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Narrative 10.3 (2002) 222-243

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Defense and Challenge:
Reflections on the Relation between Story and Discourse

Dan Shen

The structuralist distinction between story and discourse, that is, between what is told and how it is told, is regarded as "an indispensable premise of narratology" (Culler 171). Many narratologists have found this distinction helpful in theoretical discussions as well as in practical analyses, but its very existence, let alone its absolute status, has been challenged by various critics from different angles. This essay will first offer a consideration of some deconstructive attempts to subvert the distinction, then will present a challenge of its own. Of the five areas of discourse (order, duration, frequency, mood, and voice [Genette, Narrative Discourse]), the distinction is quite clear in the first three, but tends to be blurred in the latter two, especially in terms of (1) narrated speech; (2) character's perception when used as the "angle of vision" by the narrator; and (3) certain homodiegetic narration. The aim of this essay, however, is not only to help clarify the relation between story and discourse, but also to shed fresh light on the nature of fictional narratives through that clarification.

A Consideration of Deconstructive Challenges

I'll first consider two deconstructive attempts to subvert the distinction in question, made respectively by Jonathan Culler and Patrick O'Neill. Both of them see story and discourse as an absolute binary in which we have to choose one term as privileged. Their efforts, then, in characteristic deconstructive fashion, are to identify the allegedly-existing privilege (story over discourse) and then argue for a reversal. [End Page 222] Culler goes one step further by adding that actually both relations are necessary, thus giving us the classic deconstructive conclusion of incompatibility, if not contradiction.

Culler depends heavily on concrete examples of narratives to make his point. The first he offers is the familiar narrative of Oedipus, and his basic argument is that "Instead of the revelation of a prior deed determining meaning, we could say that it is meaning, the convergence of meaning in the narrative discourse, that leads us to posit [Oedipus's murdering his father] as its appropriate manifestation" (174). Culler's argument based on Oedipus has been convincingly challenged in detail by Seymour Chatman in "On Deconstructing Narratology" (see also Ryan 261-62; Kafalenos 471-72; Fludernik, Towards 320-21). I'll skip this example and approach the issue from a different angle, directing attention to the essential difference between fictional events and real happenings, especially to the thematic component of the story itself.

The second example Culler gives is George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Culler quotes Cynthia Chase's analysis in support of his opinion: "The sequence of events in the plot as a whole presents Deronda's revealed origins in a different perspective. The account of Deronda's situation has made it increasingly obvious to the reader that the progression of the hero's destiny—or, that is to say, the progression of the story—positively requires a revelation that he is of Jewish birth" (Chase 218; qtd. in Culler 176 my emphasis). Interestingly, Chase's argument seems to contradict, rather than confirm, Culler's point. Her words point to the fact that the fictionalstory itself, in contrast with real happenings, is a thematic construct. It is "the progression of the story," "of the hero's destiny," of the "sequence of events," rather than "the convergence of meaning in the narrative discourse," that requires the revelation concerned. It is true that the delay (on the level of discourse) of the revelation of Deronda's Jewish origin creates much dramatic effect, but the causal relation between the origin and "his present character and involvement with things Jewish" is inherent in the story's own thematic structure. Further, we should be aware that George Eliot, the creator of the story, could have given Deronda an origin other than Jewish if she had wished to deviate from the principles of narrative coherence. But of course, such a deviation would go against the expectations of the readers, who...


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