In addition to broadening the range of examples with which narratology deals, Monika Fludernik’s Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology draws on cognitive theory to describe the ways in which readers process language to make even highly anomalous texts narrative – an important contribution. But her emphasis on readers’ success in “naturalizing” the apparently deviant or nonsensical makes it difficult to find ways of resisting critical misreadings that conceal the potential force of disruptive elements. Naturalization is not a wholly benign operation.

Monika Fludernik’s Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology is a major work of narratological theory and analysis that aims to bring about a paradigm shift in narratology. Initially, the high price of the hardbound book hampered its impact, but its path-breaking qualities came in due time to be widely acknowledged. The book builds on William Labov’s work on so-called natural narrative and on cognitive studies of narrative, and it also enlarges the set of literary narratives with which narratology deals, investigating the historical evolution of narrative forms and strategies from the medieval verse epic and saints’ lives to the indeterminably plotless novels of the late twentieth century. She thus attempts to deal with as many different kinds of narrative as possible and to treat the realist and modernist narratives on which traditional narratology has been based as special cases that allow the fullest application of mimetic reading strategies.

“Natural” in the title alludes to Labov’s natural narratives, elicited from informants by asking them if they had ever been in a situation where they felt in danger of dying and then prompting narrative with “so, what happened?” But it also refers to the broader attempt to redefine narrativity in terms of the “natural” cognitive parameters of everyday speech and to the processes of naturalization by which readers make sense of the odd, the deviant, the apparently puzzling. For many of us of the narratological persuasion, especially those who were active in the days of structuralism, the word natural is a red flag, a rubric under which various cultural processes and norms are concealed and seek to escape analysis, so we appreciate Fludernik’s quotation marks and wait to see how they play out. Brian McHale will address the question of the “natural,” so I leave further discussion of this issue to him as I take up the role of naturalization in Fludernik’s narratology. I would just note that an unexpected virtue of her proposing a “natural” narratology was to have created an almost explicit invitation for her students and others to rebel by proposing an “unnatural” narratology which has been very productive, despite, or perhaps because of, disagreements about what counts as [End Page 243] unnatural (e.g., Alber, Nielsen, and Richardson 2011; Alber and Heinze 2011; Richardson 2015).

One of the major shifts in Fludernik’s contribution is a demotion of plot: narrativity is defined in terms of experientiality. “In my model,” she writes, “there can therefore be narratives without plot, but there cannot be any narratives without a human (anthropomorphic) experiencer of some sort at some narrative level. This radical elimination of plot from my definition of narrativity is based on the results of research into oral narrative, where . . . the emotional involvement with the experience and its evaluation provide cognitive anchor points for the constitution of narrativity” (13). Spontaneous conversational storytelling — natural narrative — provides a model in which “The narrative is narrative, not because it tells a story, but because the story that it tells is reportable” (70); it “renders one’s own or another’s experience within an evaluative frame” (318). And this conception of narrativity, appropriately extended, becomes the basis for considering literary narratives as well, going beyond narratology as it was practiced up to the mid-1990s to posit a core of experience as a narrative substratum. In the absence of an I, the locus of experientiality becomes the reader who “naturalizes” or “narrativizes” the text. When readers confront texts, they cast about for ways of recuperating them as narratives by applying the macro-frame of narrativity. They attempt to recognize what they find in terms of the real-world script of telling, the schema of perception (viewing), or access to their own narrativizable experience (experiencing). Then at another level they adopt the cognitive parameters of various types of stories and elements of naturally occurring storytelling situations. Cognitive frames and concepts enable readers to process stories.

One of the most striking effects of Fludernik’s narratological expansion is that postmodern and experimental works, which would be defined in negative terms by traditional narratology (no certain plot, no identifiable characters, etc.), here come into focus in a different way, thanks to an account of the cognitive frames through which readers successfully process and make sense of them. Chapter 6, devoted to the strategic expansion of deictic options, looks at the way in which experimental texts with odd personal pronouns — you, or one (on) — require a revision of the standard narratological treatment of person and voice and of how increasingly widespread present-tense narrative requires a revision of the model whereby a story has to have happened in the past to become tellable. After all, you cannot tell what you are currently experiencing as a story. This is despite the fact that present-tense narratives prove easy for [End Page 244] readers to process, easily recuperable as a story of events or as a representation of a mind reliving past experience as present.

In the case of second-person narrative, where traditional narratology, with its fundamental distinction between story and discourse, would be tempted to situate the you as a narratee at the level of discourse, readers in fact easily make you denote a protagonist who experiences the story.1 They easily process these narratives in terms of a self: you, initially ambiguous, is quickly displaced from a communicational (deictic) relation to an addressee or a reader, and it comes to evoke a self, to project a protagonist (227). Here is the beginning of a second-person narrative that, additionally, uses the imperative — Lorrie Moore’s “How to Be an Other Woman” (1986):

Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie. First, stand in front of Florsheim’s Fiftyseventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips; some white shoes, like your father wears, are propped up with garlands on a small mound of chemical snow.

