production. Other moments spring to mind as well, including Catherine Moreland’s consumption of sensational fiction in Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre’s childhood interest in both books and stories (including Pamela), and Jim in Conrad’s novel taking to the sea after “a course of light holiday literature.” The production of fiction is also frequently inscribed, from the scribbling Pamela to the stories about stories about stories of Rushdie’s Haroun.

While the concept of narrative “levels” has led to much useful narrative analysis, it is also crucial to recall on occasion that to accept the “events” of a plot as having an existence outside of the novel is to fall under the enchantment of narrative mimesis; there never was an Elizabeth Bennett, a Casterbridge, or a Sherlock Holmes, only printed words attempting to create an illusion of their existence. As Genette says of Hamburger’s approach, “This radically formalist position is ontologically legitimate, for if the fiction of fiction is that it is not fiction, its truth is that it is fiction” (p. xvi). And if the truth of fiction is that it is fiction, then, as Williams points out, “the narrative of narrative does not take the place of a signifier . . . that stands separate from and delivers a signified or a group of...

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pp. 447-450
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