Introduction to Rhetorical Narratology
and Speech-Act Theory

Rhetorical and Narratological Approaches to Narrative

In one of the final paragraphs of Henry James's The Portzait of a Lady, Isabel flees the terrifyingly seductive embrace of Caspar Goodwood, running across the lawn and to the door of Gardencourt. “Here only she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path” (644). Two days later Caspar learns that she has left for Rome. It would be easy to assume that the “path” to Rome, back to her equally terrifying husband, was the one she had discovered in that moment of pause, with her hand on the latch. To read the ending this way, however, to take it as validating Isabel's choice to lock herself up once again, invites (perhaps even requires) us to take that sentence about what she knew as having behind it the authority of the narrating voice. Yet that voice has expressed a limitation only a page earlier: “I know not whether she believed everything [Caspar] said” (James, Portrait 643). Suppose, then, that we take “she knew now” as Isabel's desperate attempt to convince herself that she finally has the answer. Whatever heroism or optimism we may have seen in the ending can suddenly vanish, replaced by something much darker. Instead of being a fully conscious return to a life she after all did choose, Isabel's action may be yet another of her romantic excesses.

Over the past thirty years, narratology has offered students of literature the tools to pose this kind of question, starting with the fundamental distinction between story and discourse. Seymour Chatman explains: “the story is the what in a narrative that is depicted, discourse the how” {Story and Discourse 19). Other terms that foreground this distinction, although their meanings are not entirely parallel, are fabula/sjuzhet from the Russian formalists and histoire/discours from the French structuralists (Martin 108, fig. 5 a). In the example at


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Rhetorical Narratology


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