How Stylisticians Draw on Narratology: Approaches, Advantages and Disadvantages

By Shen, Dan | Style, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview
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How Stylisticians Draw on Narratology: Approaches, Advantages and Disadvantages


Shen, Dan, Style


Although modern stylistics has a relatively longer history than narratology, the two disciplines have been enjoying a quite parallel development for the past few decades, with Britain and the United States forming the international centers of stylistics and narratology respectively since the 1990s. While (classical and postclassical) narratologists in general have not paid much attention to stylistics, an increasing number of stylisticians have made various attempts to draw on narratology since the 1990s, especially since the beginning of this century. This essay offers a classification and analysis of different approaches stylisticians have taken in drawing upon narratology, shedding light on the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. And based on the analysis, the present study also offers suggestions for future studies.

Superficial Similarity and Essential Difference

On the surface, there seems to be no need for stylistics to draw on narratology. The traditional stylistic distinction between content and style is one between what-one-has-to-say and how-one-says-it (Leech and Short 38); similarly, the narratological distinction between story and discourse is one between what-is-told and how-it's-transmitted (Chatman 9; see also Shen "Narrative," "Defense and Challenge"). The two distinctions seem to match perfectly with each other. In her influential Dictionary of Stylistics, Katie Wales defines style as "a CHOICE of form ('manner') to express content ('matter')" (158), while Gerard Genette, in his influential Narrative Discourse, defines discourse as "the signifier, statement, discourse of narrative text itself" (27). Style and discourse, that is to say, appear to be more or less interchangeable concepts, each covering fully the level of presentation in verbal narratives. Such an impression may be deepened by the following definitions given by Michael Toolan in his Language in Literature: An Introduction to Stylistics (1998) and Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction (2001):

   Stylistics is the study of the language in literature. (Language
   viii, his emphasis)
   Stylistics is crucially concerned with excellence of technique.
   (Language ix)
      ... sjuzhet or [narratology's] discours roughly denotes all the
   techniques that authors bring to bear in their varying manner of
   presentation of the basic story. (Narrative 11)

From these definitions, we may derive the following equation:

Style = Language = Technique = Discourse

Such an equation may also be found in the following comment by the British stylistician Roger Fowler on the relation between the concerns of stylistics and narratology: "The French distinguish two levels of literary structure, which they call histoire [story] and discours [discourse], story and language. Story (or plot) and the other abstract elements of novel structure may be discussed in terms of categories given by the analogy of linguistic theory, but the direct concern of linguistics is surely with the study of discours" (xi). But, in effect, the discours (discourse) in French narratology is to a large extent different from the language or style in stylistics. There is an implicit boundary separating the two, with a limited amount of overlap in between.

To see things in perspective, let's compare the following two observations made by Toolan in his Language in Literature and Narrative respectively:

1. So one of the crucial things attempted by Stylistics is to put the discussion of textual effects and techniques on a public, shared, footing.... The other chief feature of Stylistics is that it persists in the attempt to understand technique, or the craft of writing. If we agree that Hemingway's short story 'Indian Camp', and Yeats's poem 'Sailing to Byzantium', are both extraordinary literary achievements, what are some of the linguistic components of that excellence? Why these word-choices, clause-patterns, rhythms, and intonations, contextual implications [of conversation], cohesive links [among sentences], choices of voice and perspective and transitivity [of clause structure], etc.

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