Discussion: "Narrator"

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The present commentary concerns the article by Uri Margolin entitled “Narrator”, in the Handbook of Narratology first published by Walter De Gruyter in 2009 (see pp. 351-369). First remark, on the bibliography. In the “Further Reading” section, Uri Margolin mentions a work which he obviously has not read: “Sylvie Patron (2009). Le Narrateur: Introduction à la théorie du récit. Paris: Armand Colin” (the correct subtitle is Introduction à la théorie narrative which replaces the author’s initial choice: Un problème de théorie narrative [The Narrator: a problem in narrative theory]). Since the work was published in March 2009, when Uri Margolin had probably completed his article, he had three options: 1) completely ignore the work; 2) skim through the work, refer to it in his article and list it in the “Works Cited” ; 3) not read the work, but mention it in the bibliography (as needs must, in “Further Reading”). Uri Margolin chose the third option which was clearly the worst both for him (for the scientific quality of his article) and for Le Narrateur (which, despite being the first ever monograph devoted entirely to the concept of the narrator in narrative theory, is relegated to “Further Reading” and thus, implicitly, to the works it is not really necessary to quote). Another hypothesis might be put forward which is more favourable to Uri Margolin, that the editors of the Handbook of Narratology added the reference to the bibliography without necessarily informing the author and without deference to the consequences their action might have for both the article and the work cited.

Second remark, or series of remarks, concerning the article itself. Despite quoting around forty books and articles, despite the sections and subsections offering multiple perspectives on the topic, Uri Margolin’s article can be considered an a-historical and a-critical presentation of the concept of the narrator in narratology.

1. An a-historical presentation. The lack of historicity is noticeable from the first section of the article (“Definition”, p. 351). This short paragraph goes from a first definition of the narrator as “the inner-textual (textually encoded) speech position from which the current narrative discourse originates and from which references to the entities, actions and events that this discourse is about are being made” (in other words a mixture of Roland Barthes’s definition in “Introduction to the Structuralist Analysis of Narratives” and a more recent referentialist perspective) to a second definition as “a presumed textually projected occupant of this position, the hypothesized producer of the current discourse, the individual agent who serves as the answer to Genette’s question qui parle ?”, via something Uri Margolin calls “a dual process of metonymic transfer and anthropomorphization”. But the order of presentation does not correspond to any real or imaginary genealogy (in the sense of a theoretical imagination, expressions of which may be found elsewhere). Contrary to Uri Margolin’s claim, in the history of the concept of the narrator, the anthropomorphic component came first. I refer the reader to the introduction to Le Narrateur where I describe the traditional view of the narrator. In this view, the term “narrator” (used contrastively in relation to the term “author”) designates the character who has the status of narrator in fictional memoires or the first-person novels. See Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Samuel Richardson’s biographer (1804) : “[…] it [the genre] confines the author’s stile, which should be suited, though it is not always, to the supposed talents and capacity of the imaginary narrator”; or Honoré de Balzac, in his preface to Le Lys dans la vallée (1835-1836): “Although it is a settled case, many people today are still fool enough to make the writer party to the feelings he attributes to his characters; and if he uses the pronoun ‘I’, almost all are tempted to confuse him with the narrator”. The second section of Uri Margolin’s article (“Explication”, pp. 351-352) is characterized by the same a-historicism or presentism. The origin of concepts or ideas is rarely noted or when it is, it is done so erroneously or partially erroneously. The terms sujet de l’énoncé and sujet de l’énonciation cannot be found in the work of Émile Benveniste, as Uri Margolin implies; on the contrary, they are a later invention stemming from psychoanalysis. It is surprising, by contrast, not to find any mention of the opposition which did originate from Benveniste, between énonciation de discours and énonciation historique (the latter can be described as enunciative effacement or withdrawal, or non-enunciation). When Uri Margolin’s presentation intends to be historical and epistemological, as the title of the third section (“History of the Concept and its Study”, pp. 352-366) suggests, it contains errors and approximations. I will cite just a few examples. “Plato was the first to claim that the underlying difference between narrative and drama as basic types of discourse consists in the difference between directly showing and