Causality and Narrative in French Fiction from Zola to Robbe-Grillet

Roy Jay Nelson


Literary Criticism / European / French
245 pp. 6x9

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“I think this is a wonderful, fine-tuned analysis; it will probably be quoted as often as Gennette’s Narrative Discourse. Nelson has an amazing mastery of contemporary critical theory and puts it to excellent use.” —Stirling Haig, University of North Carolina

From a series of inductive analyses of the best-known French novels of the past century, this study develops a theory of the ways in which the notion of causation functions to bind together the threads of narrative. Unavoidably present in the language of novels, where every transitive verb implies it, causation at the level of the story is essentially the readers’ creation, as they determine for themselves what causes specific story events and what motivates characters. In analyses of major works by Zola, Huysmans, Gide, Proust, Breton, Aragon, Giono, Sartre, Camus, Robbe-Grillet, and others, Nelson points out how language and context influence readerly perception of causality, while causal gaps at the level of the story and of the “narration” (in Genette’s sense) lead readers to participate in the creation of the narrative. The study also shows how, in the twentieth-century modernist novel in France, belief in clearly observable causation wanes, leading to the introduction of objectively discernible techniques of blocking and indeterminacy, which tend to prevent readers’ inferences. Other theorists (Genette, Barthes, Todorov, Prince, for example) have already provided brief, illuminating comments on causation, but Nelson’s contribution is highly original in two ways. As the first study devoted to causation as structure in fiction, it lays the groundwork for further studies by proposing a descriptive matrix for the causal function in novels; and through analysis of a corpus of French fiction dating from the 1870s to the 1970s, it traces the relationship between evolving attitudes in France toward cause-and-effect and the changing form of the novel.

Roy Jay Nelson is Professor of French at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Péguy, poète du sacré and Reading Expository French, from Modern Authors.