Academic journal article Style

Fabula and Fictionality in Narrative Theory

Academic journal article Style

Fabula and Fictionality in Narrative Theory

Article excerpt

The distinction between fabula and sujet is, according to various commonsensical definitions, the distinction between what happens in a narrative and how it is told; narrative theory, however, has struggled to reconcile common sense with conceptual rigor. The terms themselves derive from Russian Formalism, but the basic opposition they articulate is much older--it is there in the Poetics (everyone agrees that sujet corresponds to Aristotle's muthos, but whether fabula is best equated with praxis, or logos, or holos rather depends on which theorist you are reading). Numerous alternative terms have been proposed since the Formalists, too, and later in this article I shall be referring to story and discourse (Seymour Chatman), and histoire, narration, and recit (Gerard Genette). Such terminological revisions have typically sought to give new inflections to the Formalist pair, or to make the cut in different ways, but a sense of conceptual continuity dominates nonetheless, and if anything this sense becomes stron ger as the terms proliferate. In current usage there is no clear distinction between fabula and, for example, story, despite the latter's Structuralist pedigree (indeed the term "story" itself is blurred both by its nontheoretical currency and by its association with E. M. Forster's rather different contrast between story and plot, where the distinguishing criterion is plot's relative emphasis upon causality). My use of fabula here is meant only to invoke the consensus underlying the terminology: a shared but variously articulated sense of something fundamental to the understanding of narrative. I don't want to exclude, in the first instance, any of the ways in which this elusive something has been conceived; my purpose, though, is to work towards a viable concept by a process of elimination.

The theoretical problems were already apparent in the Formalists' own usage. They had reacted against realist poetics by inverting the priority of content over form, so that in their vocabulary "device," rather than "material," was privileged as the essence of art; and in the same spirit they treated fabula as just a foil for the literary effects of sujet. Boris Tomashevsky goes so far as to suggest that fabula may exist outside the realm of the work altogether: "Real incidents, not fictionalized by an author, may make a story [fabula]. A plot [sujet] is wholly an artistic creation" (68). He says "fictionalized" rather than "narrativized" (a point to which I'll return), but he seems to assume that fabula may precede all narrative-- may be found ready-made in real life. The motive, clearly enough, is to exclude the mere material of narrative creativity from the domain of art, but the consequences are paradoxical because any attempt to locate fabula outside the narrative domain is bound to deny it the specifici ty and integrity that constitute a fabula as such. The totality that is a "world" lacks, of itself, any principles of organization (spatially or temporally) by which to delimit a specifically narrative structure for sujet to manipulate. Whatever view we may wish to take upon the actual relations existing between the multitude of real events, the isolation of any particular sequence is already the intervention of narrative artifice. This is not really a matter of the logical or evaluative priority of either term, but simply of the linear, developmental nature of narrative not provided for by Tomashevsky's off-the-peg notion of real world fabula--nor, for that matter, by fictional worlds approaches to fiction. Fabula must be in some sense storied: it can't be understood as simply the world of the story, whether actual or fictional, because that would strip it of any specific relevance to narrative.

For theorists who reject the Formalists' sense that fabula is innocent of artifice, though, a predictable consequence is that the distinction between fabula and sujet starts to collapse. This collapse can be seen happening in an early critique of formalist theory, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, that begins by accepting the terms, if not the basis, of Tomashevsky's distinction: "although we can separate story [fabula] from plot [sujet] as the formalists understand it, the story itself is, nevertheless, artistically organized" (Bakhtin/Medvedev 113). …

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