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Reviewed by:
  • Narrative Causalities
  • H. Porter Abbott (bio)
Emma Kafalenos, Narrative Causalities (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2006), ISBN 0-8142-1025-2.

The term ‘narratology’ persists despite a ferocious expansion of narrative study beyond its structuralist origins and a perfectly suitable alternative in the widely used term ‘narrative theory’. It persists, I think, because the ‘post’ of poststructuralist narratology never acquired the revolutionary fervour of capital P ‘Poststructuralism’. David Herman’s coinage, ‘postclassical narratology’, acknowledges as much. And now, in Narrative Causalities, Emma Kafalenos has produced what might be called a ‘neo-classical narratology’, breathing new life into venerable terms of classical narratology: Vladimir Propp’s idea of a narrative ‘function’ (1928), Algirdas Greimas’s idea of an ‘actantial’ role (1966), Tzvetan Todorov’s idea of a ‘causal sequence’ (1968). Kafalenos calls her method ‘function analysis’ where functions are defined as ‘position[s] in a causal sequence’. As such they ‘represent events that change a prevailing situation and initiate a new situation’ (198). Note the care in wording: they are ‘positions’ that ‘represent’ events. Among other things, this accommodates those times when there is clear evidence that something happened to, say, disturb a state of ‘equilibrium’ and thus initiate a ‘sequence’ (EQ →imbalance →EQ), but you are never told what it was. Kafalenos calls these ‘empty functions’.

Her careful wording also bears analytical weight, because the distinction of ‘function analysis’ for Kafalenos is that it is keyed to interpretation. This is, in her own account, a ‘poststructuralist’ inflection of her method (3). For Kafalenos, ‘meaning’ in narrative is inseparable from our understanding of causation. Functions, then, are ‘interpretative sites’, which we are always assessing as such, whether we are aware we are doing so or not. They belong to an ‘abstract’ mental schema that structures the way we read (hear, view) narrative. Propp identified 31 functions in his study of Russian folk tales. For Kafalenos, there are ten (down from eleven in her first sketch of the theory in 1967), which by virtue of their greater abstraction can be seen to cover a wider range of narratives, at least in some combination of two or more. Five of these are key functions – a destabilizing event (A); a decision to alleviate it (C); an [End Page 327] initial act that follows from this decision (C′); until sooner or later the primary act of alleviation (H), which either succeeds (I) or fails (Ineg). The other five functions are extras – a request that someone alleviate the disequilibrium (B), a test for the C-actant (D), C-actant’s response to this test (E), C-actant’s resultant acquisition of needed power in passing this test (F), and after one or more cycles of DEF, C-actant’s arrival (G) at the place and time for H. All clear?

Well, the surprising thing is that this book is not only clear but a pleasure to read. William Labov wrote that the worst embarrassment for the story-teller is the ‘so what?’ response. The same should hold true for the theorist (though, in truth, it hasn’t always). Why all this equipment, the reader wants to know, and to what end? Kafalenos’s exposition positively bristles with the kind of technologese that sets your belle-lettrist’s teeth on edge: ‘Winterbourne never makes a function-C decision to marry Daisy, because he does not receive a function-B request until it is too late’ (99); ‘Spending his years in waiting, at function E, [Strether] fails to reach function F’ (123). But this is a quality the author wears on her sleeve, and at times with amused grace, as her chapter titles sometimes show (‘The Comforts That Function C Brings’, ‘Lingering at Functions D, E, and F’). And you quickly get used to it, helped by an assiduously reader-friendly author and the fact that the chapters of this book all have interpretive dramas of their own.

The deeper argument here is that these dramas are our dramas. This is how we read (hear, view) narratives, continually adjusting our sense of what started what, messing up what equilibrium, depending on whom to restore order, or to try to and fail, and by virtue...


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pp. 327-330
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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