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  • Why Contextual and Formal Narratologies Need Each Other
  • Dan Shen (bio)

Although the situation varies in different countries or with different perspectives (Rimmon-Kenan 134–35), many recent accounts of the development of narratology tell stories of evolution, either from structuralist narratology to poststructuralist narratology (Currie; Onega and Landa), or from classical narratology to postclassical narratology (Herman "Introduction"), or from structuralist narratology to cultural and historical narratology (Nunning), or from "a strictly formalist poetics" to a "contextualist narratology" (Darby 829),1 or from formal investigation to pragmatic, gender-oriented and ideological investigations that go "beyond form" (Fludernik "Histories"), or from traditional narratology to postmodern narrative theory, with the term "narratology" itself seen as obsolete (Currie 6). These stories vary, some even differ in nature, but one idea is shared in common: the decontextualized formal investigation of generic structures has been and should be abandoned, and narratologists should always take into account contexts (of various kinds—see 2.1). But if we examine respectively narratological theorizing and narratological criticism—often occurring since the late 1980s in the same narratological study—a different picture emerges. In terms of narratological criticism, the picture is indeed one of evolution from a text-based investigation subject to formalist limitations to a more valid and fuller investigation that takes into account contexts and readers. In terms of narratological theorizing, however, the [End Page 141] picture is more complicated. Postclassical or contextual narratologies have greatly enriched narratological theorizing in various ways (for a most recent good survey, see Fludernik "Histories"), but when the investigation is concerned with generic textual structures and their generic functions, there is usually no room or no need for the consideration of varied specific contexts. Formal narrative poetics (in the shape of newly-established decontextualized structural models), in effect, has appeared continuously in contextual narratologies, which have also drawn quite extensively on classical narrative poetics in contextual criticisms.

In the second edition of Narratology published by the University of Toronto Press in 1997, Mieke Bal writes in the new preface: "Ten years later, the book was still enough in demand to warrant reprinting it. . . . the demand for the book did make it obvious that it is an instrument functioning in the public domain that I cannot simply take away" (xiii). This essay will explain, mainly in terms of theoretical validity rather than just in terms of public demand, why one "cannot simply take away" formal narrative poetics. It should, however, be made clear that I am not arguing for the validity of the "formalist" or "structuralist" stance. As discussed by hundreds of theorists over the past 30 years or so, the conception of the text as self-contained, detached from context, is indeed invalid, hence now the universal consensus on the necessity to take account of contexts in narrative interpretation. I am only trying to show the continuing importance of formal narrative poetics in approaches to narrative that give great weight to contextual features. The present study, that is to say, is very much a justification of an important aspect of contextual or postclassical narratologies.

This essay primarily aims at revealing that contextual narratologies and formal narrative poetics have nourished each other over the past twenty years or so. It shows that, within and beyond contextualists' investigations marked by "dual emphasis on poetics and criticism" (Herman, "Introduction" 3), there exists an unacknowledged triple dialogical relationship: (1) the mutually-benefiting relationship between their new formal theorizing and their contextual criticism; in other words, they develop new formal tools that enable new kinds of contextualized interpretations even as those interpretations sharpen those tools; (2) the mutually-benefiting relationship between their new contributions to formal narrative poetics and classical narratology; in other words, their theoretical contributions both depend upon [End Page 142] and expand classical narrative poetics; and (3) the mutually-benefiting relationship between classical narrative poetics and contextualized narratological criticism, the former providing technical tools for the latter, which in turn helps the former to gain current relevance.

What Counts as a Contextual/Postclassical Narratology?

In the early 1960s through 1970s, the term "narratology" had a clear reference: the systematic description of the structures (differentia specifica) of (verbal, fictional) narrative, aimed at establishing...


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