- Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction by Liesbeth Korthals Altes
Some critics read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) as a biting satire on Reaganomics and the consumerism in the United States of the 1980s, whereas others see it as a perverse misogynist orgy of violence and bloodshed. In such a case, Liesbeth Korthals Altes would ask the respective readers to actively reflect upon the factors through which they attribute different meanings to the same narrative texts and to explore diversity in interpretation. She argues that this kind of exercise does not only increase our critical self-awareness; it also stimulates our capacity for perspective taking and the ability to empathize with others.
Generally speaking, Korthals Altes seeks to reconceptualize narratology as a metahermeneutic endeavor that she places on the overlap between hermeneutics (the domain of reasoning about value-laden interpretive pathways) and cognitive approaches (based on the idea that recipients use memorized mental models to make meaning). In contrast to structuralist purists, she states that narratology should involve interpretation as both “a task for which it develops heuristic tools” and “as an object of study” (50). Her self-reflexive research program seeks to relate “interpretive argumentations to their underlying value-laden conceptions and pathways” (99).
More specifically, Korthals Altes investigates the process of interpretation by zooming in on the dialectical relationship between narrative features and the ethos (or self image) we attribute to characters, narrators, and authors (such as the genius, prophet, guide, social critic, enfant terrible, nihilist, outcast, lunatic, pervert, or impostor). For her, these ethos attributions are “part of the more general issue of how people make meaning from and with texts” (19). Korthals Altes sees various transversal echoes between the knowledge-based empathic engagement posited by hermeneutic thinkers (such as Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Gadamer), and cognitive inferences that involve frames, scripts, schemata, mental models, and prototypes (39, 49). Concepts such as posture and ethos, for instance, are mental models along which individuals conceptualize themselves and are classified by others. Cognitive research can thus “help explain how we share experiential knowledge about the world and interpretations of human experience through narratives [. . .], and why that is so important for a culture” (49). [End Page 365]
Korthals Altes does not only argue that narratologists should reinstate the extra-textual author and the actual reader into their analyses; she also discusses other framing devices that play a role with regard to our interpretations. One example is Maingueneau’s distinction between the narrative’s status as fiction or nonfiction, genre conventions, and the concrete communicative situation evoked by the text (69–70). Also, literary critics resort to the different value regimes developed by Boltanski and Thévenot: the Inspired World of the arts (where creativity and originality are considered to be important), the Domestic World (dominated by respect for tradition, mutual love, and support), the World of Opinion (which values fame), the Civic World (where responsibility, justice, and the common good are upheld), the Industrial World (dominated by efficiency, zeal, and technical skills), and the World of Commerce (which values rentability) (74).
In addition, Korthals Altes discusses narratological tools that specifically concern the analysis of characters, narrators, and authors. For example, she redeploys Phelan’s three ways of reading characters (mimetic, thematic, and synthetic) as interpretive strategies that depend on how readers frame the narrative in question (132–33), and she shows that Schneider’s distinction between “categorized” (flat) and “personalized” (round) characters offers argumentative pathways to explain the analyst’s interpretation (138–39). Korthals Altes also shows how readers attribute an ethos to personalized narrators (as in Stanzel’s first-person and the authorial narrative situation) or to less personalized narration (as in the figural narrative situation or cases of camera-eye narration) or how they equate the narrator or narration with the author. She argues that Walsh’s proposal to replace all extradiegetic heterodiegetic narrators with authors is overly hasty: for her, there might be interpretive reasons why a critic might want to posit an...