indirectly telling or reporting, rooted in the absence or presence respectively of a mediating instance between the character’s speech and the audience” (p. 352) — the problem being that Plato speaks of the “poet” and not of a narrator as distinct from the author (while Aristotle, on the other hand, implicitly speaks of a narrator in Chapter 3 of his Poetics). The presumed equivalence between diegesis and mimesis (Plato), telling and showing (Percy Lubbock), direct and indirect presentation (Norman Friedman) would also deserve closer enquiry. Another example: “The aesthetic desirability of such narratorial ‘intrusions’ or ‘telling’ beyond mere ‘showing’ has been the object of heated critical debate since the 19th century (e.g. Otto Ludwig, Friedrich Spielhagen, Käte Friedemann, Percy Lubbock and Wayne C. Booth)” (p. 356) — the problem being that the debate dealt initially with authorial, not narratorial, intrusions in the sense of a narrator as distinct from the author (except perhaps in Käte Friedemann’s work, where some formulations might be seen to anticipate narratological ones). One last example: on pages 352, 353 and 364, Uri Margolin projects the narratological understanding of the narrator onto the view held by Mixail Baxtin, who uses the term “author” to refer to the entity Margolin calls the “narrator”, and “narrator” for the narrator of first-person fictional narrative (which he terms Ich-Erzählung) and for the skaz narrator (which has no European, i.e. essentially English, French or German, equivalent).

2. An a-critical or a-problematic presentation. This characteristics is shown, first, in the abundance of propositions in the form of postulates, starting with the postulate of the distinction between author and narrator: “The narrator which is a strictly textual category, should be clearly distinguished from the author who is of course an actual person” (p. 351). (Uri Margolin is apparently unaware that the distinction stems from the traditional understanding of the narrator and originally implies not a textual category, but rather a fictional character, in other words a character existing in a fictional world which is indeed constructed by a text, as opposed to a real person, in other words a person existing in the real world of reference.) Other examples of postulates: “Since narrative utterances are a subset of the universe of utterances, they too must therefore contain a sayer”; “For a claim to be made, there needs to be an agent who makes this claim, hence the narrator” (p. 352). (These two postulates could easily be contested on the basis of a simple consideration, to wit, that the narratives in question are literary narratives and therefore have an author, so that there is not logical or pragmatic necessity to also have a narrator as distinct from the author.) Other examples: “The whole essence of narrative would be missed if one were to deny the textual existence of a narrator as a stylistic and ideological position” (p. 353) ; “Using the narrated system as our point of departure, the main distinction is between narratives in which the narrator also participates in the narrated events (first-person narrative) and those in which he does not (second- and third-person narratives)” (p. 363) ; “By producing the words on the page, the author has given rise in such cases to a substitutionary speaker who performs the macro speech act of reporting and who is solely responsible for all claims, specific and general, made in his report (on this issue, Ryan 1981 ; Martínez-Bonati 1996)” (p. 365). All these postulates are those of classical narratology revamped with a few terminological variations by postclassical narratology. They could easily be contested in both theory and practice (the concrete analysis of a specific fictional narrative) — I have in mind the postulate that the essence of narrative would be missed if the textual existence of a narrator as a stylistic and ideological position were denied; in my article in the Journal of Literary Theory I have recently attempted to show the aporia resulting from postulating the existence of a narrator in cases where, empirically, there is none. On pages 355 to 356, also without the slightest critical distance, Uri Margolin adopts Seymour Chatman’s continuum approach (according to the “degree of narratorhood”) from Story and Discourse — it would not be difficult to show that Chatman’s work aims beyond its linguistic and epistemological means and is dependent on an established critical tradition from which it retains knowledge gained, but also a number of presuppositions. On pages 351, 352, 353, 354, 365, 366 and 367, Uri Margolin internalizes and reproduces an ambiguity which is frequent among narratologists, confusing the idea of internality or textuality (which takes its meaning from the linguistic or semiological opposition between “internal” and “external”, or “textual” and “extratextual”) and the idea of fictionality (which takes its meaning from the ontological opposition between “real” and “fictional”). However, if his presentation is a-critical or a-problematic, it is also, above all, because it fails to mention debates both within and beyond narratology, with