The Categories of Literary Narrative

By Todorov, Tzvetan; Kestner, Joseph | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer-Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Categories of Literary Narrative


Todorov, Tzvetan, Kestner, Joseph, Papers on Language & Literature


To study "literariness" and not literature: that is the formula which, fifty years ago, signaled the appearance of the first modern tendency in literary studies, Russian Formalism. This formula of Jakobson sought to redefine the object of research; however, for a long time there has been a mistake about its true significance. For it did not aim to substitute an inherent study for the transcendent approach (psychological, sociological, or philosophical) which ruled until then: in any event, one is not limited to the description of a work, which would not be the objective of a science (and it is with a science that we are concerned). It would be more just to say that in lieu of projecting the work onto another type of discourse, it is projected onto literary discourse itself. One studies not the work but the virtualities of literary discourse, which make it possible: literary studies therefore can become a science of literature.

SENSE AND INTERPRETATION. Just as to know language one must first study languages, to grasp literary discourse we must know it in concrete works. A problem appears here: how to select among the many significations which arise in the course of reading those which deal with literariness? How does one isolate the domain of that which is properly literary, leaving to psychology and history what is theirs? To facilitate this business of description, we are proposing to define two preliminary concepts, the sense and the interpretation.

The sense (or function) of an element of the work is its potential to enter into correlation with other elements of this work and with the entire work. (1) The sense of a metaphor comes from being opposed to another image or from being more intense by one or several degrees. The sense of a monologue occurs from its characterizing a person. Flaubert was thinking of the sense of the elements of the work when he wrote: "There is no instance in my book of an isolated, gratuitous description; everything serves my characters and has an influence remote or immediate on the action." Each element of a work has one or more senses (unless it is deficient) which are finite in number and which it is possible to establish once and for all.

It is not the same with regard to interpretation. The interpretation of an element differs according to the personality of the critic, his ideological positions or his era. To be interpreted, an element is included in a system which is not that of the work but that of the critic. The interpretation of a metaphor, for example, can be an inference about the death struggles of a poet or about his attraction to one "aspect" of nature rather than another. The same monologue can then be interpreted as a negation of the existing order, let us say, or as a statement about the human condition. These interpretations are justifiable, and they are, in every way, necessary; but let us not forget that they are interpretations.

The opposition between the sense and the interpretation of an element of a work corresponds to the classic distinction of Frege between Sinn and Vorstellung. A description of a work aims at the sense of literary elements: criticism seeks to give them an interpretation.

The SENSE OF THE WORK. But then, someone will say, what becomes of the work itself? If the sense of each element consists of its potential to be integrated into a system which is the work, would this last have a sense?

If one decides that the work is the largest literary unit, it is evident that the question of the sense of the work does not make sense. To have a sense the work must be included in a higher system. If this is not done, the work perforce has no sense. Entering into a relationship only with itself, it is thus an index sui, indicating itself without referring to anything besides.

But it is an illusion to believe that the work has an independent existence. It appears in a literary universe peopled by works already existing and it is here that it is integrated. …

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