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What Can We Learn from Contextualist Narratology?

Author(s): Seymour Chatman


Source: Poetics Today, Vol. 11, No. 2, Narratology Revisited I (Summer, 1990), pp. 309-328
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1772619
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What Can We Learn from Contextualist
Narratology?
Seymour Chatman
Rhetoric, UC, Berkeley

In recent years, scholars have proposed an approach to narrative


which diverges sharply from structuralist narratology. The name that
seems to suit this alternative approach best is "Contextualist." Though
they do not speak of themselves as a group, Mary Louise Pratt (1977),
Barbara Herrnstein Smith (1981), Thomas Leitch (1986), and, to a
lesser degree, Susan Sniader Lanser (1981) have argued the Contex-
tualist position.' Since I am more concerned with the broad lines of
the position than with the differences among its proponents, I shall
refer, generically, to the "Contextualist position," leaving to footnotes
the documentation of who actually said what.
The Contextualists' chief objection to narratology is that it fails to
take into account the actual setting in which literature is situated: "Far
from being autonomous, self-contained, self-motivating, context-free
objects which exist independently from the 'pragmatic' concerns of
'everyday' discourse, literary works take place in a context, and like
any other utterance they cannot be described apart from that context"
(Pratt 1977: 115). There is certainly justice in that opinion. The more
we learn about the nature of language in its social setting, the harder

1. There are important differences among these theorists-Lanser in particular


attempts to integrate contextualist with structuralist orientations. (Further, Pratt
[1986] addresses some of the issues that I raise.) To focus my critique, however, I
shall attribute to these authors a homogeneity of opinion with which they might
not agree.

Poetics Today 11:2 (Summer 1990). Copyright ? 1990 by The Porter Institute for
Poetics and Semiotics. ccc 0333-5372/90/$2.50.

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310 Poetics Today 1 1:2

it is to accept simplistic attempts to isolate a "literary" language from


language at large.
The question, however, is whether a narratology which views narra-
tive as an immanent object containing its own strategy of context (as
well as many other strategies) has, in fact, failed. Are the insights of
Shklovsky, Barthes, Genette, and others now outmoded? In its more
extreme moments, Contextualism seems to believe so: any "decontex-
tualized" narratology is "deficient in descriptive subtlety and explana-
tory force" (Smith 1981: 232). Narratology can only become "richer,
sturdier, and more coherent when ... developed as part of a compre-
hensive theory . . . which reflects a better appreciation of the nature
of verbal transactions and the dynamics of social behavior generally"
(ibid.). Narratives must be treated
not only as structures but also as acts, the features of which-like the features
of all other acts-are functions of the variable sets of conditions in response
to which they are performed. Accordingly, we might conceive of narrative
discourse most minimally as verbal acts consisting of someone telling someone
else that something happened. (Ibid.: 227-28)

The problem here is not so much whether narratives (and literary


texts in general) constitute acts as well as structures-not even the
most hard-bitten formalist could deny that truism-but whether an
exclusive orientation toward "act" should prevail over the investigation
of structures. Should narratology consider the acts in the real world
that generate literary narratives more significant than the resultant
products?
Contextualist emphasis on the priority of the act leads to a ques-
tioning of, if not an assault on, various hard-earned distinctions in
narratology. Not that there is unanimity among Contextualists about
which distinctions to question. One, for instance, objects to the bi-
temporal analysis of narrative, the view that it is the only text-type that
distinguishes discourse- (or syuzhet-) time from story- (orfabula-) time.
Though one "would not deny ... that the time it takes someone to read
War and Peace may differ from the time it took the Russians to defeat
Napoleon," this disparity is "not particularly remarkable" or peculiar
to narrative (Smith 1981: 220).2 Simply to say "the siege of Moscow" in
ordinary (non-narrative) conversation also takes much less time than
the event itself took.
Of course there is nothing remarkable about this disparity. Indeed,
if it could not briefly sum up events of long duration, ordinary lan-
guage would not be the excellent narrative medium that it is. The time
relations between story-sequence and discourse-sequence are not ran-
2. But Pratt (1977) and Lanser (1981) seem to accept the bi-chronological theory.
Pratt, for instance (1977: 68), endorses the dualism betweenfabula and syuzhet.

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Chatman * Contextualist Narratology 311

dom or purely lexically commissioned but presuppose a world imbued


with time passage (as with spatial extension). Other text-types do not
have two time orders. There is no internal time dimension in a de-
ductive or inductive argument, nor in a description or an exposition.
These other text-types have only one chrono-logic, that of external
or discourse time. The creation (or re-creation) of a chronologically
ordered world-even in such a minimal text as "Lincoln's assassina-
tion preceded Kennedy's"-is the essential condition for a narrative.
The two narrative chrono-logics craft the projected story-world along
a time scale, whereas the other text-types organize themselves through
other internal logics. This is obviously a matter of considerable interest
to narrative theory. Among other things, it accounts for such uniquely
narrativistic phenomena as summary and scene (both, surely, aspects
of narrative that no theory would want to ignore).
But, the Contextualist protests, the notion that events can be ar-
ranged or rearranged by the discourse ("reordered," "distorted," "de-
formed," "twisted," or "zigzagged") requires narratology to assume
"that prior to and independent of the narrative in question there
existed some particular determinate set of events in some particular
determinate (untwisted) order or sequence" (Smith 1981: 224). The
Contextualist denies the existence of such a precedent. But structural
narratology neither desires nor needs to demonstrate prior existence.
To cite Nelson Goodman's (1981) examples:
Lincoln's assassination preceded Kennedy's. Truman's assassination fol-
lowed Washington's.