the naturalizing, dogmatic result illustrated by the preceding quotations. A few examples of internal debates: the debate between the early and the more recent Chatman (who, in Coming to Terms, revises certain claims in Story and Discourse concerning the absence of a narrator in particular fictional narratives); the contradiction between the typological and the linguistic approach in Lubomír Doležel’s Narrative Modes in Czech Literature (which Uri Margolin does not mention). One last example: the debate concerning the possibility of the narrator (or pseudo-narrator) in third-person fictional narratives being “unreliable”, to use Wayne Booth’s term — I do not believe that this is a true debate, but I do consider that more than just a passing affirmation would be needed to settle the question (see p. 359: “Personalized narrators, and only personalized ones, may on occasion be deemed by the reader as unreliable [...]”). The most important debates are of course those which set narratology, defined as a narratorial theory of narrative (or a narrator-in-every-narrative theory) against alternative theories, which can be defined as poetic theories of narrative (or optional narrator theories, where the narrator is an option available to the author). In Uri Margolin’s article, these theories are expedited in a few lines: “Hamburger (1957), for example, has argued that one can meaningfully speak of a narrator figure only in first-person narratives, while in all other cases the narrator is a mere metonymy for a narrative textual function” (it should be noted that the idea of “metonymy” is not mentioned by Käte Hamburger); “Banfield (1982) has argued on linguistic grounds that the notion of narrator is meaningful only in cases of overt, foregrounded narration, such as the skaz” (p. 365). Margolin has made an error in the latter presentation: Ann Banfield does not assert that the notion of narrator is meaningful only in cases of overt, foregrounded narration, such as the skaz; like Käte Hamburger before her, she states that one can only speak of a fictional narrator in the case of the narrator of a first- person fictional narrative and that, even in this case, the narrator need not necessarily be considered as a speaker, in the sense of the speaker in everyday communication — except in the type of first-person narrative she calls skaz, which is not strictly coextensive with skaz in Russian formalism and the identification of which, in addition, poses certain difficulties. As for Richard Walsh, whom Uri Margolin gives the last word on the question, it is clear that his proposition is no more than a variant of the traditional view of the narrator and narrating: there is narrator who is distinct from the author in first-person fictional narrative; in third-person fictional narrative the author narrates (or is the narrator). Käte Hamburger, S.-Y. Kuroda (whom Uri Margolin does not mention) and Ann Banfield went much further with their theoretical propositions by criticizing, notably, the assimilation of “narrating” in the case of a fictional narrator and “narrating” in the case of the author of a fictional narrative (Hamburger), and by using as a basis a linguistic analysis of communication as distinct from that which can be understood not to pertain to communication (Kuroda, Banfield). But Uri Margolin is aware of few of these theoretical propositions, as is shown for example by the obstinate reoccurrence in his article of the terms “communicative” and “communication” (“a communicative role”, p. 351, “In terms of communication theory”, p. 352, “an ongoing process of narrative communication”, p. 353, “communicative intentions”, p. 355, “the current communicative transaction”, “an ongoing communicative exchange (telling)”, “his/her communicative intentions”, “in the communicative situation (narration)”, “the illusion of face-to-face communication”, p. 357, “in the ongoing communicative transaction”, “the current communicative situation”, “their communicative role”, p. 363, “in a communication-based model”, p. 366) or his recourse to the obsolete and unjustifiable hypothesis of the omniscient narrator (“Some, but by no means all, anonymous narrating voices telling their story in the third- person past tense are endowed with omniscience”, p. 358, “authors sometimes endow personalized narrators with intermittent omniscience”, p. 359, “an omniscient narrative voice”, p. 365). In these conditions, the “Topics for Further Investigation” put forward by Margolin in the last section of his article (pp. 366-367) appear to be inessential or created purely by theory (“It is assumed here that the diarist and letter writer are narrators, yet Chatman (1978) denies this: is it because he implicitly identifies narrator with global narrator ?”; “Can narrators be focalizers, and if so, when and to what extent ?”, p 366; “Narrator unreliability as regards judgments and evaluations has been treated here entirely as a matter of readers’ criteria, unlike factual unreliability, for which there are objective inner-textual indicators. Why has this view emerged only recently, and is the resistance to it associated with the implied author postulate ?”, pp. 366-367).

