Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Frames Speaking: Malamud, Silko, and the Reader

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Frames Speaking: Malamud, Silko, and the Reader

Article excerpt

One area that short story criticism has moved into in recent decades is discourse analysis, which I believe has most to offer on the level of the sentence and the paragraph. Its analytical procedures frequently seem too detailed to be of great help in dealing with overall narrative structure, which presupposes taking in larger chunks of text than discourse analysis will normally address. The rather elaborate terminological apparatus it employs in describing the interrelationships between words in sentences and between sequences of sentences with a view to depicting minute steps in the processing (the receiving and producing) of text will normally appeal more to the linguist than to the literary critic. In relation to short fiction, many of the communicative processes described amount to a belaboring of the obvious and/or trivial, processes which, if they are at all found interesting or relevant by the literary scholar, can often be described much more economically using the terminology already established in his/her own field.

Some of the conceptual models of discourse analysis, however, undoubtedly do offer useful assistance in systematizing and giving names to the processes at work in the production and reading of short fiction texts. The study of narrative closure frequently involves taking stock of minute textual modulations, and here discourse analysis procedures may be quite useful. For instance, the notion of framing has proved itself analytically fruitful in the hands of a number of short story critics.1 In this essay I examine how the concept of framing may serve to systematically order a discussion of a set of ways in which short fiction texts achieve narrative and hermeneutic closure.2

The concept of frames has been variously defined. As used here it denotes certain central aspects of the knowledge a user of the language depends on in order to make sense of linguistic communications. Notions like "frames" and "scripts" have been developed to describe how we make use of our prototypical knowledge of the world in discourse comprehension. Frames, according to Teun A. van Dijk, denote "prototypical situations, backgrounds, environments, or contexts in which events and actions may take place .... A room, a library, a restaurant, the street, the beach, a bus, and a university are such frames." Scripts denote "prototypical episodes, that is, sequences of events and actions taking place in frames". Scripts, then, "are embedded in frames; that is, the subsequent interactions are, among other things, defined in terms of objects, persons, properties, and relations of a frame".3

In reading - or processing, as discourse analysts normally put it - any kind of text, including fiction, one obviously activates a large number of frames and scripts. Equally obvious, establishing closure involves testing a given text against our knowledge of the prototypical possibilities of the relevant frames or scripts; we would not be able to recognize a closural signal4 unless it somehow called into play Susan Lohafer's notion of "grammar of expectation".5 To know the world verbally is to tell stories about it. Most of the stories we tell are universal, understood by anyone irrespective of creed, color, or culture. Every sentient human being is aware that when he gets out of bed in the morning, he/she will in all probability return to that bed after a certain number of hours; every birth bespeaks a death, and so on. However, a number of the stories we tell in our efforts at cognition are cultural, instilled in us by the civilization to which we belong, and therefore the frames and scripts activated in a narrative may lead to pivotal differences in signification for people of different cultural backgrounds. Administering holy water during a burial will mean one thing to a Catholic minister but may carry a quite different meaning for a Pueblo Indian, as illustrated by a short story that I will address towards the end of this essay, Leslie Silko's "The Man to Send Rain Clouds". …

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