In the first, the order of the telling follows the order of the told; in
the second, the order is reversed. "The distinction between order of
the telling and order of the told," argues Goodman, "does not imply
truth, or that events told of occurred in a given order, or even that
there are any such events" (1981: 256). In other words, we need not
posit the prior, independent existence of a possible world in which
Washington and Truman were assassinated, and in a certain order:
we simply accept such a world in the act of reading the text.
In short, narratology-whether it tries to account for history or fic-
tion-presupposes no ur-text in which "story" exists autonomously,
nor one whose discourse order perfectly parallels its story order. Nar-
ratology argues only that a narrative may present last events first and
first events last and that an implied reader can recognize that ordering.
How any actual reader goes about doing so is another matter.
Of course, narratology is enriched by any concern, including the
Contextualist's, about the "how" as well as the "what." The contextu-
alist proposes that a reader's ability to construe a chronology of events
rests on

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312 Poetics Today 1 1 :2

some combination of the following: (1) his prior knowledge or beliefs con-
cerning the chronology of those implied events as derived from other
sources, including other narratives; (2) his familiarity with the relevant con-
ventions of the language in which that narrative is presented (verb tenses,
adverbs, and adverbial clauses, and so forth, and comparable time markers
in other modes and media); (3) his familiarity with the relevant conventions
and traditions of the style and genre of that narrative; (4) his knowledge
and beliefs, including cultural assumptions, with respect to how things in
general, and the particular kinds of things with which that narrative is
concerned, happen and "follow from" each other-that is, his sense of
the "logic" of temporal and causal sequence; and (5) certain more or less
universal perceptual and cognitive tendencies involved in his processing
-apprehending and organizing-information in any form. (Smith 1981:
226)

That is a good list: (4) and (5)-knowledge about "the way the world
ordinarily goes"-seem particularly important for understanding how
narratives work.
But the necessity for these abilities, though undeniable, does not
undermine the discourse-story distinction. All that narratology argues
is the difference between the act of telling (or showing) and the object
told, and between their different temporal orders. All that it presumes
is that these time-orders are abstractable for discussion. They are noth-
ing more than constructs, their value limited to whatever explanatory
power they can provide. They form a convenient heuristic. The Con-
textualist wants to simplify narrative to a single structure, to be con-
cerned only with "why, in any given instance of narrative discourse,
someone has chosen (or agreed) to tell someone else that something
happened and why the latter has chosen (or agreed) to listen" (Smith:
229). If so simple an approach could provide a greater explanatory
power, there would be no reason not to prefer it. But I find little
evidence that it can.
Further, the Contextualist observes: "The origin of 'the story of Cin-
derella' has not yet been determined ... [and] cannot be determined"
(ibid.: 214).3 But the logical utility of narratology is not undermined

3. Since I have already defended structuralist narratology against Smith's cri-


tique (see Chatman 1981: 258-65), I shall only add a remark about her attack on
story's putative "independent existence." Smith claims that it is impossible to isolate
"story" because our only way to do so is by recounting another version (translation,
transformation, paraphrase, or whatever), which itself can only be an indissoluble
unity of form and content, story and discourse. In other words, there cannot be
an autonomous "story," "independent of any surface manifestation or expression
in any material form, mode, or medium-and thus ... of any teller or occasion of
telling and therefore of any human purposes, perceptions, actions, or interactions"
(Smith 1981: 212). But no narratologist, to my knowledge, has ever argued that
story and discourse can exist literally apart, or that story preexists its discursive

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Chatman * Contextualist Narratology 313

by the demonstration that no version can be considered the "original"


story. Narrative theory (as opposed to criticism or history) is not sad-
dled with the task of determining origins and establishing ur-stories.
Its goals are neither historical nor folkloristic. A similar answer can be
made to a related objection, namely that narratologists cannot achieve
consensus about the story, that they are simply paraphrasers like any
others.4

But, again, the heuristic utility of distinguishing between story and


discourse does not depend upon the ability, psychological function-
ing, or social conditioning of real-life paraphrasers, and certainly not
on prospects for a universal consensus about what a story contains.
Narratology is not concerned with paraphrase-in theory or practice.
It seeks, rather, a logical construction that accounts for narrative's
difference from other text-types. The Contextualist would deny the
possibility of such distinctions: "Narrative discourse is not necessarily
-or even usually-marked off or segregated from other discourse.
Almost any verbal utterance will be laced with more or less minimal
narratives.... Indeed, narrative discourse is, at one extreme, hardly
distinguishable from description or simply assertion" (Smith: 228).
On the contrary, I believe it essential to recognize deep distinctions
between narrative and other kinds of text-types. Far from proving the
impossibility of distinguishing text-types, "lacing" itself is, precisely,
a structure-what I have called textual service.5 The use of descrip-
tion or argument at the service of narrative in a nineteenth-century
novel, or of narrative at the service of argument in a lawyer's brief, are
obvious examples of the layering of structures.
Let us turn now from Contextualism's critique of narratology to its

representation. On the contrary. Endorsing Henry James's view that narrative is


"a living thing, all one and continuous," Todorov, for example, argues that story
need not be found in "a pure state" to recognize its existence in the textual mix.
"It seems rather natural that abstract concepts cannot be analyzed directly, at the
level of empirical reality" (Todorov 1969: 71). And "the fact that we [always] find
them together does not prevent us from distinguishing them." Or as Nelson Good-
man says of what Genette calls "anachrony"-"tale-twisting," in Goodman's term-
a skewed temporal representation of a series of events does not point to an "abso-
lute order of events independent of all versions, but [only] to what this version says
is the order of events" (Goodman: 255.).
4. Consensus, Smith argues, can only be the product of: "(1) the similarity of our
individual prior experiences of particular individual tellings designated Cinderella;
(2) the similarity of the particular ways in which almost all of us have learned to
talk about stories generally; and (3) the fact that all of us, in attempting to construct
a plot summary in this particular context and in connection with these particular
issues, would be responding to similar conditions and constraints" (1981: 213).
5. A sketch of this theory appears in my Coming to Terms (Chatman 1990).

