Unnatural Narrative: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama

Unnatural Narrative: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama

Unnatural Narrative: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama

Unnatural Narrative: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama


A talking body part, a character that is simultaneously alive and dead, a shape-changing setting, or time travel: although impossible in the real world, such narrative elements do appear in the storyworlds of novels, short stories, and plays. Impossibilities of narrator, character, time, and space are not only common in today's world of postmodernist literature but can also be found throughout the history of literature. Examples include the beast fable, the heroic epic, the romance, the eighteenth-century circulation novel, the Gothic novel, the ghost play, the fantasy narrative, and the science-fiction novel, among others.

Unnatural Narrative looks at the startling and persistent presence of the impossible or "the unnatural" throughout British and American literary history. Layering the lenses of cognitive narratology, frame theory, and possible-worlds theory, Unnatural Narrative offers a rigorous and engaging new characterization of the unnatural and what it yields for individual readers as well as literary culture. Jan Alber demonstrates compelling interpretations of the unnatural in literature and shows the ways in which such unnatural phenomena become conventional in readers' minds, altogether expanding our sense of the imaginable and informing new structures and genres of narrative engagement.


One of the most interesting things about fictional narratives is that they not only reproduce the empirical world around us; they also often contain nonactualizable elements that would simply be impossible in the real world. Ruth Ronen (1994, 45) writes that “fiction can construct impossible objects and other objects that clearly diverge from their counterparts in the actual world.” Mark Currie (2007, 85) goes one step further by arguing that “the impossible object, and even the impossible world, is of course the very possibility of fiction.” Indeed many fictional narratives confront us with bizarre worlds that are governed by principles that clearly transcend the parameters of the real world.

In this study I show that, throughout literary history, the storyworlds of novels, short stories, and plays teem with “unnatural” (i.e., physically, logically, or humanly impossible) scenarios and events that challenge our real-world knowledge. the unnatural (or impossible) in such narratives is measured against the foil of “natural” (real-world) cognitive frames and scripts that have to do with natural laws, logical principles, and standard human limitations of knowledge and ability. Even though the unnatural proliferates in literary texts from various periods, narrative theory has not yet done justice to these many cases of unnaturalness—nor to the question of how readers can make sense of them.

To illustrate the ways in which the unnatural may deviate from realworld frames and scripts, I begin by presenting four striking examples of impossibility that concern the narrative parameters of the narrator, the character, time, and space.

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