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Reviewed by:
  • The Nature of Narrative
  • Lisa Sternleib
Scholes, Robert, James Phelan, and Robert Kellogg. The Nature of Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, 336 pp. $17.95.

I recently asked a graduate class how many had read Tom Jones. None had. Nor had any read The Mill on the Floss, Dombey and Son, or The Bostonians. Few had read The Secret Agent, Ulysses or Howards End. I mention this because Tom Jones is the novel most frequently referred to in The Nature of Narrative by Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg. Scholes and Kellogg wrote the book in 1966, and Oxford University Press has reissued it as a fortieth anniversary edition with a long afterword by James Phelan on the development of narrative theory over the last forty years. Scholes and Kellogg argue for a continuum between ancient writing and the novel by showing how the plot of Tom Jones is "essentially a Greek-romance plot"(68); they use characters in Tom Jones to illustrate varieties of characterization and Fielding's narrative persona to distinguish among histor, bard, and maker. Tom Jones appears in nearly every chapter of the book to illustrate the classical heritage of modern narrative, meaning in narrative, character in narrative, plot in narrative, and point of view in narrative. Thus, the authors assume that the reader of their book is familiar with Fielding's masterpiece. They assume that their readers are also familiar with The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, St. Augustine's Confessions, Paradise Lost, Middlemarch, Ulysses, Plato's Republic, The Aeneid, and Madame Bovary. I found this assumption of a shared language the most moving part of reading The Nature of Narrative. Scholes and Kellogg draw on their vast knowledge of Western literature to argue that the history of narrative is a long one and should not be limited to the study of that very recent invention, the novel. The result is a magnificent book that makes lovers of the novel hungry to learn more about its connections to the writings of Thucydides, Ovid, and Boccaccio, "sacred myth, folktale, epic, romance, legend, allegory, confession, satire," and history (3). The authors devote more space to thirteenth-century Icelandic narratives than they do to Dostoevsky or Dickens. In a sense, then, The Nature of Narrative underplays the importance of the novel while it is clearly written for those who deeply love and intimately know the novel. Yet in their last pages Scholes and Kellogg lament the very real possibility that the novel will disappear altogether, that cinema will take its place, that "the older forms of story-telling, including the great achievements of the novel's golden age-the nineteenth [End Page 137] century-may cease to be viable for the practitioners of narrative. It seems heretical now, or visionary, to suggest that written narrative may become, quite literally, a thing of the past. But so, in a very real sense, it may" (281).

Of course, forty years ago the authors could have had no idea what competition the nineteenth-century novel and its offspring would face. Narrative theory now grapples with the Internet. English departments hire specialists in digital media. And as James Phelan demonstrates in his afterword, narrative study need no longer have anything to do with the written word-"Cognitive narratology takes classical narratology's fundamental question, what are the underlying rules of narrative's textual system? and revises it to ask, what are the mental tools, processes, and activities that make possible our ability to construct and understand narrative? In addition, cognitive narratology focuses on narrative itself as a tool of understanding, that is on how narrative contributes to human beings' efforts to structure and make sense of their experiences" (290).

Phelan begins his contribution to the book with the following paragraph: "Focalization, prolepsis, analepsis, homodiegetic, heterodiegetic, intradiegetic (are we having fun yet?), heteroglossia, the narrative audience, tensions and instabilities, disclosure functions, character zones, fuzzy temporality. Who else is ready to cry, 'Hold, enough!'?" (283). I deeply appreciate Phelan's cogent, clear, incisive history of narratological trends. Indeed, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding how vast and intricate a field narratology is. And I am also thrilled...


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pp. 137-139
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