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314 Poetics Today 11 :2

positive proposals for a revised, act-oriented theory. In treating narra-


tive as an act, Contextualists have recourse to two powerful disciplines
-sociolinguistics and natural language or "speech act" philosophy
-particularly, on the one hand, the inquiry into vernacular narra-
tive performed by Labov and Waletsky (1967), and on the other, the
rules of conversation proposed by Grice. Both have much to contrib-
ute to narratology. The procedures and results of field inquiry into
vernacular narratives cannot but interest narratologists. That these
procedures and results should provide a model for narratology is,
however, another matter. Similarly, any philosophy which insists on
seeing speech and thought as acts is germane since narratology can-
not help discussing the acts-including those of speech and thought
-of narrators and characters.6 What is more problematic, however, is
merging the two disciplines. Contextualists do not seem to recognize
an implicit tension between them. Of the two, speech act theory seems
more clearly useful to the narratological project; hence, much of the
following critique will turn on the problems posed by Contextualism's
embrace of the sociolinguistic Labovian model.
Contextualists argue for the need to inquire into the intentions,
motivations, interests, and social circumstances of real authors and
audiences. Failure to make this kind of inquiry, they believe, dooms
narratology to a treatment of narrative as a "detached and decontex-
tualized entity." This has a plain, homey bluntness about it, a sense of
getting down to basics, which some may find comforting. (It is remi-
niscent of the comforts of arguing by means of etymology: "Let's just
look the word up and see how it was originally used; then we can know
what it means.") But it also provokes a number of troubling questions.
For one, who are these "someones?" Characters? Narrators and Nar-
ratees? Implied Authors and Implied Readers? Real Authors and Real
Readers? Contextualism evidently prefers real authors and readers;
indeed, its whole emphasis is to show that the literary narrative (and
literature in general) simply extends into the world of texts the same
"peer" relationship that exists between interlocutors in the ordinary
speech situation: "Our role in the literary speech situation has the
main formal characteristic I have been using to define an Audience:
we knowingly and willingly enter a speech situation in which another
speaker has unique access to the floor" (Pratt 1977: 114). In apparent
opposition to the view that an audience is built into the narrative text
-as agents that narratology calls "narratees" and "implied readers"
-the Contextualist argues that "the role is not part of the rhetoric of

6. Indeed, though over a decade old, two articles by Richard Ohmann (1971, 1974)
are still very suggestive for further inquiry. In Story and Discourse I applied speech
act theory in a modest way to the analysis of differences between the language of
narrators and that of characters (1978: 161-65).

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Chatman * Contextualist Narratology 315

fiction but of the rhetoric of Audience-ship which is itself defined in


relation to the rhetoric of conversation" (ibid.: 116). The Contextualist
finds in the Trollopian invocation of "dear reader" or in the Jamesian
Preface compelling evidence for a general concern among authors for
real audiences.
Who would deny that authors have an interest in their audiences'
reactions to their work? But how much does the truism tell us? Auto-
biographies suggest that some writers work with a strong sense of
audience in mind, while others do not. More importantly, what new
insights into narrative do we gain from the notion of the reader as
"peer?" To tell me that I am Dostoevsky's peer seems to tell me little
about Dostoevsky's art or even about what I do-or what any reader
actually does-when reading Crime and Punishment.
The plain-sense approach of Contextualism insists on narrative as
Act, as real interchange between real people, that is, between Real
Authors and Real Listeners or Readers. It asks us to give up the nar-
ratological concern with "sets of surface-discourse-signifiers that rep-
resent (actualize, manifest, map, or express) sets of underlying-story-
signifieds," and to study instead "the verbal acts of particular narra-
tors performed in response to-and thus shaped and constrained by
-sets of multiple interacting conditions," conditions which are quite
elaborate: "circumstantial variables . . particular context and material
setting (cultural and social, as well as strictly 'physical') . . . particu-
lar listeners or readers addressed, and the nature of the narrator's
relationship to them," plus "such psychological variables as the narra-
tor's motives for telling the tale and all the particular interests, desires,
expectations, memories, knowledge, and prior experiences" (Smith
1981: 222).7
But, again, what weighty narratological information can we expect
to gather from such elaborate sociological inquiry? How, in particu-
lar, would looking for motives make the narratological project sturdier,
richer, and more comprehensive? When I look into my own motives
for picking up a novel, reading the comics, going to a play, watch-
ing a videotape, I cannot discover breathtakingly different reasons on
different occasions, nor, as far as I can tell, reasons very different
from those of my neighbors-uninformative words like "curiosity,"
"escape," "instruction," "entertainment" come to mind, as they have, I
suppose, to readers since the time of Horace. These don't tell me very
much about what makes a narrative a narrative and not some other

7. It is not clear why the Contextualist should feel that communicative variables
have been totally ignored by narratology. Story and Discourse (Chatman 1978), for
example, spends many pages on the question of the communication model in nar-
rative and the number of parties it seems necessary to posit to account for the
transmission of the discourse.

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316 Poetics Today 1 :2

kind of text. As for the motives of authors, the following comment


seems not atypical:
Novelists write for countless different reasons: for money, for fame, for re-
viewers, for parents, for friends, for loved ones; for vanity, for pride, for
curiosity, for amusement; as skilled furniture makers enjoy making furni-
ture, as drunkards like drinking, as judges like judging, as Sicilians like
emptying a shotgun into an enemy's back. I could fill a book with reasons,
and they would all be true, though not true of all. Only one same reason is
shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world
that is. (Fowles 1969: 81)
Aside from the desire to create fictional worlds (a matter that is of
great and fruitful concern to "possible world" narratologists like Eco,
Dolezel, and Pavel), where in the welter of such motives shall we find
information of significance for the study of narrative? Unlike a char-
acter or a narrator, who by definition interacts with the diegetic world,
represents it, changes it, conquers it, or whatever, the (real) author'
motives are sui generis: she simply wishes to create that world. This i
not at all to say that ideology, theme, and the like are unimportant. But
I find no compelling reason offered by Contextualists to stop treat-
ing these as properties of the text and to return them to the exclusive
world of real-author motivation. Of course, one cannot afford to be
closed-minded about any inquiries into narrative structure, even those
embracing biographism or the study of audience sociology. But one
can afford a skeptical posture until some concrete results are in.
The Contextualist position rests heavily on fieldwork in sociolinguis-
tics, particularly William Labov's investigations of vernacular stories,
of stories told in the streets (Labov and Waletzky 1967; Labov 1972).
Such inquiry is valuable in its own right and cannot help but contribut
to our general knowledge of narrative structure. And the Contextu-
alist is right in objecting to those Formalists who dismiss such stories
because they are couched in "nonpoetic" language, claiming that they
have no literary or even narratological interest. There is no reason
why the study of vernacular stories from the city streets should not
contribute to our understanding of narrative structure, even some of
its more sophisticated devices, such as free indirect style and interior
monologue.
Still, I doubt if many vernacular stories do use such devices. And
even if we found one that did, its storyteller's capacity to use them
would not in itself argue that vernacular story-telling constitutes a
unique or even useful base for narratology (just as accepting some
structuralist assumptions does not in itself privilege rigid Proppian or
Greimasian models). The question is whether narratology should give
up those studies (like Genette's) based on the great and variegated cor-
pus of literary texts and switch to a Labovian corpus for its model of

