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James Phelan. Worlds From Words; A Theory of Language in Fiction. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981. 256 pp. $20.00. This book fills a gap in the theory of prose fiction by attempting to define the place of language in the making of fictional works conceived as intentional wholes and not merely linguistic surfaces. James Phelan restores the balance between the "language is aU" theories of the old New Critics and the Chicagoberthed formal critics who might be said to have slighted their own Aristotelian method by declining to center major attention on the function of diction and style. He argues that neither extreme is true to our full experience of reading fiction. He grants that synonymy exists, and he is certain that "grammatical closure" and the intention of the whole, not just the "temporal sequence of words in a sentence," ultimately determine meaning. But he also sees some fictional works in which the choice of words and their sequence is much more essential than in others, and in which paraphrase would seriously modify meaning. Working inductively, he examines Sister Carrie and finds that Dreiser, though a "verbal bumbler," manages to produce a novel that realizes his full intention. For contrast, Phelan chooses Henry James and analyzes two scenes in The Ambassadors. He tries to show how indispensable James's precise choice of words is to the effect of the parting conversation between Strether and Maria Gostrey and to the effect of the book in its whole intention. And he exhibits his ongoing faith that language and texts are determinate when he analyzes Persuasion in the Ught of his own theory as against what a deconstructionist might do with a "free play" of meanings in Austen's language . While working closely with texts, Phelan also seeks disinterested inquiry into such large questions as "Is fiction a purely verbal art? Is paraphrase of literary language impossible? . . . Are there elements of fiction, e.g. character and action, which are essentiaUy nonlinguistic and more important than language? Is there a limit to how much the stylistic revision of a novel can improve it?" (4). In responding to these questions, he advances an initial hypothesis that language is never aU-important in fiction but that the degree of its importance may vary from one work to another and even from one passage to another. He is aware that this theory is built upon his underlying assumptions of the determinacy of language and of authorial intentions and upon the related assumption that different intentions require different uses of the language that embodies them. The author believes that his theory of language wiU not demonstrate either its value or its Umitations until it enters into a dialogue and competition ,with other theories. Chapter by chapter, he sets up the dialogue in apparently fair-minded expositions of opposing theories, together with demonstration analyses of what a given theorist might do with the given novel. Thus we have not only Phelan himself but also Phelan's imaginative account of Stanley Fish as he might trace the reader's "deliberative acts" on The Ambassadors, of David Lodge on the language of Sister Carrie, of J. Hillis Miller deconstructing Persuasion, of Elder Olson on the formal importance of style in Lolita, and of Umberto Eco on the semiotics of William Gass's noveUa Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. Thus, when he ultimately finds aU but one of the other theories less valuable than his own in their explanatory powers over the particular work, Phelan has stiU put his readers in a position for learning some new truths about language in fiction from the other methods. The author is, however, so devotedly pluralistic about seeking out the values in other systems that he fails to push his own to the outer limits of its explanatory powers. A weakness in the first part of the book prepares a weakness in his analysis of the Gass noveUa, which he ultimately surrenders to Eco's semiotic approach, Volume V 73 Number 1 The Henry James Review FaU, 1983 feeUng forced to dismiss the story as a kind of "aesthetic text" and not fiction at all. The fault lies with Phelan's narrow definition of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 73-74
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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