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  • Transparent Minds Revisited
  • Brian McHale (bio)


Those who have not reread Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds (1978) lately ought to do so, if only to remind themselves of how wide-ranging, how judicious, how nuanced, and how stimulating narratological analysis can be. In the hindsight of thirty-some years, Cohn’s book surely ranks among the half-dozen magisterial achievements of what we now call “classical” narratology—which, I realize, might amount to damning with faint praise in certain doctrinaire “post-classical” quarters (an issue I address below). On the occasion of Dorrit Cohn’s receipt of the 2010 Wayne C. Booth Lifetime Achievement Award of the International Society for the Study of Narrative, I took the opportunity to revisit Transparent Minds for the first time in years. This is not to say that I do not regularly consult certain parts of it, or assign specific chapters in courses, or discuss the book with graduate students; I do all of these things. But I do not recall having reread the entire book cover-to-cover with close attention since about 1980.

The reason I read it with such care at that time was that I had been commissioned to produce an article-length review of the book, which duly appeared in Poetics Today in 1981. So I also took advantage of the occasion of Cohn’s Lifetime Achievement Award to reread that review article of mine—an experience that proved to be a good deal less gratifying than that of rereading the book itself. Who was this youngster, still in his twenties, who seemed to speak with such authority about what an adequate theory of consciousness in fiction ought to look like, and how it would fit into the larger [End Page 115] project of poetics? How did he become so knowledgeable about the range of issues, texts and literary traditions that Cohn addresses? The questions are embarrassingly easy to answer: the authority was assumed, and the knowingness a bluff. Still, I am relieved to report that even this callow youth, for all his self-important posing, could recognize a major work when he saw one.

What particularly preoccupied this young reviewer was the problem of typology. What is the value of creating a typology of modes of representing consciousness, as Cohn does in Transparent Minds? How exactly is typology related to theory: does one necessarily imply the other? Does theory underwrite typology, or vice-versa, or both? How is it related to literary historiography and to historical explanation? Since Cohn’s typology has also raised questions, though of a somewhat different sort, for post-classical narratologists, let me briefly pause here to recapitulate that typology.

Cohn distinguishes three main modes of representing consciousness in third-person contexts, that is, in the context of heterodiegetic narration. The first type is the narrator’s report of what is passing through a character’s mind, often employing more or less elaborate figures of speech, for which Cohn coins the invaluable term psycho-narration. The second type is direct thought-quotation, or quoted monologue, which corresponds roughly to what earlier scholars had called “interior monologue.” The third type is interior discourse cast in free indirect style, for which Cohn’s preferred term is narrated monologue. As for first-person contexts, that is, in the case of homodiegetic narrators, here Cohn identifies four types, depending upon whether the situation of narration is problematic or unproblematic, and whether the ordering of the remembered events is chronological or a-chronological. The combination of an unproblematic narrative situation and chronological order yields conventional retrospective narrative, or what Cohn calls autobiographical narrative, as in David Copperfield. In cases where the narrative situation is mysterious or paradoxical, while the ordering of events observes chronology, we have autobiographical monologue, as in Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” Where the situation is unproblematic, but the order of events is a-chronological, as in Ford’s The Good Soldier, we have memory narrative. Finally, for cases where problematic situation combines with a-chronological order, as in The Sound and the Fury, Cohn proposes the term memory monologue.

Cohn herself described Transparent Minds as a “critical text woven of a multitude of paradigmatic...


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pp. 115-124
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