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Chatman * Contextualist Narratology 31 7

narrative structure. As Genette has shown so admirably, close inspec-


tion of the great complexities of even a single literary text, such as,
A la recherche du temps perdu, provides a greater spectrum of narrative
possibilities than a narratologist (let alone a vernacular story-teller)
might be able to dream up on her own. This position is not elitist;
it does not judge vernacular tales as "nonpoetic," but simply argues
that we find distinctions wherever we can, and that literary artists are
more likely to innovate than anyone else. It is hardly news that liter-
ary artists tend to be more experimental than the rest of us amateur
story-tellers. Little seems to be gained by abandoning narratological
distinctions derived from the great corpus of literary fictions and the
principles they suggest. Of course, narratology should be eclectic, and
the insights gained from the study of vernacular tales may well be
worth incorporating. But why give up a broad base for an evidently
narrower and less informative one?8
What would be the consequences of replacing, and not merely
supplementing, narratology with a strict Labovian model? One conse-
quence, as argued above, would be the blurring of the vital distinction
between story and discourse, and the separate time orders that each
entails. Labov's analysis of his vernacular tales does not distinguish the
"order of the telling from the order of the told" (Goodman 1981: 256).
He attributes to the real-life anecdotes of inner-city, adolescent boys a
formulation of plot organization little different from that of Aristotle's
Poetics or Freytag's "pyramid." His terms for the parts of vernacular
narrative parallel such familiar ones as "exposition," "denouement,"
and the like:

1. abstract
2. orientation
3. complicating action
4. evaluation
5. result or resolution
6. coda

Clearly, categories (2) and (3) correspond to "exposition" and "ri


action," and (5) combines "denouement" and "conclusion," or per
shares "conclusion" with (6), which also contains the Nachgeschichte t
was popular in some nineteenth-century novels. "Climax" see
occur somewhere between (3) and (5). Labov does not explain wh
the six parts are to be found in the story's surface structure or
in its deep structure.9 Indeed, it is not even clear that he allow

8. Pratt (1977) does in fact devote the longest chapter (4) of her book to li
narratives. But since her project is not a general narratology, it would be un
fault the book for not advancing one.
9. Also, the insistence that every narrative include an evaluation of the

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318 Poetics Today 1 1:2

a deep structure. Labov's preoccupation with plot divisions seems to


imply that he does not, that he sees the whole structure right there
in the surface of the text itself. But that is clearly belied by ordinary
reading experience, not to mention technical narratological inquiry.
Meir Sternberg, for instance, has shown in exhaustive detail how many
novels continue "orienting" and "complicating" even after the plot's
"resolution" (Sternberg 1978), something which apparently cannot
happen in Labov's vernacular tales: "Within this conception of nar-
rative, we can define a minimal narrative as a sequence of two clauses
which are temporally ordered: that is, a change in their order will result
in a change in the temporal sequence of the original semantic interpre-
tation" (Labov 1972: 360, quoted in Pratt 1977: 44).10 Assuming that
"clause" means a real piece of language and not a deep narrative ele-
ment, Labov's assertion does not allow for the possibility of narrative
anachrony, the exchange or "twisting" of (surface) clauses out of their
causal-sequential order. Perhaps that is simply because an example did
not show up in his corpus. Whatever the reason, a Contextualist nar-
ratology on strictly Labovian principles would eliminate-by ignoring
-a distinction which many find crucial to a general narrative theory."
Further, are we supposed to believe that each narrative must con-
tain all the Labovian categories? Apparently, we are: consider just
category (1), the "abstract," defined as "a short (usually one or two
sentence) summary of the story that narrators generally provide be-
fore recounting the story proper" (Pratt 1977: 45). The Contextualist
acknowledges that "at first glance, the 'abstract' of a natural narrative

ence narrated seems to fly in the face of the effort by novelists since James and
Flaubert to eliminate judgment and other commentary from the narrator's pro-
nouncements.

10. Compare the observation of the sociolinguist Polanyi (1981


assumed to have happened in the order in which they are men
11. Pratt seems to accept the dualism between fabula and syuzh
explain how it can be incorporated into Labov's monochronic n
her zeal to demonstrate that vernacular tales can do all the thi
narratives (and, hence, the utility of Labov's investigations as
tology), she makes a questionable interpretation of the distinc
fabula/syuzhet distinction is very similar to Labov's distinctio
core and the 'secondary structure' of evaluation on which the
narrative depends. Labov's 'intensifiers' and 'comparators', wh
the subject matter by suspending the progress of the narrati
turalist terminology, foregrounding devices" (1977: 68). Foreg
distinction betweenfabula and syuzhet is far more fundamental t
tion of narrator's commentary. Such commentary does take pla
discourse, but it hardly constitutes the sole justification for d
from told. Indeed, it is difficult to understand where Labov c
"evaluation"-"intensifiers" and "comparators"-in a monochr
phenomenon is handled very easily, however, by Genette unde
Story Time > Discourse Time, where Discourse equals zero (i