Fludernik writes “Although a highly conspicuous technique which initially strikes one as extremely odd, second-person fiction actually relies on previous frames or registers” that enable readers to narrativize the text in question and make sense of it (231). This quickly reinforces the viewing/experiencing pattern, allowing easy transition into empathy. A necessarily fictional consciousness is established early on, “(re)producing the natural frame of a fictional experiencer” (232).

Instead of taking the distinction between story and discourse as given, which renders second-person narration highly problematic, one should think of this distinction as the result of the application of the frames of telling, viewing, and experiencing to realistic narratives. This helps, she writes, “to locate tellers and experiences in motivated and re-cognizable frame situations and makes it possible to narrativize superficially recalcitrant materials with some elegance and ease” (249). The fact that second-person texts do not really create problems (the you protagonist is clearly an experiencer) suggests that the schema which renders them problematic is a description of particular types of narratives rather than a general model for all. [End Page 245]

So, the notion of narrativization does useful work in Fludernik’s account, leading to superior descriptions of the way some narratives work. On the other hand, there are cases where narrativization, in papering over refractory moments in texts, obscures their functioning. Fludernik notes that her concept of narrativization is an adaptation for narratology of the concept of naturalization that I develop in Structuralist Poetics. “‘Naturalization’ emphasizes the fact that the strange or deviant is brought within a discursive order and thus made to seem natural” (Culler 1975: 37).

In my reading, which is based on Culler’s process of naturalization, narrativization applies one specific macro-frame, namely that of narrativity, to a text. When readers are confronted with potentially unreadable narratives, texts that are radically inconsistent, they cast about for ways and means of recuperating these texts as narratives — motivated by the generic markers that go with the book. They therefore attempt to re-cognize what they find in the text in terms of the natural telling or experiencing or viewing parameters, or they try to recuperate the inconsistencies in terms of actions and event structures at the most minimal level.

Readers certainly do this, but what about critics? In Structuralist Poetics and elsewhere, “naturalization” is not a wholly positive operation. Examining how interpreters make sense of texts, I consider also the often inappropriate ways in which critics manage to overcome the oddness of texts that aim to disrupt our sense of the intelligibility of the world: critics find ways to motivate these strange elements or moments, domesticating a potentially disruptive text by relating it to a frame deemed “natural.”

Texts that offer really no plot at all provide interesting test cases. Texts that would not be narrative by ordinary narratological categories can often be processed by critics. Since narrative texts are those which are read narratively, and since narrativization relies on realistic story parameters, texts are made to conform to real-life parameters — parameters which can be stretched a good deal. For instance, the question-answer (Ithaca) episode in Ulysses can in principle be recuperated — read as narrative against the grain of its non-narrative structure — by reconstructing events and acts presupposed by the questions. Critics have been immensely resourceful in discovering/postulating characters and plot in Finnegans Wake, doing so against the grain of the linguistic material. In texts like many of the late works of Beckett, Fludernik notes, narrative incoherence can be compensated for in terms of a consciousness, albeit a deranged one, or explained as the agonized ruminations of a subject in the final stages of emotional or physical disintegration (316). Fludernik writes about a large number of avant-garde texts, some of which are limit [End Page 246] texts that resist the application of the experiential frames, such as Donald Barthelme’s “You are as Brave as Vincent Van Gogh” (1976), where there is little sentence-to-sentence cohesion. After an extraordinarily patient attempt to process this text, she concludes that while it refuses to be narrativized in terms of a consistent locus of enunciation or of any kind of plot, it can nevertheless be recovered or “narrativized thematically in terms of an illicit love relation in which the narrator projects for us a portrait of the narratee which is as incoherent as the narratee is fanciful and whimsical” (285). She concedes that this is a limit case of narrativization, but she does not seem to consider whether the determined application of narrativization in overcoming textual incoherence might not be undesirable, a misreading that obscures important anti-narrative textual effects.

A case where this question does arise concerns the presence or absence of a narrator. Imagining a narrator in texts where none is explicitly signaled is a staple of narratology, a prime example of dubious naturalization (if something is noted it is because a narrator registered it). Fludernik cites Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay” (1921), where the deictics signal an intradiegetic viewpoint but where there is no character to occupy this position.