To conclude, Margolin’s articles offers a presentation of the concept of the narrator within narratology (and not in narrative theory considered as including, but not as limited to narratology). Nearly all necessary information regarding theories or theoretical nodes prior to narratology and alternative contemporary theories are lacking. Also lacking is the evaluative epistemological dimension which stems from theories themselves when they are sufficiently accountable for one another and do not persist in believing that they exist quite alone in superb isolation.

Trans. Susan Nicholls


  • Balzac, Honoré de ([1835-1836] 1978), preface of Le Lys dans la vallée, La Comédie humaine IX, Paris: Gallimard, “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, 915-916.
  • Banfield, Ann (1982). Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction. Boston & London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Barbauld, Anna Laetita (1804). “A biographical Account of Samuel Richardson”, The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, I. London: Richard Phillips.
  • Barthes, Roland ([1966 ]1977]. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” Image Music Text. New York: Hill & Wang, 79-124.
  • Benveniste, Émile ([1959, 1966] 1971). “Relationships of person in the verb.” Problems in General Linguistics. Trans. Mary E. Meek. Coral Gables: Miami U P, 195–215.
  • Booth, Wayne C. ([1961] 1983). The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
  • Chatman, Seymour (1978). Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca & London: Cornell U P.
  • Chatman, Seymour (1990). Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca & London: Cornell U P.
  • Doležel, Lubomír (1972). Narrative Modes in Czech Literature, Toronto & Buffalo: U of Toronto P.
  • Friedemann, Käte ([1910] 1965). Die Rolle des Erzählers in der Epik. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (also on WWW at http://www.literature.at/webinterface/library/ALO-BOOK_V01?objid=1071].
  • Friedman, Norman (1955). “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept.” PMLA, LXX, 1160-1184.
  • Genette, Gérard (1972 [1980]). Narrative Discourse. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell U P, reprint. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Hamburger, Käte ([1957, 1968] 1973, 1993). The Logic of Literature. Trans. Marilynn J. Rose. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana U P.
  • Kuroda, S.-Y. (1973). “Where Epistemology, Style and Grammar Meet: A Case Study from the Japanese.” S. R. Anderson & P. Kiparsky (eds). A Festschrift for Morris Halle. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 377-391.
  • Kuroda, S.-Y. ([1975] 1976). “Reflections on the Foundations of Narrative Theory — from a Linguistic Point of View.” T. A. van Djik (ed). Pragmatics of Language and Literature, Amsterdam & New York: North- Holland Publishing Company, 107-140.
  • Margolin, Uri (2009). “Narrator”. P. Hühn, J. Pier, W. Schmid, J. Schönert, (eds). Handbook of Narratology. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter 351-369.
  • Lubbock, Percy ([1921] 1972). The Craft of Fiction. London: Jonathan Cape (also on WWW at [1] (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18961/18961-8.txt) .
  • Patron, Sylvie (2009). Le Narrateur: Introduction à la théorie narrative. Paris: Armand Colin.
  • Patron, Sylvie (2011). “The Death of the Narrator and the Interpretation of the Novel: The Example of Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo.” Trans. Susan Nicholls. Journal of Literary Theory, 4. 2, 253-272.
  • Walsh, Richard (1997). “Who Is the Narrator ?” Poetics Today 33. 4, 495-513.
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The chronology of events, whereby Patron’s important book appeared several months after the final version of my entry had already been submitted to the Handbook, obviously made it impossible for me to take her book into consideration in my discussion. This is indeed regrettable, but inevitable. On the other hand, the harsh tone of Patron’s comments, often bordering on straight scolding, is as regrettable, especially as it was not inevitable.
