Intermental Thought in the Novel: The Middlemarch Mind

By Palmer, Alan | Style, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Intermental Thought in the Novel: The Middlemarch Mind


Palmer, Alan, Style


Introduction

This essay is about intermental thought in the novel. Such thinking is joint, group, shared, or collective, as opposed to intramental, individual, or private thought. It is also known as socially distributed, situated, or extended cognition, and as intersubjectivity. It is a crucially important component of fictional narrative because much of the mental functioning that occurs in novels is done by large organizations, small groups, work colleagues, friends, families, couples, and other intermental units. Notable examples include the army in Evelyn Waugh's Men at Arms; the town in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"; the group of friends in Donna Tartt's The Secret History; the villainous Marchioness de Merteuil and the Viscount de Valmont in Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses; and Kitty and Levin in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, who, in a famous scene, write out only the initial letters of the words that they wish to use but who nevertheless understand each other perfectly. It could plausibly be argued that a large amount of the subject matter of novels is the formation, development, and breakdown of these intermental systems. However, this aspect of narrative has been neglected by traditional theoretical approaches such as focalization, characterization, story analysis, and the representation of speech and thought.

One of the most important characters in George Eliot's Middlemarch is the town of Middlemarch itself. I call the intermental functioning of the inhabitants of the town the Middlemarch mind. I go much further than simply suggesting that the town of Middlemarch provides a social context within which individual characters operate; indeed, I argue that the town literally and not just metaphorically has a mind of its own. The Middlemarch mind is complex, interesting, clearly visible to a close reader of the text, and vitally important to an understanding of the novel because it explains a good deal of the motivation behind the actions of the other main characters. It is, however, invisible to traditional narrative approaches. After introducing the concept of intermental thought, I discuss the construction of the Middlemarch mind in the opening few pages of the novel. I attempt to show that the beginning of the novel is saturated with the Middlemarch mind and that the initial descriptions by the narrator of the three individual minds of Dorothea, Celia, and Mr. Brooke are focalized through it. After trying to anticipate possible objections to the idea of intermental functioning in fictional narrative, I finish with a few general comments on cognitive approaches to literature.

The background to my argument is as follows. Narratology is concerned, in part, with the study of the mental functioning of the characters who inhabit the storyworlds created by fictional narratives. It addresses the question of how, when reading a novel, we construct from the words in the text an awareness of the mental functioning of the characters in that novel. Readers enter the storyworlds of novels and then follow the logic of the events that occur in them primarily by attempting to reconstruct the fictional minds of the characters in that storyworld. Otherwise, readers lose the plot. These constructions of the minds of fictional characters by narrators and readers are central to our understanding of how novels work, because fictional narrative is, in essence, the presentation of fictional mental functioning. It is not possible to follow the plot of Middlemarch without following the thought processes of Lydgate, Dorothea, Rosamond, and the other characters in the novel. In fact, the plot consists of those thought processes (for more on this, see Palmer).

You may be feeling some doubt about the claim that intermental thought has been neglected. Surely we have always known about the importance of groups right from the very beginning of Western literature, for example the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy'? …

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