Narrative and normative pattern: On interpreting fiction, with special regard to (un)reliability

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Interpretive disputes about the text's implied normative framework (its aesthetics, ideology, reality-model) involve the reliability of the fictive narrator who mediates between interpreter and implied author. Narrative and normative reconstruction must go together. But how to determine the relations between the text's overt (narratorial) and implicit (authorial) frameworks, considering that the one can never be taken on trust and the other can never speak except through its questionable proxy? Here two modes of discourse necessarily interact, one given (in or as fiction) and the other hypothetical (behind the fiction). As regards the norms of communication, the first mode depends for its reliability on the second; as regards the forms of communication, the second depends for its discovery on the first. Though omnipresent, our difficulties in relating narrative to normative structure yet vary widely, and this essay considers three major variables that affect every interpretive activity: (1) the conventionality of the implied system of norms; (2) its degree of explicitness; and (3) the control of interpretive difficulties through compensation systems. Some texts simplify the reader's task by reducing fictional mediation to a minimum. Their norms are (a) conventional in cultural context; (b) explicitly formulated by (c) a speaker who would appear, or has proved, reliable. This transparent communication is favored by popular literature and by didactic or strongly ideological texts. The other extreme combines divergence, implicitness, and unreliability into the opaque (or ambiguous) discourse typical of modernism and experimental narrative. The intermediate cases have at least one variable that facilitates interpretation, so making up for the more problematic sides of the discourse. For instance, explicitness often compensates for deviance, where (as in Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata) the work advocates idiosyncratic norms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)499-528
Number of pages30
JournalPoetics Today
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2015


  • (Un)reliability
  • Implied author
  • Interpretation theory
  • Mediation gap
  • Narration
  • Normative framework
  • Reader


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