Cambridge University Press 2002 icon

Cambridge University Press 2002

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A few words on interpretation

We have all had the experience of arguing about the meaning or meanings of a narrative. In other words, we have argued about how to interpret the narrative. "Meaning" is yet another debatable term in this field, but in general we think of meaning as having to do with ideas and judgments. Do narratives have meaning in this sense? Do they communicate ideas and produce judgments? There are some who would say: No, a story is just a story and a narrative is just a narrative, just as a picture is just a picture and a song just a song. But this is a pretty hard position to maintain. To begin with, it is very hard not to take notice of the ideas that come up everywhere during the course of a narrative. As one reads, say, The Brothers Karamazov, it is very hard not to become engaged in the debate on the ethics of killing. As to the question of whether or not narratives actually arrive at judgments — that is, arrive at closure on the level of intellectual and moral questions — the answer is: some seem to and some don't. Certainly, narratives that are satire or propaganda or advertising make judgments, some of them with hammer blows. But we have also just been acknowledging that many narratives refrain from closing at the level of questions. So there is a whole class of narratives, some of them very powerful, that don't appear to arrive at judgments.

Nonetheless, a refusal to judge is quite different from having nothing to do with judgment. To go back again to The Brothers Karamazov, though we may feel that an issue is still open by the end of the novel, we are at the same time hard put to disengage ourselves from the effort to resolve the issue. In other words, it is hard to treat the novel's debate on the ethics of killing as pure entertainment. It is hard to look at the novel as if it were a kind of music, orchestrated simply for our enjoyment. It is in fact arguable that no narrative can achieve such a "purely aesthetic" status — that all narratives, however playful, carry ideas and judgments with them. Be that as it may, certainly part of the value of Dostoevsky's novel lies in the fact that, like so many narratives, it deals openly with issues that most of us do take very seriously. That the narrative may not close with a judgment is not the same thing, then, as saying that judgment is irrelevant to it. Indeed, its openness is itself a kind of judgment. It is a judgment that the issue is too complex to warrant final judgment at this stage of our understanding.

The two chapters that follow this one are focussed squarely on the in­terpretation of narrative. But the subject of narration, and particularly of the narrator, is so central to problems in the interpretation of narrative that I have begun this chapter with these few words on the subject of interpretation.


The narrator

In this book we are considering all forms of narrative, including those that do not have narrators. Still, the number of the world's narratives that employ narrators is vast. And in interpretive disagreements, if there is a narrator, almost invariably the reliability of the narrator becomes a focus of dis­pute. This is because the first point almost anyone in the field of narrative will agree on nowadays with regard to narrators is that they should not be confused with authors. The narrator is variously described as an instru­ment, a construction, or a device wielded by the author. Some theorists (like Bardies) put this emphatically: "The (material) author of a narrative is in no way to be confused with the narrator of that narrative" ("Structural Analysis," 282).

^ But wait a minute ...

I wonder about Barthes's "in no way." If I start to tell you the story of my life, should I "in no way" be confused with myself? If I should write my story instead of telling it, does my written voice now become utterly separate from who I am? Some might argue that in fact there is "no way" I can entirely hide myself, even if I wanted to - that whatever narrative voice I choose to narrate my story, there would be discernable traces of the real me lurking in it. Mark Twain caught this paradox neatly in a letter to William Dean Howells: "An autobiogra­phy is the truest of all books; for though it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it, which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell ... the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences."1 Twain's remarks provide a good caution and advise us to go carefully when we generalize on this subject.

Whether or not you want to go as far as Barthes when he says the author "is in no way to be confused with the narrator," there is still no doubt about it: when you narrate you construct. This is true whether you are making up a story about creatures from another planet or telling the intimate secrets of your life. And though you can certainly lie when you narrate, and liars always construct, constructing is not the same thing as lying. Just as language comes to us with words and grammar ready made, out of which we construct our sentences, so narrative is always a matter of selecting from a great arsenal of pre-existing devices and using them to synthesize our effects. One of these devices is the narrator.

The device of the narrator, like the subject of point of view, with which it overlaps in a number of ways, has been intensely studied in the last fifty years. Out of the many discriminations that have been made with regard to the narrator, the three most useful are those of voice, fiocalization, and distance.

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