Academic journal article Style

Narrative Space and Readers' Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account

Academic journal article Style

Narrative Space and Readers' Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

This article explores how, in readers' discussion of literary narrative, the mental imagery evoked by spatial descriptions can become bound up with emotional responses and with judgments about the thematic (ethical, social, aesthetic) relevance of the text. Narrative space remains relatively under-theorized in narrative theory and related disciplines, and I would like to advance our understanding of this domain of storytelling by developing a phenomenological account centered on the concepts--derived from human geography--of "meaning-making" and "sense of place."

One of the underlying assumptions of narrative theory--both in its structuralist and in its post-structuralist phase--is that readers' interest in narrative is sparked and sustained by the temporal dynamic that weaves together a set of events and existents. Thus, story and characters are the key factors that influence readers' meaning constructions: as Marie-Laure Ryan succinctly puts it, "people read for the plot and not for the map" ("Cognitive Maps" 138). On this view, spatial references play a relatively minor role in narrative: at best, their function is to form a backdrop to the events and actions represented by a story. In recent years, however, supported by the "narrative as world" metaphor (with its inherent spatiality), post-classical approaches to narrative have begun to explore the spatial dimension of stories. (2) In line with this research effort, and building on the hypotheses advanced in my "The Reader's Virtual Body," this article seeks to show that, in some scenarios, narrative space does take on an added importance, guiding readers' responses by "tingeing" emotionally and evaluatively their engagement with the narrative text. Rather than being a mere container, narrative space becomes, in these cases, a site of negotiation of the lived, experiential qualities conveyed by a story.

I make a case for this view of narrative space by analyzing a corpus of online reviews of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006). McCarthy's Pulitzer-prize winning novel brings new life to the popular genre of post-apocalyptic fiction through the author's idiosyncratic style, which matches the bleakness of the storyworld he creates: short declarative sentences stripped bare of punctuation, monosyllabic dialogues, and descriptive passages rich in technical or archaic terms. Set after an unspecified disaster has destroyed all life on earth apart from a handful of humans, The Road narrates the quest for survival of two characters--a man and his young son--in a dying world. Yet the desolate landscape of The Road and the characters' existential condition reinforce each other in a spiral that contributes significantly to readers' emotional and evaluative engagement with the novel.

I provide more detail about the corpus of online reviews--and about my methodology--in section 2. For now, let me point out that the qualitative analysis I carry out is informed by the same phenomenological principles that guide my approach to narrative space (see section 3). Broadly speaking, phenomenological inquiry in the social sciences lays an emphasis on people's lived experience of situations, using first-person reports to explore the significance of those situations beyond any theoretical preconception or agenda (see Moustakas 21-22). The "applied" phenomenology that is practiced in the social sciences--and that I practice in this article--should therefore be distinguished from phenomenology as a philosophical school. Yet there are many parallels between these projects: firstly, my account places a premium on readers' experience of narrative space as it emerges from the reviews of The Road, attempting to go beyond the objectivist conception of space prevailing in narrative theory (this is my version of the "phenomenological reduction"). Secondly, my account leverages a number of phenomenological insights into people's interaction with space, focusing (in section 4) on four different aspects of the sense of place created by McCarthy's novel. …

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