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Koselleck Project: Diachronic Narratology


Reinhart Koselleck Project:

"Diachronic Narratology"

Start: October 1, 2019



The project Diachronic Narratology initiates a major innovative reorientation in narratological study by replacing the discipline's classical synchronism with a diachronic approach. From a diachronic perspective, the project will trace functional shifts and new narrative strategies in the history of English narrative, contrasting these changes with features that have remained of continuous relevance. It is the main aim of the project to identify and describe such paradigm shifts in the course of English narrative from the thirteenth century onwards and to then re-pose the question of narratology's universalist claims. Do the stages of the developments which have been outlined warrant the diagnosis that there are several discrete historically bound narratologies, or can the familiar categories of narratological analysis be contextually and historically inflected so that the current postclassical narratological paradigm is able to accommodate narratives across a historical range? If the latter aim is envisaged, this involves a significant challenge within the discipline, since the old static categories of narratology will have to be replaced by new flexible and historically sensible parameters. The risks of the project thus lie in the attempt to cover processes spanning a wide range of phenomena over time, to do so from a functional (rather than typological) perspective and to develop a new model of diachronic narratology that is able to do justice to the noted functional and processual aspects.


Project outline

Topic. Narratology, in its structuralist manifestation, was a predominantly synchronic enterprise that aimed at providing an analysis of narratives by means of universally valid descriptive categories. Its main objective was to demonstrate how narratives 'work', proposing a narrative semantics and grammar based on the model of synchronic linguistics.

The project Diachronic Narratology initiates a major innovative reorientation in narratological study by tracing functional shifts and new narrative strategies in the history of English narrative. It is concerned with establishing continuities and discontinuities in the narrative discourse of texts from the late medieval period onwards. Like diachronic linguistics, diachronic narratology seeks to compare synchronic systems of narrative structure at various points on a historical scale in order to discuss to what extent the affordances of narrative remain the same or eliminate certain features and acquire new ones, thereby reshaping the system on the next temporal level. Thus, similar to the way in which sound shifts reorganize phonemic systems, key changes in the construction of narratives on the plot and discourse levels can be documented to result in new narrative systems. It is the main aim of the current project to document such paradigm shifts in the course of English narrative from the thirteenth century onwards and to then re-pose the question of narratology's universalist claims. Do the stages of the developments which the research has identified warrant the diagnosis of distinct narratological paradigms for each historical period, or can the categories of narratological analysis familiar from classical narratology be historically inflected so that the current postclassical narratological paradigm is able to accommodate narratives across historical periods? The challenge of the project is to find how functional parameters can be integrated into what are traditionally static and descriptive categories in the narratological paradigm.

Relation to Fludernik's research career. Basing her research on the work of Franz Karl Stanzel, Monika Fludernik has over many years significantly contributed to the reorientation of narratology towards a discipline that considers narrative before the eighteenth century (classical narratology having focused primarily on the eighteenth to twentieth-century novel). Fludernik began to focus on the history of narrative as early as her habilitation book, The Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction: The Linguistic Representation of Speech and Consciousness (1993), in which she followed the development of the techniques of speech and thought representation from Middle English to the present, concentrating on free indirect discourse (FID). Thanks to her wide chronological range, she was able to document the existence of FID in (oral) conversational narratives and, to some extent, also in pre-eighteenth-century texts, and to document the technique's rise to prominence in the eighteenth century even before Jane Austen's oeuvre. In her second monograph, Towards a 'Natural' Narratology (1996), Fludernik specifically proposed a thesis about the rise of the novel from a discourse-oriented perspective. According to this thesis, the episodic pattern of oral storytelling, which demonstrably appears as a substrate in English in early vernacular narratives from the thirteenth century onwards, can be shown to phase out during the Renaissance period and to evolve into the narrative structures common in novelistic discourse (see also 2007). In addition, Fludernik has concerned herself with the historical present tense, with narrative discourse markers and collective narration from a diachronic perspective (1991, 2011; 1995, 2000; 2014). This research can be seen as a series of preliminary steps towards the project for which funding is here requested. In 2003, she programmatically called for the diachronization of narratology in an essay in the leading narratological journal, Narrative (see 2003a).