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Chatman * Contextualist Narratology 319

does not seem to have a literary correlate at all. We do not usually


think of novels as beginning with a 'short summary of the point of the
story' just prior to the orientation." But, we are instructed, "they do.
The 'abstract' of a novel is minimally its title, which is given a special
page of its own just before the orientation and which is always taken
by readers to be a relevant and important clue to what the author con-
siders the main point or theme of his narrative" (ibid.: 59-60). This
is a little hard to swallow. Let us consider an "abstract" from one of
Labov's tales: "I never came nearer bootin' a dog in my life." This
intriguing remark prefaces a story about how a hunting dog wisely
understood that the living duck used by his master as a decoy was
not to be carried back, even though the master got angrier-"nearer
to bootin' "-each time he sent the dog to fetch what he thought was
a downed bird. There may be novels whose titles provide that much
information about what is to follow, but I find it difficult to think of
very many. What springs to mind, rather, are those whose titles simply
name the protagonist-Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Emma, Anna Karenina
Madame Bovary. A character's name would hardly seem a clue to the
point or theme of the novel in any usual sense of "theme" ("the gen-
eral topic, of which the particular story is an illustration" [Dictionary of
World Literature 1960: 417]).
But, oddly enough, the Contextualist does find in such titles ex-
amples of the Labovian "abstract": "It is interesting to note that when a
novel title is conventionally abbreviated, the abbreviation often seems
to reflect a judgment about what is the central point of the story. Thu
Prevost's Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut has been
shortened to Manon Lescaut and not Le Chevalier des Grieux; Pamela or
Virtue Rewarded became Pamela" (Pratt 1977: 61). But "Manon," surely,
is the central character of the novel, not the "central point." And the ex-
cised "Virtue Rewarded" is clearly more informative about the novel's
theme than is the simple name "Pamela."
Another consequence: arguing that the "abstract"-and, hence, the
title of a novel-is simply one more part of the plot, parallel to orienta-
tion/exposition, result/conclusion, and the like, neglects an important
distinction, namely that the title is often a function of the discourse,
not of the story. Indeed, one Contextualist theorist argues that titles
are chosen by an "extrafictional voice," her name for the implied
author (Lanser 1981: 122). But since Labov's model makes no dis-
tinction between narrator and (implied) author, it cannot account for
this possibility, a possibility that conveniently explains, among others,
ironic titles. The irony of "great" in The Great Gatsby,12 for example,

12. Discussed by Pratt (1977: 59, 64, 66). Later in her book, Pratt finds in speech
act theory good reasons for distinguishing between Narrator and Real Author:
"Shandy, the fictional speaker, could be guilty of any or all the kinds of maxim

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320 Poetics Today 11:2

is not necessarily one intended by the narrator, Nick Carraway. While


Nick is devoted to Gatsby and may well think that he had a certain
greatness, the reader seems invited by the text as a whole to view that
"greatness" with a certain skepticism. If the skepticism emerges from
the book itself, but not explicitly from any of its narrator's statements,
it can only be the comment of some other agent-the one we have
come to call the "implied author." But Labov allows for no such agent.
Or, take Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: obviously none of the four
narrators dreamed up the Shakespearean title. How then can a purely
Contextualist narratology account for it?
Then there is the problematic issue of "tellability." A narratological
model based on actual communication between a teller and a listener
must face the question, "How can we know when a piece of discourse
is in fact a story?"13 (This is presumably not a problem for structuralist
narratology, which only assumes responsibility for distinguishing the
narrative text from what it is not, for example, such text-types as Argu-
ment, Description, or Exposition.) Every narrative, the Contextualist
feels, must have a "point." 14 Having a point is a function of "tellability."
This notion, presented as a spin-off from Grice's definition of asser-
tion, is that assertions are speech acts "concerned with getting the
addressee to believe or know or think something rather than to do
something," the latter being the peculiar province of questions and
commands (Pratt 1977: 135). The two essential conditions of an asser-
tion are: the speaker must believe it to be both true and nonobvious.
"Bill went to the bank today" is an assertion only in a speech context
in which a) the speaker believed that Bill did in fact go to the bank,
and b) there was reason to believe that the addressee did not know it.
To make such an assertion one must give one's "interlocutors a piece
of information which will usefully correct their knowledge and expec-

nonfulfillment [of Grice's Cooperative Principle of conversation]; Sterne, the real-


world author, cannot" (ibid.: 166). And, she asserts the theoretical precept that
"authors ... can mimetically represent all kinds of nonfulfillment [of the Coopera-
tive Principle], for what counts as a lie, a clash, an opting out, or an unintentional
failure on the part of the fictional speaker (or writer) counts as a flouting on the
part of the real-world author" (ibid.: 174). But she does not explain her depar-
ture from Labov's conflation of the two, nor the apparent conflict that results from
following Grice rather than Labov in this respect.
13. Hence, the title of Leitch's book: What Stories Are (1986).
14. Is it really so self-evident that every narrative must have a point or theme,
at least in the ordinary sense of a constructable sentence or clause generalizing
the narrative to some proposition about the real world? Such a criterion would
clearly exclude, for example, surrealist narratives-unless one were to insist that
the attack on bourgeois values is the point (but that seems to suggest another sense
of "point"). It would exclude even the typical New Yorker story-unless one were to
extend "theme" to apply to such enormously broad generalizations as "life is like
that." But then, hundreds of narratives could be said to have the same "point."

