Monday, October 03, 2005

Rimmon-Kenan again . . . with humor.

I'm re-reading Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan's book on Narrative Fiction, which I blogged about in early September.

In the 1983 version that I have, she discusses the principles for combining events into sequences and sequences into stories. I assume that "event" is self-evident, but just in case it's not, here's Rimmon-Kenan's rough definition:

[A]n event may be defined without great rigour as something that happens, something that can be summed up by a verb or a name of action. (2)
Aside from the quibble that fictional events don't "happen," I can accept this definition.

Rimmon-Kenan tells us that the "two main principles of combination are temporal succession and causality" (16). To put it in less abstract terms, the former principle links events by "and then," whereas the latter links them by "that's why" or "therefore" (17). In practice, however, the two are often conflated in readers' minds. Mentioning that Roland Barthes has already noted this in his 1966 article "Introduction à l'analyse structurale des récits (Communications, 8, p. 10), Rimmon-Kenan paraphrases him to point out that "stories may be based on an implicit application of the logical error: post hoc, ergo propter hoc" (17). As an instance of this, she cites:

. . . the witty account of Milton's life where the humor resides precisely in the cause and effect relation which can be read into the explicit temporal succession. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, then his wife died, and he wrote Paradise Regained. (17)

I've read this witty sequence before but never thought of applying it to make a theoretical point about narrative construction and the distinction between temporal and causal combinations of events.

Nicely done.


At 5:10 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Very interesting post.

There's a great scene in The Return of the Native that underscores the difference between temporal succession and causality and suggests how people conflate the two. Clym Yeobright's mother has died, and he "interviews" a little boy who is the last to have seen her alive. The boy's descriptions of the mother's last moments are a string of "and then" statements. But Clym reads causality into the description, thereby imputing to his wife a more directly causal role in his mother's death than she really had.

Come to think of it, several of Hardy's characters do this sort of conflating. The more heroic (and tragic) ones, like Tess and Michael Henchard, tend to assume responsibility for "causing" events whose actual cause is much murkier.

At 5:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sounds like you've got a thesis there. Ever thought about returning to grad school?

At 8:43 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

I've thought about it, but never gotten past the thinking stage. My husband actually asks me that question a lot. I try not to take it as a reflection on my at-home mothering skills. :)


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