As some of you know, my research field is narrative organisation and sad though it may be, I am fascinated by the ways in which writers shape their narratives and the infinite variety of options open to them when it comes to not only giving a voice to those options but also signalling their intentions to the reader. I can happily spend hours drawing up detailed maps enabling me to chart my path through the relationship between the linguistic surface structure that we as readers encounter and the underlying notional structure which the author has been driven to communicate. Don’t worry, I’m well aware that it is only a matter of time before the men in white coats come pounding down my garden path and drag me off to some safe, secure and well-padded room, but until such time arrives I shall go on worriting about how a novel is working and fretting myself until I’ve sorted it out.
Before too long, anyone who works in this field is certain to encounter the writings of Vladimir Propp, who was equally passionate about studying the organisation of a specific set of Russian folktales. A basic tenet of his theory is that each of the tales he studied is impelled by one of two motivating forces. The actions are driven towards either the vanquishing of the villain of the piece or the liquidation of a lack experienced by the story’s hero. So, for example, Little Red Riding Hood, (not from his corpus, but to take a story we all know) is clearly an example of villainy vanquished, while Cinderella is more closely related to lack liquidated. Now, I know it’s not always as clear cut as one or the other. I could make a case for Cinderella being villainy vanquished and just don’t get me onto the subject of Jack and the Beanstalk because the last time I tried to explicate that particular tale it took me over 13,000 words. However, the point that interests me here is that Propp sees the dynamic of story as being teleological in nature; it is driven by the final purpose it serves; it is concerned with what Aristotle called the final cause.
However, last week I came across a different approach towards describing the narrative dynamic. In his lectures for the Great Courses’ series, The Art of Reading, Timothy Spurgin talks about stories being impelled either by the hero going on a journey or by a stranger coming to town. Because he’s coming from a literary background his examples are rather more ‘up-market’ than mine. The former he exemplifies through Jane Eyre, while for the latter he suggests Great Expectations. Now again, I would respectfully suggest that certainly in the case of Great Expectations you can argue both ways. Undoubtedly, it is the appearance of Magwich which starts the ball rolling, as it were, but there is definitely an argument to be made for saying that the novel then proceeds along the lines of hero goes on a journey. However, once more, this isn’t what really interests me. What drew my attention most sharply was that for Spurgin the dynamic force of the narrative is lodged in the way in which it begins; that is, his position is diametrically opposed to that which Propp takes.
For reasons which it would probably take me at least another 13,000 words to explain, I am strongly drawn to the teleological argument. There are various elements deeply embedded in narrative structure that correlate, indeed, respond, directly to the story’s eventual dénouement. I know, I took an entire thesis to describe just one of them. (You see, I get sadder by the minute!) But that doesn’t mean that I am going to reject Spurgin’s argument out of hand. All sorts of interesting questions come to mind. Do we differ in our approach because I am a linguist whilst he comes from the literary side of English Studies? What, if any, correlation is there between the two systems? Does one of the ‘igniting moment’ (a linguistic term, not his) options always lead to one of the final cause choices or are all of the four possible combinations viable? You can probably think of others including, no doubt, does any of this actually matter?
Well, it does to me, because, as I said at the beginning of this post, I am fascinated by the way in which writers choose to organise the narrative structure by means of which they tell their story. If I had still been working in academia I would be starting on a project now which would probably keep me happily employed for two or three years at the very least. Ironically, because I’m retired and my life is no longer so tightly focussed, I don’t have the time to do that. Nevertheless, I am going to be keeping my eyes open and putting whatever I read to the test in order to see what the relationship between the two systems might be. And, I would really welcome any thoughts that you might have about this, especially any examples of texts that you think are of particular interest. After all, I may not have access to academic colleagues in the way that I used to but who needs that when I have the whole blogging world to stimulate me, question my thoughts and add their own?