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Chatman * Contextualist Narratology 321

tations of the world as regards Bill" (ibid.). This kind of assertion, an


"informing" assertion, is the only one that Grice discusses.
But the Contextualist wants to extrapolate from another subclass of
assertions, namely the "tellable." Unlike the common, garden-variety
or "informing" assertion, the "tellable" assertion is made for its own
sake: "It is news; it can be displayed" (ibid.); it is not just presented
to effect an exchange of information. "Verbally displaying a state of af-
fairs" means "inviting [one's] addressee(s) to join [one] in contemplat-
ing it, evaluating it, and responding to it" (ibid.: 136).15 The following
is an example: "Suppose Bill is a miser, notoriously mistrustful of
banks and known to keep his money at home stuffed in a sock. In this
case, the information that Bill actually went to the bank is downright
spectacular and can be volunteered for that reason alone" (ibid.: 135).
In such a case, the Contextualist argues, the speaker invites his inter-
locutors "to join him in contemplating [the text], evaluating it, and
responding to it," to induce "not only belief but also an imaginative
and affective involvement in the state of affairs he is representing and
an evaluative stance toward it" (ibid.: 136). (It is striking how much this
definition resembles such traditional notions as "aesthetic distance"
and even "defamiliarization," "foregrounding," and "making strange"
-notions central to the very Russian Formalists whom Contextualists
like to attack.16)
But "tellability" is not an unproblematic concept. How spectacular,
for example, must an assertion be to qualify? And who is to decide the
sufficiency of the spectacle? 17 Before considering these questions, we
must ask why the "tellable" assertion is different from the merely "in-
forming" kind, since the former, too, "usefully corrects the addressee's
knowledge" (the addressee would ordinarily assume that Bill kept his
money in a sock, and that knowledge is now being corrected). Isn't this
simply a question of degree and not of kind? The distinction is not
helped by such qualifications as the following: "Informing assertions
may [represent states of affairs that are held to be unusual, contrary to

15. The speaker's "point is to produce in his hearers not only belief but also an
imaginative and affective involvement in the state of affairs he is representing and
an evaluative stance toward it. He intends them to share his wonder, amusement,
terror, or admiration of the event. Ultimately, it would seem, what he is after is
an interpretation of the problematic event, an assignment of meaning and value
supported by the consensus of himself and his hearers" (Pratt 1977: 136).
16. See Pratt's (1977) first chapter.
17. Pratt makes a curious concession about "tellability" in literary narratives: "As
with natural narratives, we expect literary works to be tellable. We expect narra-
tive literary works to deal with people in situations of unusual conflict and stress,
unusual for the characters if not for us" (1977: 140). But aren't "we," not the char-
acters, the ones who must decide about "tellability?" And if "unusualness" and the
like are not the criterial "focus," what is?

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322 Poetics Today 11 :2

expectations, or otherwise problematic], but they do not have to, and


it is not their point to do so" (ibid.: 136), whereas "tellable assertions"
must do so. But how does that "must:may" contrast work? If unusual-
ness is criterial, and an informing assertion should concern an unusual
state of affairs, doesn't it ipso facto become tellable, whether that was
its point or not? (Does "the point" mean, by the way, that it was the
speaker's intention to be "telling" or only "informing," and if so, how
do we know that, both practically and theoretically?)
Another problem: the Contextualist tells us that the "tellable" con-
stitutes a vast subclass of assertions-not only "natural narratives [but]
an enormous proportion of conversation, and many if not all literary
works" (ibid.). But "tellability" is being presented as the centerpiece
of a speech act theory of literary discourse. If "not all literary works"
are tellable, what other criteria must we consult for the residual cases?
Conversely, if "tellability" is not criterial for distinguishing between
conversation and literary works, how does it help us "toward a speech
act theory of literary discourse" (and, more specifically, toward a dis-
tinction between that which is narrative and that which is not)? It is
hard to find in either "tellability" or "display" much that is useful
about the internal properties of narratives or their differences from
other text-types.18 On the contrary: neither seems to help us distin-
guish what is a narrative from what is not. Indeed, the Contextualist
argues that "difference" is not the issue. The "tellability agenda is
much the same for literature as it is for conversation" (ibid.: 141). But
the function of theory, as I take it, is to establish distinctions, not to
argue that distinctions do not matter.
Still another problem: "tellability" is even found to be built into
grammar. All exclamations, according to the Contextualist, are by defi-
nition tellable. On the other hand, exclamations "do not always have
to be assertible in the sense prescribed by the Assertibility Condition"
(ibid.: 137). Nor, apparently, do stories: "As with exclamations, a natu-
ral narrator is not required to inform. With his Audience's permission,
he can tell a story his interlocutors have already heard" (ibid.: 147).
This seems something of a non sequitur since "tellability" is initially
defined as a kind or subclass of assertible statement. If assertibility is
not essential, why, then, should we try to find in speech act theory and
Conversational Maxims a basis for narrativity and literature at all?

18. The notion of one text-type's being at the service of another pretty much goes
out the window too: "It will be argued that literature is often or always didactic,
that is, intended to have some world-changing or action-inducing force. I think it
can be shown, however, that this aim has to be viewed as indirect in an analysis of
literary speech acts, since its achievement depends on first achieving the represen-
tative aim. All exempla work this way and differ in this respect from persuasion"
(Pratt: 143).

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Chatman * Contextualist Narratology 323

How does the audience decide that what it hears or reads or sees is, in
fact, tellable? Who is the relevant audience, that is, why is one audience
and not another competent to make the decision? As Frank Kermode
puts the question: "I do not know whether there is a minimum accept-
able measure of narrativity. (On whom should we conduct acceptability
tests? Wyndham Lewis's cabdriver? Philippe Sollers? The president of
the MLA?)" (Kermode 1981: 83). One answer offered by the Contex-
tualist is simply contentual: certain events are innately "tellable" by
their very subject matter, for example, "danger of death or of physical
injury," or the escape of an elephant. Adjectives used to character-
ize the "tellable" are "unusual," "terrifying," "weird," "wild," "crazy,"
"amusing," "hilarious," "wonderful," and more generally, "strange,"
"uncommon," "unusual." But does that mean that texts whose events
are banal, common, and tame are ipso facto not narratives? How
about all those novels and short stories that convey the tedium of
life? Indeed, even among vernacular tales, how about "shaggy dog"
stories? Conversely, does every text concerning dangerous, unusual,
or terrifying events automatically constitute a narrative? Such events,
obviously, could appear in Descriptions, Arguments, and Expositions
as well. Does their presence turn these texts into Narratives?
When it comes to actual practical analysis, the answer to the ques-
tion, "What is it that a text does to induce the audience to regard it as
display and not information?" seems to be a kind of decontextualiz-
ation. Here is how a Contextualist shows that plot summary-by defi-
nition merely an "informing" assertion-evolves into a fully displayed,
fully tellable text, indeed one of the greatest in Western literature:
A man returning victorious from war was killed by his wife shortly after
his arrival home

