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Williams - Narrative of Narrative

Jun 02, 2018



  • 8/10/2019 Williams - Narrative of Narrative


    Narrative of Narrative (Tristram Shandy)Author(s): Jeffrey WilliamsSource: MLN, Vol. 105, No. 5, Comparative Literature (Dec., 1990), pp. 1032-1045Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 19/09/2014 00:53

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  • 8/10/2019 Williams - Narrative of Narrative


    Narrative f Narrative(Tristram handy)

    Jeffrey illiams

    Preliminary Claims

    Tristram handy presents an extreme in novelistic nterpretation,since the presumed events of the narrative, f Tristram's utobiog-raphy and the Shandy family history, re not only told out oforder, but are frequently ut off and fragmentary. t times, thesuggestion f a word causes the narrative o ump from n event n1718, say, to Toby's battle experience at Namur in 1695. The plotis peculiar in its appearance of non-linearity nd disorder. Also,related to this, Tristram frequently nterrupts he narrated eventsand reflexively alls attention o the question of narration tself.

    We will here propose that the attendant nterpretive roblemsof this odd narrative re, for the most part, due to a confusionover the concept of plot. The tendency f much of the criticism s

    to take the events that the narrator ays he is narrating unques-tioningly s the plot of the novel. The narrator's tatements boutnarrating as journey, line, digression, tc.) and his recounting fwhat he is doing and when he is doing it are then seen as somehowabove or beyond the plot, as if' hese were outside the domain ofthe narrative proper. Even recent critically ophisticated eadings-for instance, Hillis Miller's using Shandy s an exemplar of thedeconstruction f linear plot, and Dennis Allen's attending o thelinguistic lay of the novel-seem to privilege he comments f thenarrator, distancing hem from the rest of the narrative, nd al-most taking them as if they were literal, s critical omments onnarrative ather than as part of the narrative tself.'

    MLN, 105, (1990): 1032-1045 () 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University ress

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  • 8/10/2019 Williams - Narrative of Narrative


    M L N 1033

    Tristram handy s a narrative f narrative. The so-called narra-

    tive intrusions and comments actually form a linear narrativewhose subject s the composing of a narrative. his narrative f thewriting s explicitly ated from 1759 to 1766. The central char-acter is the narrator who tells the story nd tries to muster thedetails of Shandy family istory, oughly rom 1695 through 1741.In other words, the plot is not limited o the umbled series of theevents of Tristram's history, ut encompasses the ordered series ofevents of Tristram's account of narration. This account is not aprivileged historical eature that s a statement f authorial nten-tion; rather, t s ust as much a fictional lement as any other nar-rated event.

    Perhaps Tristram Shandy is the most typical of novels, asShklovsky ut it, because it so overtly nscribes ts own narrative, tsown act of narrating.2 very novel, at some point, becomes a nar-rative of narrative, r an allegory of narration. Here, notably, heexplicit ommenting nd interrupting arrator eflexively eplaysthe difficulty f narration, f ordering events n words, of giving

    comprehensive ccount. Akin to de Man's analysis of the reflexiveself-inscription f reading in his essay on Proust called Reading,we could call this nvestigation Narrating.


    First, we should set out with preliminary efinition f narrativeand other pertinent critical terms. Gerard Genette, in his nowclassic Narrative iscourse, istinguishes hree different kinds ofnarrative. Re'cit, hich s translated s narrative, e calls the mostcentral and defines as the oral or written iscourse that under-takes to tell of an event or a series of events. 3 This generally c-cords with the Russian formalists' istinction f plot or sjlzet, andloosely follows Aristotle's efinition f plot as an imitation f ac-tions. Histoire, r story, he defines as the succession of events,which accords with the formalists' abula. The events themselves,rather than the way they are told, comprise the story nd are a

    kind of content of the narrative. The re'cit s the signifier f thenarrative ext, nd the histoire hen aligns with the signified f thenarrative. Genette ntroduces third erm, narration, ranslated snarrating, which he defines as the act of narrating aken n it-

    self (ND 26). He further laborates that t is the producing nar-rative action and, by extension, the whole of the real or fictional

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  • 8/10/2019 Williams - Narrative of Narrative



    situation in which that action takes place (ND 27). However,

    throughout Narrative iscourse, enette proceeds to talk lmost ex-clusively bout the disarrangement f the story n the plot of Re-membrance f Things ast, and he effectively xcludes this categoryof narration. heoretically, his analysis results n little more than arepetition f the Russian formalist istinction f plot and story.

    Genette's distinctions o not hold when dealing with the ques-tion of explicitly eflexive narratives ike Tristram handy, ince t sprecisely he narrating r act of narrative hat forms the re'cit fShandy. The act of narration s inseparable from the narrative,and, although frequently idden, necessarily nscribed n any nar-rative, most obviously through narrative frames and digressions,but also implicit n linguistic tructure in control of tense, use ofmood, change of voice, etc.).

    Here, we will ttempt odiverge from Genette's imited focus onthe concept of plot and extend our definition o encompass bothcategories of recit nd narration.4 Without pretense to absolutestructural demarcation, we will use plot and story, or their sim-

    plicity nd utility nd since there s no compelling reason to sup-plant them. We willattempt o delimit plot as a local tactical erm.Narratives an have many divergent plots. Narrative, n the otherhand, we will use as a term that encompasses the various plots andother relations of the narrative text overall. Also, we will fre-quently use narrative n a more active ense (narration, narrating),to connote the process f narrative.

    These terms obviouslydraw on Genette's chema, although t iscrucial to realign them to take into account the complex of rela-tions of narrative hat Genette elides. Additionally, we must noteone significant eservation. he canonical and practical distinctionbetween plot and story s not absolute. The events of the story eveldo not exist outside narrative. The sequence according to realtime or story ime s ust one other narrative, ormed under theaegis of the sequential order of historical hronology. The realtime of a novel could never have ontological validity, ut we com-pare, almost automatically, arrative r plot time to the pervasiveand

    powerfultrope of chronological time. In other words, our

    terms can have no absolutely demarcated field of reference, butare relational. To be more exact, since the story s a chronologicalor historical equence of events, we could merely all it the histor-ical plot, as distinguished from the plot as it is narrated.5 n ourscheme, the narrative s not really separable term either, but en-

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  • 8/10/2019 Williams - Narrative of Narrative


    M L N 1035

    compasses the complex of relations of all the terms, f the variety

    and scope of textual ctions.In Tristram handy, he narrative would be the book as a whole aswe read it events, plots, anguage, etc.), whereas the plot and storyare convenient terms to mark off various salient ocal textual ac-tions. The sequence of events that could be said to comprise thestory egins