Current state of research. These calls for a historical analysis in the decade between 1993 and 2003 have been taken up by a number of researchers since the millennium. Ansgar Nünning (2000), Irene de Jong (2014; de Jong et al. 2004) and David Herman (2011) in their turn have seconded a diachronic perspective on narrative. At the same time, and independently from English-language narratological criticism, medieval German scholars have focused on narratological questions in medieval narrative and other classical scholars besides Irene de Jong have done the same for Latin and Greek texts. However, as Susan Lanser (2017) remarks, the bulk of narratological work continues to discuss nineteenth and twentieth-century narratives, paying little attention to earlier texts or the historical dimension. Where there has been extensive research, this has concentrated on what Eva von Contzen calls historical narratology (2014, 2016). This field of narratological study is to be found mostly in Germany's German, English and Classics departments. Its main objective is the description of Greek, Latin, medieval German or medieval English narratives with a view towards relativizing the categories of classical narratology (Genette, Chatman, Stanzel).

By applying the familiar narratological toolbox to their material, these researchers have been analyzing their respectively classical, medieval and early modern texts. Frequently, this research has resulted in disappointment and dissatisfaction with the standard narratological categories, and there have been suggestions that an entirely different terminology or new concepts may be required to adequately deal with narrative in these periods. For instance, the distinction between author and narrator, one of the key tenets of classical narratology, has received extensive criticism from medieval scholars, who see the author as the main textual authenticator (Chaucer's "I" is taken to refer to the author and not to a narrator figure).[1] These scholars also point out that medieval texts tend to display a performative frame since narratives are often re-enactments of a traditional story (for a similar proposal see Fludernik 2008). Similarly, there has been a definite burgeoning of historical narratology for classics (de Jong et al. 2004; de Jong/Nünlist 2007; Tilg 2011a,b; Grethlein 2012, 2013, 2017), and the same can be observed for early modern narrative (Dobranski 2005; Wood 2009; Das 2011; Bayer 2016; Bayer/Klitgård 2011; Orgis 2017).

However, scholars working in these historical contexts have had their own textual corpora in mind rather than narratology as a theoretical enterprise. Though there is now a quite substantial body of narratologically oriented scholarship on classical, medieval, and early modern narrative, what is missing is the cooperation with narratologists from the modern period, which would allow the results from these studies to become fruitful in the theory of narrative as a whole. Few narratologists working on nineteenth or twentieth-century texts have any idea of the challenges to their theoretical framework posed by historical narratologists.

Aims of the project and risks. The project for which I am here applying is meant to remedy this lack of contact and to move towards a really diachronic study of English narrative from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century. The three key objectives of the project are (a) to collect the important insights into classical, medieval and early modern narrative produced by historical narratologists and to analyze these results from a theoretical angle – do they require a modification of (post)classical narratology?; (b) to discuss major shifts in narrative forms and functions in English narratives from the medieval period onwards with a view towards determining to what extent and in what way the familiar model has to be updated and modified; and (c) to develop a new model of narratology which can accommodate historical change and is oriented towards function rather than typology or formal description. It is this third aim which constitutes the most risk-involving aspect of the project. The challenge and the most innovative aspect of the planned research will be to determine whether the very static paradigm of classical narratology whose categories are largely descriptive, structural and systematic can be transformed to take account of functional shifts, historical variation and flexible, perhaps even fuzzy conceptual categories. The project aims at developing narratological theorizing beyond the typological framework in which it has so frequently become mired (Walsh 2016). The research will not only focus on individual narrative elements and their diachronic development, for instance the development of narratorial comment, but especially on the dynamics of interaction between different categories and techniques in order to consider extensive restructurings and refunctionalizations between periods. The model for these dynamic shifts are the case studies undertaken in Fludernik (2003a, b), in which it was argued that an element that served to shift from one plot strand to the other came to serve as a chapter-opening device in the eighteenth century (2003a) and that metalepsis served as a means of shifting between plot strands and only later acquired metafictional qualities (2003b).

Corpus and Methodology. The texts to be analyzed will be taken from literature in English/the British Isles. Only written narratives will be analyzed. Due to the gap in the vernacular record before the late twelfth century, the period from around 1200 will be the starting point of the analysis. For the early period, the choice of texts from the Helsinki Corpus will be used as an initial framework. For the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the corpus will be extended from canonical texts to less well-known works, utilizing the now available databases (see Bayer 2016 and Orgis in progress). From the eighteenth century onwards, a selection of canonical and non-canonical texts is aimed at. The selections will also attempt to include examples from different genres such as the romance, the Gothic novel, the bildungsroman, the criminal (auto-)biography and the epistolary novel. Factual narratives (though only very selectively) will be analyzed as a control corpus which will help to elucidate whether observed developments are peculiar to literary narratives or historically generalizable aspects. Postmodernist texts and narratives in different media will have to be left for subsequent research, but the fraught issue of whether or not one needs an 'unnatural' narratology for experimental fiction will form part of the theoretical reflections of the research group.