could plausibly be introduced apart from a particular conversational con-


text-for instance, in a news report which would add nothing but particular
names and places. The emphasis in
A general, having spent seven years away from home in an effort to help
his brother-in-law bring back his wife's sister from an elopement with her
lover, was killed on his return by his wife and her own lover
on motivic and thematic parallels makes it even more independent of an im-
mediate context and so more readily tellable [my italics]: The victim is no longer
the husband of some woman I once knew, or an anonymous soldier, but a
man destroyed by the kind of family loyalties to which he has committed
himself, and the kind of sexual betrayal he is committed to avenging. A
man presented in such terms is a likely subject for identifications among a
relatively wide range of audiences. These identifications are focused more
sharply by the ironic details of
An Argive chieftain, descended from a family whose history was marked
by power struggles, murders, and a blood curse, pledged to his brother-

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324 Poetics Today 11:2

in-law to help recover his wife's sister, who had eloped with her lover.
When the allies' fleet was unable to sail, the chieftain sacrificed his
daughter in order to propitiate the gods. After seven years' absence, he
returned home victorious with his concubine, but they were both killed
by his wife and her own lover,
which presents the chieftain in a number of contradictory roles-descen-
dant, ruler, husband, brother-in-law, political and military ally, father, lover,
cuckold-whose collisions it seems, must inevitably destroy him.
[The complete text of Agamemnon] [the] details [of which], by providing
a more self-contained rationale for the story, make it less context-dependent
and more universally tellable. [my italics] (Leitch 1986: 26-27)

The phrases that I have italicized demonstrate how easily a Contextu-


alist can turn the Contextualist argument on its head without seeming
to realize that he is doing so. The initial motive of Contextualism, as
I take it, is to explain how pragmatics, the use of language (as op-
posed to its forms), and particularly the interchange between speaker
and hearer in ordinary speech situations, provides the correct basis
for "tellability" and, hence, literariness (including literary narrativity).
Narratology is nonviable, Contextualism insists, because it focuses un-
duly on the construction of the text itself. But here is a Contextualist
arguing that "tellability" is something built into the text, that it is
precisely a freeing of the text from the contingencies of this or that
audience and a search for context-independence and universality.
Context-independence is even formulated as a kind of "detach-
ability" of display assertions not permitted to informing assertions:
"We assume the literary utterance is expressly designed to be as fully
'detachable' as possible, since its success is in part gauged by the
breadth of its Audience and since its legitimate addressee is ultimately
anyone who can read or hear" (Pratt 1977: 148). But if that is the case,
why should we worry about the speech-act situation at all, instead of
simply concentrating on the intrinsic properties of the "detachable"
text-type that our culture calls "narrative?"19
Note how "tellability" ultimately emerges as a full-fledged, literary-
critical value term, and, hence, as radically dependent on subjective
judgment. The hard-won distinction between literary theory and lit-
erary criticism seems to vanish, and subjective judgment once again
becomes not only the basis for evaluations of works but for definitions

19. "Detachability" implies that a narrative tolerates a degree of "irrelevance" to


the "main topic of conversation" not permitted to informing texts. Even if that
were true, is it the kind of notion that helps us discuss literary works whose authors
have struggled to impart the illusion of unity, of precisely not breaking off from
some ongoing conversational stream? The same question arises about the assertion
that "display texts" are subject to "elaboration," a ceaseless ability to wander off
onto other topics. (See Pratt 1977: 143-48.)

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Chatman * Contextualist Narratology 325

of literary concepts and terms. Though Contextualism is obviously


grounded in linguistic notions like that of "native-speaker response,"
its putative narratological counterpart, "tellability," hardly proves to
be the objective, fieldworker term it pretends to be. It offers no reliable
litmus test for distinguishing between well- and ill-formed narratives.
For example, one of the texts garnered by Labov in response to the
"danger of death" request reads as follows: "Well, this person had a
little too much to drink and he attacked me and the friend came in
and she stopped it" (as quoted in Pratt 1977: 44). By narratologic
measures, this is a minimal narrative, containing a sequence of event
and their agents. The Contextualist also admits (albeit grudgingly
that this is a narrative only because it consists of "narrative clauses,"
but adds that it is "not very interesting," hence not "tellable." The cr
terion of "tellability" here seems totally normative,20 and evidently i
a critical rather than theoretical sense of the word. Apparently, it
not that the tale is ill-formed as a narrative: it is just badly done.
Since we are now frankly in the area of value judgments, let u
return to the crucial question asked above: Who is to judge what is
"tellable?" In Labov's street context, the answer is simple: the group
gathered around the storyteller. The oral narrator must establish and
reestablish contact with his or her audience at the risk of losing th
floor. The vernacular tale occurs in an open, conversational situation
characterized by a vying for attention, for the right to tell one's stor
to interlocutors. If the story is not "tellable," these folks will quickly
notify the teller to cease and desist.21 But that, of course, might elimi-
nate some excellent stories. What if the storyteller is far more gifte
than her audience? What if only she sees the point of the story? In th
vernacular situation, I suppose, the audience's shouting the storytelle
down would mean that what she had been saying, because no longer
"tellable," ceased being a story.
Thank goodness, we might murmur, that literature need not run
that kind of marketing gauntlet. But Contextualism, in its desire to se
literature as a mere elaboration of the vernacular situation, also ex-
tends the model of audience power.22 It finds institutional counterpar

