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The Story /Discourse Distinction.

James Phelan is the best reader of first-person fiction I know. But in his work on character narration he deprives himself of a major resource: the story/discourse distinction. Further, in his essay on character-character dialogue and probability to which this issue of Style is devoted, he proposes that the story/discourse distinction blinds theorists to the role of character-character dialogue as narration. "Characters," he says, "fall on the story side of the binary distinction" ("Multiple Channels of Communication"). He is wrong about this; characters fall on both sides of the distinction. Character narration and character-character dialogue are aspects of discourse. Probability (probable impossibilities and improbable possibilities), in contrast, is an aspect of story.

Story is the content plane: who does what, when, and where. Discourse is the expression plane: a representation of story in language or some other medium. The section headings in Gerard Genette's Narrative Discourse (note the word "discourse" in the title) name aspects of discourse: order, duration, frequency, focalization, and voice. (1) The Russian Formalists (c. 1915-30), who were the first to describe the two trajectories, were interested primarily in discourse--including character-character dialogue. According to D. W. Fokkema,

the Formalists devoted most of their attention to the formal aspects of literature. In the field of narratology they investigated the way in which the various episodes of a story are connected; they examined the technique of the frame-story and the relations, often family relations, between characters. Their primary interest was to discover the technique of how a story was made. The conversation between characters is not interpreted in isolation, but seen as a means for advancing the action by introducing new material. (160)

The character-character dialogue that the Formalists recognize can forward the plot is an aspect of discourse, as is the intermingling of the golfer's, Luster's, and Benjy's voices that Phelan perceives is complex communication.

The Formalists seem to have conceived of story as preexisting discourse. In some of the examples they studied, story even had a prior existence as a folktale, which was then retold in a new, presumably more interesting, more aesthetically pleasing discourse. That is not the case for the French Structuralists for whom story and discourse are synchronic. In Seymour Chatman's description, for instance, Structuralism "does not assume that either telling or told 'precede' each other: they are coexistent, cotemporal parts of the model" ("On Deconstructing Narratology," 14). And now that we have seen the repeated questioning of the possibility of communication by twentieth-century thinkers Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and others, (2) theorists can now argue, as I do, that discourse precedes story. When I read a narrative, what I perceive is the discourse. In the process of reading the discourse, I construct the story.

One reason that the temporal position of story in relation to discourse matters is that it affects the communication diagram. For me, the communication diagram has two parts, text and reader. For Phelan, "the two constants in the communication [are] the somebody who tells and the somebody who listens," author and reader ('Authors, Resources, Audiences"). His diagram begins with the author and ends with the reader. And he is right that "theorists who want to reject the implied author as the constructor of the text have far more in common with rhetorical theorists than those who want to reject the implied author [as I do] because they believe meanings arise primarily out of text-audience interactions" (#4 in "Chart"). At issue is the epistemological status, in the story a given reader constructs, of the elements that are not specifically stated in discourse. Among these unstated elements are the rhetorical intentions of the author, the implied author, and (with exceptions) the narrator. In much of his published work, Phelan analyzes unreliability by comparing what a narrating character says to what Phelan claims that the author or the implied author intended readers to understand.

Poetics is the study of how works achieve the effects they do. Famously, Aristotle determines the effects of plays he admires and describes elements in the plays that create those effects. The Poetics is an advice manual for prospective playwrights. It is not a report of the intentions of the writers of the plays Aristotle studies. In contrast, rhetorical theory as practiced by Phelan seems so very sure that communication from author to reader is possible. For my part, I would appreciate Phelan's brilliant analyses even more if he would do as Aristotle does and be satisfied by determining the effects of given narratives and describing the elements in the narratives that create those effects. But if he must compare the narrator's statements to an author's possible intent, I would appreciate his including in his analysis the occasional "perhaps" or "maybe" or "this seems to me to be the case."

Emma Kafalenos


EMMA KAFALENOS ( is the author of Narrative Causalities (2007) and was the guest editor of Narrative 9:2 (2001), a special issue on Contemporary Narratology. She is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.


(1.) Rather than shifting from English to French to Russian terminology, I use the English terms story and discourse throughout.

(2.) In courses on general linguistics he taught between 1906 and 1911, Saussure explained that while other words in the sentence restrict the meaning of signifiers on the syntagmatic plane, on the associative plane meaning depends on the individual's experiences, which speaker and listener cannot be expected to share, and on the other words from which the given word will be differentiated, which cannot be expected to be identical for speaker and listener.

According to the communication diagram Roman Jakobson presented at a conference in 1958, for a message from an addresser to reach an addressee requires not only a contact (text, speech, smoke signals, etc. that the addressee can perceive) and a code familiar to both parties, but also a context that the addressee can recognize.

Speaking specifically about literature in "Death of the Author," published in 1968, Barthes argues that the birth of the reader (the reader's power to determine for herself the meaning of the text) requires the death of the author (the recognition that the text is not a univocal message from the author).

In a lecture in 1971 tided "Signature Event Context," Derrida corroborates and extends all three theorists' ideas: Saussure's recognition of polysemy (Derrida offers the word communication: in French, an academic lecture; in both English and French, in addition to everyday usage the communicating passageway between rooms, the communicating tremor that an earthquake transmits); Jakobson's understanding of the need for a shared context (Derrida argues that the context of spoken language is momentary and that writing is without context), and Barthes's questioning of the authority of the author's signature (with the context removed, Derrida says, writing is "orphaned and separated at birth from its father" [181]).
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Title Annotation:fphelan
Author:Kafalenos, Emma
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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