As to the matter at hand, on the commission side my entry is indeed a presentation of the standard view of the narrator within narratology. This is what I was invited to do, and did to the best of my ability. After all, the venue is entitled “Handbook of Narratolgy” and not “of narrative studies in the humanities and social sciences,” a wonderful thing to have, but still a future dream. Of course I am aware that there are important discussions of narrative and, eo ipso, the narrator, in philosophy, film studies, discourse studies, linguistics, ethnography and so on. But even assuming I were capable of competently surveying them all, the resultant text would have exceeded by far the allowed length of the entry as well as its disciplinary framework. With specific reference to the works of Kuroda, Banfield and Hamburger, they may indeed be of crucial importance, but it must be admitted that they have had very limited impact within narratology proper, and this is why I mentioned them so briefly.
Regarding the definition of “Narrator” I offer, I strongly believe its purpose is to provide a systematic account of the standard way this term is understood in current narratology, and not to reflect the historical vagaries of its usage. In lexicography in general one also distinguishes between dictionaries tout court and historical dictionaries. The historical survey may indeed be incomplete, but let us not forget that the purpose of the handbook is to provide a useful account of the etat present des etudes in our discipline for the benefit not only, and maybe not even primarily, of specialists in any of its sub-domains, but of all workers in the field, as well as of colleagues in other disciplines concerned with narrative in one way or another, and of advanced students. I still feel my entry does provide such a useful account. The proper place for a minute and exhaustive discussion of historical twists and turns is the individual specialized research work, of which Patron’s own book is a prime example. As for my supposed confusions and errors regarding the narrator vs. author distinction, let us not forget that the term “narrator,” or its lexical equivalent, has not been available in all times and languages (one prime example being Russian literary theory). The term “author” was thus sometimes made to serve double or even treble duty, designating different concepts or entities ranging from the biographical author to author-in-fabulator role, to fictional individual in the story world.
Much more important is the omission side, or my supposed failure to be critical i.e., to go into the meta-theoretical, epistemological and methodological assumptions subtending the narrator model within narratolgy or to confront the received view with alternative views in linguistics and philosophy. Here Patron definitely has a point. Doing so would have made the discussion more complete, but would also have cast the writer in the role of critic and judge in addition to that of surveyor. Now different handbooks in literary studies, linguistics and philosophy have different policies on whether a critical component should be added to the informative survey, and things could have gone either way. But since this component was indeed missing, I will try to provide it now.
In my entry I reported that, for all works of narrative fiction, narratologists (1) posit an inner-textual speech position, slot or teller-role as the source from which the current narration originates; (2) then proceed to fill this slot with an occupant-agent: a specifiable mediating/narrating instance or individual entity of some kind, different from the actual author in his biographical setting, serving as the teller or originator of the narration; and (3) claim that this individual is a distinct entity on the fictional level. The term “narrator” has come to conflate and designate all three components, and this may indeed give rise to confusions and misunderstanding. Calling a fictional narrative “narratorless,” for example, may thus mean denying (3), but also denying both (3) and (2), which is a much more radical claim. One could in principle negate (3) and yet accept (1) and (2), or even negate both (3) and (2) and hold on to (1) only, claiming that in the case of fictional narrative the story “tells itself”, the teller being some abstract “Geist der Erzaehlung”, as Thomas Mann calls it at the beginning of Der Erwählte. In a recent article entitled “Necessarily a Narrator or a Narrator if Necessary” (Journal of Literary Semantics 40:1, 2011, 43-57) I have surveyed a whole array of linguistic, aesthetic, philosophical, and literary-theoretical positions serving as grounds for narratologists adopting or rejecting (3), and also (2) on occasion, but, I must admit, I still tended to conflate in my usage (2) and (3). A very detailed critique of this article, in the form of a personal communication from Ms. patron, helped me clarify in my mind some thorny issues in this context, and for this I am grateful to her.
The question quite simply is this: if we accept (1) and (2)—which most everybody does—who could the narrating instance be in principle? One could formulate three different possible views:
A. The minimalist view: the originator of the narration is always the author in his capacity as fabulator, playing the culturally defined role of spinner of tales. While not self-contradictory, such a view is hard to maintain as it would involve an enormous stretching of the fabulator role, and I am not aware of any literary scholar actually holding this view.
