Theory and the Novel: Narrative Reflexivity in the British Tradition

Theory and the Novel: Narrative Reflexivity in the British Tradition

Theory and the Novel: Narrative Reflexivity in the British Tradition

Theory and the Novel: Narrative Reflexivity in the British Tradition

Synopsis

Narrative features such as frames, digressions, or authorial intrusions have traditionally been seen as distractions from the narrative proper. In Theory and the English Novel, Jeffrey Williams analyzes these elements as points where the novel overtly depicts or inscribes the act of narration itself. He looks at a range of novels--Tristram Shandy, Joseph Andrews, Wuthering Heights, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness--and poses a series of theoretical questions that offer an original contribution to readings of the English novel, as well as to current discussions of theory.

Excerpt

When I was in grad school, in the mid- and late 1980s, I hung out with a self-proclaimed Theory Crew. That is, we were taken with theory, signing up for all the theory courses we could and avoiding traditional staples like the “History of the English Language,” buying as many volumes of the Minnesota Theory and History of Literature series as we could afford after paying the rent, writing papers replete with ideologemes, lexic codes, phallocentricity, aporias, différance, and the like, probably much to the chagrin of the senior professors in our respective departments, and quoting Derrida, Cixous, de Man, Althusser, Jameson, and the rest when we got together every Thursday night, after seminar, at our favorite local dive Tara's, with large green shamrocks on the walls and dollar burgers. In a very real sense, theory – whether in seminar or at Tara's – was what professionalized us.

When we started writing our dissertations, none of us wanted to do the usual thing – say, to write on a relatively unattended literary text by a safe author-but we all wanted to take on big texts and big theoretical topics, so we projected our own nascent series, in the manner of the party game adding “ – in bed,” prefixed with “Big” and forbidding subtitles: The Big Allegory, Big/De/construct/ion, gender (with the masculinist “Big” under erasure), and, for me, Big Narrative. After having read in deconstruction, my particular twist was reflexivity, how narrative reflexively represents and “thematizes” its linguistic and modal form, and I was struck by the fact that a great many canonical novels – not just anomalous ones, as a kind of sideshow to the Great Tradition, but center stage – foregrounded the act and modal form of narrative itself. Not contemporary “metafiction,” but Tom Jones, Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, Lord Jim, and so on, in commonplace constructions, such as authorial intrusion, narrative frames, and embedded tales. So, big novels, a big theoretical theme.

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