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Narrative 13.2 (2005) 125-159

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Thinking Ahead:

A Cognitive Approach to Prolepsis

[Erratum from issue 13.3]

Prolepsis, or flashback, in narrative as outlined by Genette in Narrative Discourse can be conceived as "telling before time."1 This article explores issues which arise in relation to a particular type of prolepsis, the annonce or "advance notice" (Genette 73),2 when this is considered from the perspective of the anticipatory world-building practices of the reader. Prolepsis is usually discussed by narratologists as the second, less common and slightly wayward member of a pair with analepsis and this article attempts to redress this imbalance, concentrating on the particular issues it raises in relation to text processing.3

Annonces are almost always brief allusions. Those which are of interest here "refer in advance to an event that will be told in full in its place" (Genette 73).4 They constitute an interesting case of prolepsis from the reader's perspective as they require the construction of a minimal and usually incomplete mental representation which the reader must hold in memory and be prepared to recall at a later point in the reading process. While this later point may occur relatively soon, allowing the actions concerned to be integrated into a global linear plot model, this is not always the case. Not all prolepses are associated with speculation about the future course of events, as will be seen, but this is very often the case for the annonce.

The reader's cognitive activities are not within the remit of what can be now considered to be classical narratological accounts of prolepsis by theorists such as Genette (67–79), Rimmon-Kenan (46–51), Bal (53–66), and Toolan (49–55), although the last two, in particular, consider a number of effects of prolepsis on the reader.5 When focus is switched more fully from the "telling before time" of narration to "reading before time," certain points of interest emerge, in particular the [End Page 125] nature of the information provided, its susceptibility to the construction of mental representations, and how the reader stores the information in light of expectations concerning its recall. Cognitive work on discourse comprehension provides a useful starting point from which to consider these issues (in particular, the empirical cognitive psychological work of van Dijk and Kintsch, Graesser, Millis and Zwaan, Zwaan and Radvansky, and the more linguistic and literary-based work of Emmott and Werth). However, as will emerge, most of these theorists are concerned more with the process of storage, retrieval and updating of existing representations than with the particular anticipatory processes relating to prolepsis. Of this work, Emmott's model of dynamic reading offers, in my view, the most fruitful framework for adaptation to the processing issues raised by prolepsis.

The first section of this article provides a brief reminder of the key points of Genette's discussion of prolepsis. I then propose a preliminary account of how prolepsis might be treated from a cognitive perspective, setting out the factors which contribute to the reader's processing of an annonce. Examples are given of how these factors might interact in practice, drawing on novels by Balzac, Spark, and Proulx. The final section of the discussion turns to the particular case of Butor's Passing Time (L'Emploi du Temps) which, in flouting expectations relating to temporal sequencing, proleptic patterns, and the construction of the fictional world, raises particular questions concerning the ways in which readers respond to prolepsis.

Genette's Standard Account of Prolepsis

This section outlines briefly the main features of Genette's account of prolepsis which will be of relevance to this article. It does not represent the subtleties of Genette's account, instead providing a working summary as a reminder and starting point for discussion. I have tried to keep commentary to a minimum at this stage.

In the standard models drawn from Genette, the essence of prolepsis lies in the mismatch between the order of the narrative and a notional chronological story.6 Prolepsis occurs where an event is told earlier in the order of...


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