B. The maximalist view: the originator of the narration is always an individual who is a member of the fictional sphere, even when this individual’s presence is textually unmarked (=impersonal narration) and the only thing we have is an anonymous narrating voice. This position too is not self-contradictory, but could well be faulted as unwarranted precisely for lack of support in such cases (see more below).
C. The middle way: If we replace essentialism with instrumentalism and universal claims with qualified existential ones, we can regard both the author cum fabulator and the fictional teller as two co-existing options, constantly available to us. In some cases the first would be better warranted, while in others the second would make more sense.
In terms of rules of procedure or methodological norms, two opposing norms can be envisioned even within C. The first would claim that the default case of the originator of the narration is the fictional narrator, and good reasons should be provided whenever one rejects this option in favour of the author-cum-fabulator one. The opposite norm, which some philosophers have advocated, is that the default case is the author as fabulator-pretender, and good reasons should be provided whenever one posits instead a fictional individual as the teller.
How do matters stand then in actual narratological practice? In all cases of first person narration, whether auto- or homodiegetic, everybody seems to agree that it is justified to posit a narrator figure who is a member of the fictional world, even though this narrator may be very similar to the actual biographical author. In such cases the narrator-figure could be described as the author’s counterpart in the fictional domain (See 3.6 in the entry). I am not aware of any discussion concerning the teller in second person narratives, and this is a lacuna in this area. My personal view though is that when speaker and addressee are both individuated the speaker could best be treated as a fictional entity. On the other hand, if the “you” is employed as equivalent to “one” or “anybody” or to the general reader role and speaker indicators are scarce, a good case could be made for viewing the teller role as being filled by the author as fabulator. The major bone of contention though is the very common case of heterodiegetic (third person, Er-Erzählung) impersonal narration where the highest textual speaker position is occupied by an anonymous unindividuated (“geistig und abstrakt” in Mann’s words) voice or, in other words, where the speaker position is unmarked. It is precisely in such cases, Patron and others argue, that it is totally unwarranted to fill the teller slot with the fictional individual figure of an “effaced” narrator. In such cases, so the argument goes, it makes much more sense to make the author in his role as illusionist, spinner of tales or producer of display texts the originator of the discourse. Such narratives are hence “narratorless” in that they do not have (3), while still possessing (2).
If we adopt an instrumentalist view of theories, regarding them as cognitive tools rather than ontological commitments, one could now quickly assess the relative cost/benefit of postulating a narrator vs. author as fabulator in the case of third person impersonal narration. Quite obviously, the advantages of one position are the shortcomings of the other and vice versa. The advantages of the author as fabulator position are as follows: this position conforms with Occam’s dictum that entities (and, one might add, especially fictional ones) should not be multiplied beyond necessity. It also conforms to David Lewis’ principle of minimal departure for fictional worlds, where it is claimed that a fictional universe should be assumed to be similar to the actual one in all respects unless explicitly specified otherwise. This view also enables us to tackle the issue of narrative style in a literal way. It is thus the real author in his role as fabulator who makes all the stylistic choices regarding the narration, sometimes in conformity with conventions of genre, theme and subject matter. And finally, adopting this view provides continuity with a long intellectual tradition harking back to antiquity. Conversely, sticking with the always a narrator position, even in the case of impersonal third person narration, preserves the absolute distinction between the fictional and the truth-functional as regards both the told and the telling. It also provides a uniform treatment along a continuum for all varieties of fictional narration instead of splitting the domain into two radically heterogeneous sub-domains. And it is also simpler, since it involves semantic considerations only and does not require pragmatic considerations about actual people playing specific, culturally defined “pretend” roles. Ultimately, it may be our deeply held fundamental views on the relation between art and actuality, rather than methodological considerations, which make us adopt one of the two positions.
I realize that much more could be said on the subject and that the discussion could go on indefinitely, but I prefer to hark back at this point to the words of one wise man who claimed, more than two millennia ago, that “of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12), and so to conclude my own role in the discussion, at least for the time being.