Rhetorical Narrative Theory and Short Story Theory, Together At Last?

Copland, Sarah. “To Be Continued: The Story of Short Story Theory and Other Narrative Theory.” Narrative 22.1 (Jan. 2014): 132-149. Print.

A discussion of theory seems hollow without a sense of how it’s applied, and what artifacts are chosen for application. Rhetorical narrative theory seeks to interpret texts for their aesthetic, ethical, and affective elements, especially considering the role of the implied author, author-audience communication, and the contexts that inform the writing and reading of narrative texts. Sarah Copland, as a rhetorical narrative theorist, seeks to apply rhet-narrative theory to the short story form, and questions the relationship between short story theory and other narrative theories, querying why they have mostly been distinct.

Copland contextualizes her question by merging her rhet-narrative analysis of Alice Munro’s “Passion,” with that of five short story theorist’s[1]. Her intent is to explore answers to her question of what separates short story theory from other narrative theory, with the clarification that, as a rhet-narrative theorist, her methodology is “rooted in attention to facets of narrative that are shared by narratives across genres” which means applying,

[E]ffects of focalization on relationships among the author, narrator, characters, and reader; the progression of the narrative in terms of scripts, frames, and gaps; the interactions between the frame narrative and the main narrative and between the time of the telling and the time of the told; and questions about affective responses and narrative ethics. (135)

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It’s on.

Before exploring the application of short story theory, and its relationship to other narrative theory, Copland identifies the premises that others have argued prohibits other narrative theory as legitimate for short story analysis. These include the arguments that other narrative theory is “overrun with jargon;” that “[w]ork informed by other narrative is somehow different from and inferior to ‘good old-fashioned close reading;” that it “tends to overlook some of the distinctive facets of specific short stories,” and that narrative theory will monopolize and overrun short story theory that will threaten the distinctive form and analysis of short stories (133). With this definition of her methodology and an exploration of the arguments against applying other narrative theory to short stories, Copland then engages in both an explication of the five theorists analyses of “Passion,” and then highlights the following claims that unfold within their analyses that define short story theory: “that the short story may be unique on account of its high concentration of gaps, scant characterization, and lack of closure” and particularly how these claims are applied to Munro’s “Passion” (145-46).

Copland then juxtapositions her analysis of “Passion” through examining the short story theorists interpretation of the reliability of the narrator and protagonist, Grace, and assumptions made by the theorists of the narrative gaps, assumed premises of Neil’s death as a suicide through the unreliable dialogue of the cook, and the interpretive depth of the narration’s internal focalization. She argues that they overlook the reliability of Grace’s narration because they do not consider that,

[T]he story’s characterization of Grace: when it comes to reading other people, Grace has, to put it simply, too much certainty based on insufficient evidence. She tends to believe that she knows people fully, deeply, and instantaneously… .By rendering the internal focalization in a way that consistently emphasizes Grace’s absolute certainty, Munro invites us to question that certainty. (136-37)

In this view, the narration of Neil’s nihilistic character through Grace’s judgment of his character is both understood and unreliable, especially because it sets up a reading that does not question that Neil committed suicide, when the text, Copland argues, never explicitly reveals that. Instead, Copland argues that Munro as the implied author leaves that assumed certainty to be ambiguous.

Copland differentiates between her analysis of “Passion” and those of the short story theorists by its a posterei position that does not pre-suppose that certain genres must share certain elements, which Copland acknowledges are “trends in the short story, often historically rooted, that are nonetheless only trends and not universals” (146). Copland agrees to a point that these trends in short story analysis are useful, when applying rhetorical narrative theory, because it allows us to analyze a short story for its “productive uncertainty, ambiguity, and conscious gap-awareness,” which leads to “more significant interpretive, affective, and ethical challenges” (145, 146). However, she doesn’t believe that a priori conceptions of a short story’s characteristics should always inform the reading and analysis of all other short stories because they would confirm the theorist’s biases. This is the main premise of her argument that short story analysis can benefit by applying other narrative theory and methodologies in relationship with genre-specific theory.

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[1] Susan Lohafer, Charles E. May, Michael Toolan, Michael Trussler, and Per Winther. Their analyses of Munro’s “Passion” also seek to demonstrate unique elements of short story theory and compare it to other narrative theory. See the May 2012 issue of Narrative.

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