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  • Contingency, Narrative, Fiction:Vogler, Brenkman, Poe
  • Michael Jay Lewis (bio)

Discerning Subjects

Discussions of the relationship between narrative fiction and human behavior frequently address distinctions between material readers and discursive characters. Many recent accounts of the relationship between reader and character, including work from Lisa Zunshine, Richard Walsh, and William Flesch, attend to how characters behave as models that do or do not inform the behavior of their readership. Both Candace Vogler's "The Moral of the Story" and John Brenkman's "On Voice," though from different angles, explore the implications of using fictional bodies as model subjects or test cases. Both writers discuss specific elements of narrative fiction—Volger, characterlogical stasis; Brenkman, novel voice—which they suggest impact the historical and/or ethical relationship between narrated and material worlds. Though each characterizes this relationship differently, both interpretive models argue against direct, univocal communication between the elusive "real" and what Wolfgang Iser calls the "fictionalizing act, which converts the realities concerned into a sign for something other than themselves" (Iser, para 8). Vogler, for her part, positions the divide in terms of fictional narrative's lack of fully realized psychological motivation: "[W]hether or not 'moral thinking lives and breathes' in novels," she writes, "practical reason—reason in and toward action—does not" (35). Brenkman, aiming to bolster novel theory against the offenses of narratology, implies that the latter "installs a semblance of authorial consciousness" that is overly "sovereign and unified," a semblance that has encouraged contemporary, narratology-influenced interpretation to "drif[t] [...] into thematic even allegorical criticism (291, 281).1 Nevertheless, though he does not view it as monological, Brenkman does suggest that "the voice of the novel emerges as the writer's creation, putting his intentions and purposes openly at stake in the narration itself" (285). At issue in both these formulations is the interpreter's capacity to isolate the characterological act—whether reference or comment, intention or invitation—from that of the authorial or textual. As it treats the specific conditions of fictional narrative, this paper argues for a plural methodology [End Page 99] informed by novel theory, narratology, continental philosophy, and fiction studies, one that interprets while attentive to contingency, rather than despite or in opposition to it.

In light of Volger's attention to chance and Brenkman's attention to polyvocalization, and following Brenkman's lead in treating Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" as an exemplary text, I argue that what prevents the logical use of fictional narrative as a model for actual behavior is not a discrepancy but rather a similarity between the two signifying fields: the common unavailability of a rubric by which to identify agency amid contingency. Moreover, I argue that this interpretive limitation not only sustains readers' engagement with narrative fiction but also suggests the ethical function of such—paradoxically involuntary—engagement.

Narrative fiction is yet often interpreted in terms of what William Donoghue calls "the [18th century] contract of mimetic realism," from which readers can learn, and wherein the text "is to portray nothing that is improbable or without an analogue in real life" (11). While much fiction and most criticism complicates this operation, both genres in some way depend on our ability, like 18th-century readers, to note what Catherine Gallagher termed "the formal sign of fiction" and to "lear[n] the skill" of reading it (264); put in the terms of medieval hermeneutics, the literal and analogical are always prior to the allegorical or anagogical. Yet even as readers begin to conceptualize "pure fiction" (Gallagher 264), they still depend on rubrics of identification and logic (many of which were not codified until the late 19th century, via Frege, Williams, et al.), systems that expose an interest in our similarity to rather than dissimilarity from fictional figures. In one way or another, the significance of Theory of Mind interpretations such as Lisa Zunshine's or biological evolutionary interpretations such as William Flesch's depend on what Gerard Genette cites as fictional narrative's ability to grant us "direct access to the subjectivity of the other" (762). Though here Genette is referencing the fictional other, his statement speaks to the reader's interest in having access...


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