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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: December 2016

Chapter 4 - Epic, Novel, Narrative Theory: Henry James, Georg Lukács, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Erich Auerbach


If we want life itself, here surely we have it.

Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction”

I have worked thus far to lay out a partial and speculative prehistory of narrative theory, a necessarily incomplete but hopefully suggestive account of several related moments that contribute to the sense that narrative ought to be understood not only as an aspect of some texts but also as an object worthy of study in its own right, as a lens through which we tend to see life, history, and the world. From one perspective, the Bible, the Iliad, a folk song, a sensational report, a tragedy, and a joke are narratives, to be sure, but they are also many other things. From another perspective, the one that I've been trying to understand, the narrative aspect of these objects emerges as their fundamental, defining quality, as what in another context the linguist Roman Jakobson might have called their “dominant, determining function.” Indeed and in ways that can be hard to see now that the position has become more or less naturalized, narrative has emerged as an essential, maybe the essential characteristic of a meaningful human life; it seems, in other words, to have become self-evident that many apparently unrelated aspects of life – psychology, politics, science, history, and so on – can and should be understood as forms of narrative. Marie-Laure Ryan writes that, “In the past fifteen years, as the ‘narrative turn in the humanities’ gave way to the narrative turn everywhere (politics, science studies, law, medicine, and last, but not least, cognitive science), few words have enjoyed so much use and suffered so much abuse as narrative and its partial synonym, story.” In order to trace the beginnings, development, and consequences of this expansion, I went back to Aristotle and then moved up through Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in order to account for some of the conditions that led to and made possible the development of a coherent and recognizable narrative theory, which is to say a more or less continuous and self-conscious effort to think about narrative as not only an aesthetic reaction to but also an essential condition of human life.

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Narrative Theory
  • Online ISBN: 9781139522502
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