20. "In short, the very notion of literature is a normative one" (ibid.: 123).
21. The vernacular setting provides the storyteller with immediate, participator
feedback from the audience in the form of "nods, facial expressions, grunts" by
which he or she may gauge whether the audience is still granting him/her the righ
or "turn" to speak. In theatrical plays, as in literary situations, where turn-taking i
by convention impossible, the audience still has the opportunity, through applau
and the like, to show some residual "turn-taking" rights, rights to "reclaim" its
"peer status" (Pratt 1977: 111).
22. For example, the theater extends the playwright's "turn" by means of suc
conventions as printed programs, just as the public lecturer's rights to continue
speaking are supported by the convention of moderator or introducer or master o

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326 Poetics Today 11 :2

of the street audience in the "selectors"-publishers, reviewers, liter-


ary critics-seen as essential mediators between author and reader.
The reader, we are told, becomes the author's "peer" by virtue of
these institutional representatives. Indeed, "the class of possible liter-
ary works (which is the class of all possible utterances) will not become
full-fledged literary works until they have been ratified by the com-
munity by passing through the relevant selection process" (Pratt 1977:
123). But this assertion makes the explanatory power of the theory
even more suspect. What if a manuscript by some mute, inglorious
Joyce is turned down by every publishing-house-as-"selector" forever?
Would that mean that the text had never been "tellable," never a liter-
ary narrative? Or-a commoner case, indeed, the case of Joyce himself
-what if it should take a long time for the institutional audience to
recognize a text's "tellability?" Does that mean that during the hia-
tus, while the world waits for the reluctant mediator, the text remains
"untellable?" 23
I do not wish to suggest that there is nothing of value to narra-
tology in Contextualist theory, so let me end on a positive note. The
Contextualist makes interesting use of Grice's notion of "implicature."

ceremonies. As for literature, there is not even a symbolic possibility, like applause,
of the audience's reclaiming peer status (of course, we can always throw the book
in the trash, but the author will not know about our breaking the communication
contract). Still, in Pratt's view, something of the speech convention is preserved:
titles, chapter headings, summaries constitute the literary author's "requests for
the floor." Further, the function of mediator is institutionalized in the persons of
critics, reviewers, librarians, professors, and so on. The text is "pre-selected" or
"pre-pared" for the audience, which has delegated its turn-taking rights to these
authorities.
23. Conversely, a question could be asked about the "mediator's" screening out of
naive or unworthy texts. Pratt argues that a novel which begins "It is a truth uni-
versally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want
of a wife" could never have been published if the author really believed such a
proposition: "the editor would very likely have returned the manuscript; certainly
we would not be reading the book as avidly as we do today" (1977: 170). Only
Ann Landers could seriously entertain such a proposition. But aren't there, and
haven't there always been, narratives published which expound opinions as naive
as anything that might turn up in Landers's column? Aren't there editors as naive
as their "great unwashed" readership? Or (more egregiously) aren't there editors
who, knowingly, intentionally, and solely for profit, feed naive and silly narratives
to an undiscriminating public? The idea of edified mediators screening out unedi-
fying popular literature seems hard to swallow, especially if offered as criterial for
literature. It hardly seems to account for what makes Pride and Prejudice literature
and much of what appears on television or supermarket bookracks nonliterature.
It also seems to ignore historical changes of taste intrinsic to editorial practice as
well. Are we to imagine that the editors of medieval romances were just as likely to
recognize irony as those of Tristram Shandy and Pride and Prejudice? Conversely, can
we know for certain that the editors who published Swift's "A Modest Proposal" or
Gulliver's Travels were aware of the ironies involved?

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Chatman * Contextualist Narratology 327

Implicatures are "the various kinds of calculations by which we make


sense of what we hear. The speaker who says 'Bill is in Oxford or in
London' is thus said to have implicated (as opposed to having said) that
he does not know exactly where Bill is" (Pratt 1977: 154). Implica-
tures are essential to the maintenance of the Cooperative Principle in
ordinary conversation, and so, the Contextualist argues, in literary,
including literary-narrative, texts as well. The notion clearly supports
common-sense views that such essential properties of narratives as
chronological sequence and causality derive from ordinary language
usage. If one describes a linear sequence of events, the ordinary as-
sumption is that they follow each other in time: "I wrote some letters,
attended a meeting, and had lunch with a friend" implicates that the
letter-writing preceded the meeting, which in turn preceded the lun-
cheon. Whatever the precise gains to narratology achieved by this
recourse to the technical term "implicature" over simple "implication,"
the interest of such matters to linguists and philosophers is obviously
important. One can hardly disagree with the Contextualist's assertion
that "any analysis of narrativity will ultimately have to give an account
of our ability to implicate causality and time sequence" (ibid.: 156).
Perhaps the most valuable use of Grice is to explain "unreliable nar-
ration" (ibid.: Chapter 5). Grice recognizes four kinds of conscious
failure to abide by the Cooperative Principle in conversation: Violation
(a "quiet and unostentatious" refusal to abide by it), Opting Out (an
explicit statement of unwillingness to cooperate), Clash (an inability to
abide by one maxim of the Cooperative Principle because it conflicts
with another), and, finally, Flouting (a blatant failure to abide by the
Cooperative Principle in such a way as to suggest that the intention is
to exploit it). Of the four, as the Contextualist demonstrates, the author
of a text may onlyflout: the situation of authorship prohibits the com-
mission of any other kind of failure. But the narrator may commit any
of the four failures. On the basis of this insight, the Contextualist is
able to distinguish various kinds of narratorial unreliability. For in-
stance, an (implied) author, say Laurence Sterne ("Laurence Sterne"),
can only be flouting the Cooperative Principle even as his narrator,
Tristram Shandy, is opting out. Or the source of unreliable narra-
tion may reside in a conflict between a flouting author and a narrator
caught between the demands of two cooperative maxims. Or the nar-
rator may be violating a maxim, and to that extent be in conflict with
the flouting author. Or, as the Contextualist adds to Grice's list, the
conflict may be between the unintentional failure, the ignorance, or
incompetence of the narrator (e.g., Benjy, or Huckleberry Finn) and
the flouting implied author. Bringing this aspect of Grice's thinking
into narratology is highly useful.

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328 Poetics Today 1 1 :2

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