Narratology and "Sherlock Holmes"

Our guiding hypothesis today is that there is an analogous relation between reading/interpretation and detection--that constructing (or re-constructing) narratives is part of both--and that understanding this habit (what we as students of literature make our living at) can be enhanced by understanding how we encounter hypertexts (whether fictions like Kathryn Cramer's or analytical ones like Landow's). Key to understanding what we're doing when we're reading (hypertext, linear narratives, or clues at a crime scene) is understanding the "links" we make when we hypothesize--which is what Sherlock Holmes excels at.

"The ideal reasoner . . . would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearing, deduce from it not only the chain of events which led up to it but also the results which would follow from it. As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplations of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after." (Doyle, "The Five Orange Pips")

"Some facts should be suppressed, or at least a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them." (Doyle, "The Sign of Four")

Narratology: Some Basic Definitions

Narratologists discriminate initially between "story" and "discourse" as a way of analyzing the effects of narratives. Below is one critic's sense of the distinction between the two:

"Narrative fiction represents a succession of events . . . . At this early stage of our discussion, an 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 . . . . Although signle-event narratives are theoretically (and perhaps also empirically) possible . . . , I speak of a succession of events in order to suggest that narratives usually consist of more than one. . . .

`Story' designates the narrated events, abstracted from their disposition in the text and reconstructed in their chronological order, together with the participants in the events.

Whereas `story' is a succession of events, `text' is a spoken or written discourse which undertakes their telling. Put more simply, the text is what we read. In it, the events do not necessarily appear in chronological order, the characteristics of the participants are dispersed throughout, and all the items of the narrative content are filtered through some prism or perspective (`focalizer')."

--Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (1983).

Story, in the words of Jonathan Culler, posits a "priority of events" (The Pursuit of Signs, 1981)--that is, a reachable, determinate, pre-existing state of affairs, which remains constant through various retellings--a chronology. Discourse (or Kenan's "text"), then, is the shifting part, the ordering of the events, the `slant' or `spin' put on the events through the telling. For Culler, discourse focuses on bringing to light a crucial event, which determines the significance of the story.

But, as Culler argues--using Oedipus as his case study--fictional narratives which question this hierarchy are common and often among the most intriguing of stories. The "logic" developed in the prophecies told throughout the play obviates the need for "proof" of Oedipus's guilt (when he questions the witness they've been waiting for, Oedipus only asks if he is the son of Laius, not if the man saw many robbers, as has been rumored). In other words, the discursive significance (the "guilt" that grows upon Oedipus as portent after portent comes to light) drives the story; the need for a "so what?" constructs the story that is eventually held to be "behind" everything (the missing link of which is, of course, that witness's silence on what he saw--no final verification).

Culler's point is the complexity of the interrelation between "report" (what) and "evaluation" (why), which fictional narratives are especially good at revealing and training in reading fictions is especially good at sensitizing us to. Consider also the case of the traffic cop who comes upon the scene of an accident and gets two completely different (and plausible) stories for the same sequence of events. How does he decide between the two? --Even in so-called "natural narratives" the telling of the story involves discourse and story (why and what), because nobody wants to tell a pointless story (Culler 184). The mass of data must be reduced to a possible order. The detective/reader is the one who posits and then tests such hypotheses.

Explanations for "Looking-Glass" Closure

Last week, in the writing assignment I gave you to do in class, you were, in effect, offering different explanations for the "mass of data"--so to speak--which constitutes Through the Looking-Glass. Of course, I provided the initial stimulus to "ordering" by asking you whether or not the book resisted closure. As one might expect there were a variety of answers, depending in part on the evidence selected from the narrative but also on the hypothesized "discourse" (the "why" of the narrative).

The point here is, again, fiction's susceptibility to new discursive significance (and hence "new" narrative), and the impossibility of ever eliminating all alternatives (is this why detective fiction is so popular, because it posits a finite, knowable world where interpretation ceases? On the other hand, isn't what makes Holmes such an outstanding detective his resistance of the temptation to draw the investigation to a close prematurely?)

Hypertext as Narrative/Interpretation Model

Hypertext fictions thus highlight an element of all fictional narratives (and a feature of "natural narratives" as well). The easy "reordering" made possible by the technology models the heuristic work of interpretation (discovery through retelling) before "final" choices about significance are made. The question is, does it also make it harder (if not impossible) to eliminate hypothetical connections, to cull from the "mass of data" a satisfying interpretation. What would a satisfying interpretation be? Perhaps the following definition of a good hypothesis will help:

Let's consider the questions I gave you about Cramer's hypertext:

  1. What sense can you make out of this narrative? What is it about?
  2. How many allusions to Carroll's text can you find? What are their significance?
  3. Does this hypertext fiction fulfill any of the predictions/claims Landow makes about nonlinear form?
  4. What kind of reading experience have you had with it? Satisfying? Interesting? Frustrating? Something altogether different?

Add these questions:

  1. What are the critical "events" of the narrative? Does a different ordering of events affect your sense of the events' significance? In other words, is story prior to discourse in this form, or does the story itself alter with the differing paths?
  2. Out of this "mass of data" what did you "detect"? Retrospectively (after not one but two readings) were you better able to make sense/significance of Cramer's work?
  3. What is singular in this story? What is routine? How is the effect of the hypertext dependent on the relation between these two categories?
  4. Do you feel you had to end the investigation prematurely? Did you get enough clues?

Sherlock Holmes and Narrative Form: Reading as Detection

Small group work:

To help us better understand what we might term "inferential practice," let's see what our stories and critics for today can tell us about reading and detection. Each group should discuss the critical article assigned and the stories which are related to it.

Once you have had time to consider this topic, we'll see what overlapping issues we can find, what connections we can make, among these investigations into Holmes.

What I would like you to get out of today is a sense for how critical "detection" works, and how the "analytical" reconstruction of the critic "rehearses" the work of the writer, in effect telling the story (or stories) over again. When you eventually construct your "web" of materials interpreting/illuminating a Victorian text, you as critics will be constructing different "stories" to fit the "widest possible range of facts" having to do with your text. You can then leave it up to your reader to choose which story/path she/he wants to follow.

Return to Lit 400 Reading Schedule.