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  • A Passion for Plot: Prolegomena to Affective Narratology
  • Patrick Colm Hogan (bio)

Human beings have a passion for plots. Narratives are shared in every society, in every age, and in every social context, from intimate personal interactions to impersonal social gatherings. This passion for plots is bound up with the passion of plots, the ways in which stories manifest feelings on the part of authors and characters, as well as the passion from plots, the ways stories provoke feelings in readers or listeners. Narratives are, in short, inseparable from emotions. One might therefore expect the study of narrative to be inseparable from the study of emotions. However, this has not generally been the case.

Over the last two decades, there has been an enormous increase in attention to emotion as a crucial aspect of human thought and action. This attention has spanned a range of disciplines, prominently including the fields gathered together under the rubric of cognitive science—thus parts of psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology, and so on. Narratology has perhaps been the area of literary study most closely connected with cognitive science. However, relatively little research on emotion has made its way into narratology. Of course, everyone recognizes that emotion is important in stories, and theorists of narrative usually have some place for emotion in their work. However, narratological treatments of emotion have on the whole been relatively undeveloped, particularly in comparison with other aspects of narrative theory.

Given recent advances in research on emotion, it seems clear that any theory of narrative would benefit from a more fully elaborated treatment of emotion based on this research. Indeed, I would go further, and argue that narrative is fundamentally shaped and oriented by our emotion systems.1 Of course, other neurocognitive systems play a role in the production and reception of narrative—perceptual systems, long-term and working memory systems, language systems. But, in my view, the distinctive aspects of [End Page 65] narrative are to a great extent the product of emotion systems. Thus, in order to formulate a systematic theoretical account of narratives, we should turn first of all to affective neuroscience and related fields of study. I cannot make a full argument for this claim in a short paper. However, I would like to establish some of the groundwork for such an argument, in relation to the current state of narratology.

Specifically, I begin with the relative absence of affective science in narratology. In order to clarify just what is missing and just where it is missing, I will distinguish narrative theory in general from the more narrow field of narratology. Following this, I sketch an analysis of narratology that may be more illuminating than the usual division into “classical” and “postclassical.” Finally, I briefly consider an example of what affective narratology could be, if it were more fully developed. Since there has been some work on affective science and story structure, I focus on discourse, taking up Ernest Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story” for purposes of illustration.

Non-Affective Narratology: On Emotion, Persons, and Language

As just indicated, an emphasis on emotion in narratology is somewhat unusual. Consider, for example, the recent Cambridge Companion to Narrative (2007, edited by David Herman), a standard work in the field. The index entry under “emotion” includes no page numbers, but rather four crossreferences—to “cognitive approaches,” “consciousness,” “narrative,” and “storyworld.” (Similarly, the related entry for “empathy” gives only “focalization” and “identity.”) The substantive treatment of emotion in this 300-page book amounts to one page in David Herman’s essay. This page draws a distinction between “naturalist” and “social constructionist” approaches to emotion. It goes on to note the importance of understanding character emotions for understanding a story. Herman observes in particular that “what the characters say and do can be sorted into classes of behaviors in which one is likely to engage when motivated by happiness, resentment, fear, sadness, etc.” (Herman 2007b, 255). The distinction between social constructionist and naturalist is a simplification. It is rare for genetic accounts of emotion to dismiss social influences, and vice-versa. Moreover, Herman’s account leaves aside convergent development and other means by which social constructionist accounts may treat and...


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pp. 65-81
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