- Narrative, Perception, Language, and Faith
British philosopher Edmond Wright's argument centers on a bold and contested claim: that all narratives, without exception, have the same fundamental structure. [End Page 220] His book-length case for a grand theory of narrative begins with the premise that "the basic narrative structure common to all stories" (68) requires an "ambiguous element" that gives rise to at least two different interpretations (7). He then argues that the shift from the first interpretation to the second is an essential condition of narrative. If, for example, a character pursues a particular goal, the pursuit is an ambiguous element, a textual detail that prompts initial méconnaissance and then subsequent reinterpretation. The story about the pursuit contains clues that suggest to the character (if it is a tragedy) that she will succeed, or (if it is a comedy) that he will fail. The story also contains less conspicuous clues, initially ignored or misinterpreted by the character, that suggest the opposite outcome: failure in the tragedy or success in the comedy (43). Regardless of whether the character ever comes to understand the full, multiple significance of an ambiguous element, narrative depends on a reader's awareness of two or more "rival perspectives." In other words, narrative requires that a reader's initial understanding of a set of circumstances be "corrected" or "updated" as the result of a perceptual shift (53, 131). This minimal condition for all narratives may be found, according to Wright, in everything from jokes and riddles to James Joyce's Ulysses. To establish his theory, he offers a sequence of brief close readings of a knock-knock joke, a Japanese folktale, a Russian surrealist short story, and the Harriet Smith plotline in Jane Austen's Emma. At the culmination of his theory of narrative in chap. 2, Wright launches the claim that sustains the rest of his book: that this universal narrative structure underlies all human understanding.
In making his case for the ubiquity of the ambiguous element and the interpretive turn, Wright engages with a dazzling variety of disciplines. He puts literary critics in conversation with philosophers and advertisement copywriters, theologians with linguists and painters, and novelists with rhetoricians and cognitive psychologists. He draws examples from optical illusions, Ancient Greek philosophy, parables, musicals, cartoons, and neuroscience journals. He delights in unlikely juxtaposition and relies heavily on this technique as a persuasive device, implying repeatedly that if ambiguous elements may be located in texts as dissimilar as, say, Thomas Hardy's poem "The Shadow on the Stone" and a television commercial for coffee, his theory of narrative must be true. One of the book's most impressive aspects, undoubtedly, is its panache, which arises from the wide range of evidence it uses. Wright does an admirable job of integrating playfulness with intellectual virtuosity; in doing so he has rendered his complex synthesis accessible and enjoyable to a wide range of readers.
Especially in light of his catholic embrace of multiple disciplines, however, Wright's neglect of narratology and stylistics may frustrate readers invested in those fields. His quite cursory "addendum on narratology" mentions an odd assortment of just a few prominent narrative theorists in passing, and he applies none of their scholarship to his own project. For instance, he acknowledges Viktor Shklovsky's notion of defamiliarization as akin to his perceptual shift, but [End Page 221] does not elaborate on the similarity. He regrets the fact that, "although many individual stories have been examined [by narratologists], the general nature of what is going on has nowhere been teased out" and points to three contemporary theorists who have failed to examine "rival intentional perspectives" in literature (67).
The essence of "what is going on," for Wright, lies in the relationship between human cognitive functions, narrative structure, and reading practices. He makes a significant contribution to the philosophy of narrative by delineating and evaluating that relationship rigorously. Strikingly, many of his conclusions are similar to those produced by the "cognitive turn" narratology and stylistics in the last twenty years. For instance, Joanna Gavins and Gerard Steen's...