There ahead was stretched the sandy road with shallow puddles, the same soaking bushes showed on each side and the same shadowy palings. Then something immense came into view; an enormous shock-haired giant with his arms stretched out. It was the big gum tree outside Mrs. Stubb’s shop, and as they [shepherd and flock] passed by there was a strong whiff of eucalyptus. And now big spots of light gleamed in the mist. . . . The sun was rising. It was marvellous how quickly the mist thinned, sped away, dissolved from the shallow plain, rolled up from the bush and was gone as if in a hurry to escape; big twists and curls jostled and shouldered each other as the silvery beams broadened. The far-away sky — a bright, pure, blue — was reflected in the puddles, and the drops, swimming along the telegraph wires, flashed into points of light. Now the leaping sea was so bright it made one’s eyes ache to look at it. The shepherd drew a pipe, the bowl as small as an acorn, out of his breast pocket, fumbled for a chunk of speckled tobacco, pared off a few shavings and stuffed the bowl. He was a grave, fine-looking old man. As he lit up and the blue smoke wreathed his head, the dog, watching, looked proud of him.

(Fludernik 1996: 199–200)

This passage evokes a consciousness within the story, but Fludernik argues that “this technique is meant to evoke not the narrator’s perceiving consciousness — the story has no narrator figure at all, at best an [End Page 247] implied author who is responsible for the textual arrangements — but the reader’s” (201). The reader is invited to perceive the fictional world through the eyes of an experiencing consciousness. But since there is no character in the story to occupy this position, rather than posit a narrator in the discourse, as traditional narratological approaches would do, the experiential parameter or frame of interpretation enables “the reader to take an internal position with regard to these events, as if she were a witness” (201). Here is a case, then, where narrativizing operations by readers or critics (in positing a narrator) would be wrong, obscuring a particularly interesting aspect of the functioning of this text.

Narratology has traditionally set up models where narrators and characters are used to explain textual details. Fludernik’s perspective treats narrators as constructions established by readers employing mimetic strategies to make sense of details. As a consequence, puzzling or indeterminate cases, instead of being exceptions or anomalies, are in fact cases where we do not need to posit narrators but can act otherwise, working in the mode of mimetic parameters within the frame of experientiality. This seems an advance: one should resist postulating narrators so as to make them the source of all the details in the story, which then get evaluated — narrativized or naturalized — as what a person knows or thinks or chooses to tell rather than as details selected by an artist to achieve an effect. But here emerges a general problem for a model focusing on the processing of texts by readers. Fludernik is an immensely alert, sophisticated, and rigorous reader of linguistic details in a text, able to explain which ones signal what. However, her theory that readers process texts through frames of telling, viewing, and experiencing makes it difficult for her to argue against the inclination of critics to do so inappropriately, as when they posit narrators where none are needed. She speaks of the recurrent personalization of the narrative function — that is, imagining a narrator for every story — “even in narratological circles,” as “absurd”; nevertheless, she recognizes that one can trace this personalization to “the very same schema, namely that of the typical storytelling situation: if there is a story someone needs must tell it” (47). “The persistence of this preconceived notion that somebody (hence a human agent) must be telling the story seems to derive directly from the frame conception of storytelling rather than from any textual evidence” (47). Narrativization — Fludernik’s version of naturalization — is a great resource for explaining how readers succeed in dealing with texts that narratological models would treat as problematical, but it also seems to justify critics’ ways of taking a path of least resistance when they ought to resist. [End Page 248] “One can thereby explain the entire communicative analysis of fiction,” Fludernik writes, “as an (illicit) transfer of the frame of real-life conversational narrative on to literary personae and constructed entities (such as the notorious ‘implied author’)” (47).

Fludernik gains purchase against traditional narratological models in cases where readers succeed in doing something that traditional models cannot explain, but her model makes it hard for her to argue against critics’ and readers’ ways of dubiously coping with strangeness — hard, that is, to identify particular steps or strategies as a misreading by readers or critics — even though with her own immense critical acumen she identifies many cases where readers of her text will want to use its concepts and categories to explore where others have gone wrong. This is perhaps only to say that there is a difference between narratology, an account of the structures that enable us to read and understand narrative, albeit at the cost of ignoring oddities and going with the flow of so-called “natural” frames, and a hermeneutics that wants to show how particular narratives really work, what they really do or signify. Fludernik engages us afresh in the exciting process of trying to model general narrative processes. But in doing so, she reveals a tension between modelling and interpretation in her narratology, perhaps an inevitable one, but one which, I think, needs to be addressed explicitly rather than ignored. If the natural becomes a value, then it is hard to find ways of resisting dubious things that readers and critics do “naturally.”

Jonathan Culler
Cornell University

Works Cited

Alber, Jan, Henrik Skov Nielsen, and Brian Richardson, eds. 2011. A Poetics of Unnatural Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Alber, Jan, and Rüdiger Heinze, eds. 2011. Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Culler, Jonathan. 1975. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. London: Routledge.
Fludernik, Monika, ed. 1994. Second-Person Narrative. Special issue. Style 28/3.
———. 1996. Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London: Routledge.
Labov,William, and Joshua Waletzsky. 1967. “Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience.” In Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts. Ed. J. Helms. Seattle: University of Washington Press, pp. 12–24.
Richardson, Brian. 2015. Unnatural Narrative: Theory, History, and Practice. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. [End Page 249]


1. On second-person narrative, see Fludernik 1994.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.