Although the final choice of narrative features and aspects that are to be analysed will be negotiated on the basis of the results of historical narratologies on the one hand and, on the other hand, those cases for which significant diachronic developments can be observed, the (preliminary) list of features that will figure in the project should definitely include the following points:

(A) features linked to plot structure and the story vs. discourse relationship:

– the modes of story openings

– how is suspense generated diachronically?

– the management of different plot strands

– the management of orientation and delayed orientation as well as the pre-history (e.g. by means of dialogue, flashback, etc.)

– the signalling of key moments in the narrative by means of discourse markers

(B) features linked to the narrative discourse:

– the use of tenses (tense shifts)

– modes of reference to characters (e.g. when does one find the first periphrastic descriptors like 'the man in the red waistcoat'; the range of ambiguation and disambiguation strategies)

– the handling of dialogue

– strategies of focalization, the representation of consciousness

– the forms, functions and positioning of descriptive passages

– narrative and metaphor (see already Fludernik 2010 and under review)

(C) Features relating to the communicative level of narrative and to the infringement of narrative levels:

– the narrator persona

– narrative commentary, including narratorial pretence at lack of knowledge (Füger 1978/2004)

– narrative refusals (Warhol[2])

– metalepsis (Malina 2002, Pier/Schaeffer 2005)

(D) Features relating to the framing of narratives and their consumer-related presentation

– prefaces and editorial introductions

– the management of titles and chapter divisions

            The first step in the project will be to determine where in the work of historical narratologists the traditional narratological paradigm has been observed to fail. These narrative aspects and categories will need to be studied in depth. Secondly, functional shifts will be identified and analyzed with a view towards establishing continuities and discontinuities in the history of English narrative. Owing to the mass of material and the time it will take to analyze it in detail, only the most important and paradigmatically significant features will eventually be compared diachronically in the whole temporal range. Especially for the texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, only selected genres or case studies will be featured. These will be chosen on the basis of the research results from the first two stages of the project.

            To illustrate the kind of work that will be undertaken, an example may be useful here. Let us take narrative discourse markers (see Brinton 1996). In English vernacular texts from the late Middle Ages, discourse markers like þo, thus, anon, now, so, and then, etc. are employed primarily to mark the beginnings and ends of narrative episodes and to shift from narrative proper to commentary. (I am simplifying for the benefit of easy comprehensibility.) At the end of the medieval period, these discourse markers dwindle both in variety and number, with early modern narratives most frequently employing so and then. At the same time, the use of discourse markers to underline the narrative voice and foreground it in relation to the narrative becomes more prominent. So, what we have here is a shift in the use of a narrative element (describable in linguistic terms) at the cusp of modernity. This shift needs to be understood more fully, with its implications for the structure of narratives; but it also has to be asked whether some of the original functions of these discourse markers are fulfilled by quite different narrative strategies after the late seventeenth century.


Impact. The project is of major interest not only to English studies but to all Indo-European philologies and beyond; it is also relevant to the literary historical approach in these disciplines since it aims at providing a model for functional shifts in the realm of narrative texts. The documentation of such processes in the history of English narrative paradigmatically opens up the possibility of similar analyses for French, German, Russian and other narrative traditions, and it could serve as a model for the analysis of comparable processes in non-Indo-European traditions of literary narrative. In addition to these more narrowly narratological issues, the project also raises questions about the causes of the described shifts in narrative developments, thus facilitating the integration of narratological inquiry with social history and cultural studies in general.

Please click here to read a press release published upon the approval of the project. 

[1] For medieval German work see Knapp/Niesner (2002), Hübner (2003), Haferland/Meyer (2010), Schulz (2012), Kragl/Schneider (2013), Bleumer (2015) and Peters/Warning (2009); for medieval English studies Spearing (2005, 2012), von Contzen/Kragl (in print); von Contzen/Tilg (in progress).

[2] Warhol understands by this term "uses of unnarration (when a narrator says he or she will not tell something) and disnarration (when a narrator tells something that did not happen in place of telling what did)" (Warhol-Down 2010: 45; see also Warhol 2007).

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