Understanding Narrative

Edited by James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz

Theory and Interpretation of Narrative



287 pp. 6x9

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“The contributors’ critical methods [are] an eclectic use of poststructuralist, feminist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic strategies that place works in the contexts of their production and reception—‘theorypractice’, as the editors call this healthy attention to both interpretation and the grounds of interpretation. Highly recommended.” —Choice

Playing off Understanding Fiction, the title of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s classic textbook, Understanding Narrative reveals and explores changes in the landscape of narrative theory and interpretation since that influential handbook defined the terrain. In particular, this collection of essays represents new conceptions of “understanding” and broadens “narrative” to encompass not just canonical fiction but also travel writing, visual art, film, and music.

Each of the ten essays is an example of what James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz call “theorypractice”: a self-reflexive inquiry that simultaneously interprets and investigates the grounds of interpretation. These essays, in other words, resist the easy and one-way application of fixed theoretical strategies to text. Instead, they call upon a variety of theoretical perspectives to inform their interpretative practice while deploying their interpretations to revise theory.

Although the contributors demonstrate affiliations with different theoretical movements—including Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, reader-response criticism, and poststructuralism—their inquiries suggest significant shortcomings in the popular practice of classifying critical output according to a static model of theoretical “schools.” The contributors’ dynamic theorypractice presented here draws upon diverse theoretical principles according to the specific demands of their inquiries, staking out their arguments not by drawing simple oppositions but by striking different balances in the theoretical material on which they draw. Offering essays that consider familiar and unfamiliar narratives from Brontë’s Shirley to Myra Page’s Moscow Yankee, from Mozart’s Prague Symphony to Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa, Understanding Narrative exemplifies the range of work that this series seeks to promote. Students and scholars of British and American literature, film, and critical theory will find this volume a welcome addition to the series.

James Phelan is professor of English at The Ohio State University and the author of Beyond the Tenure Track: Fifteen Months in the Life of an English Professor; Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative; and the editor of Reading Narrative: Forms, Ethics, Ideology. Peter J. Rabinowitz is professor of comparative literature at Hamilton College and the author of Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation.