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Time and Narrative, Volume 2

Time and Narrative, Volume 2

by Paul Ricoeur
In volume 1 of this three-volume work, Paul Ricoeur examined the relations between time and narrative in historical writing. Now, in volume 2, he examines these relations in fiction and theories of literature.

Ricoeur treats the question of just how far the Aristotelian concept of "plot" in narrative fiction can be expanded and whether there is a point at


In volume 1 of this three-volume work, Paul Ricoeur examined the relations between time and narrative in historical writing. Now, in volume 2, he examines these relations in fiction and theories of literature.

Ricoeur treats the question of just how far the Aristotelian concept of "plot" in narrative fiction can be expanded and whether there is a point at which narrative fiction as a literary form not only blurs at the edges but ceases to exist at all. Though some semiotic theorists have proposed all fiction can be reduced to an atemporal structure, Ricoeur argues that fiction depends on the reader's understanding of narrative traditions, which do evolve but necessarily include a temporal dimension. He looks at how time is actually expressed in narrative fiction, particularly through use of tenses, point of view, and voice. He applies this approach to three books that are, in a sense, tales about time: Virgina Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway; Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain; and Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

"Ricoeur writes the best kind of philosophy—critical, economical, and clear."—Eugen Weber, New York Times Book Review

"A major work of literary theory and criticism under the aegis of philosophical hermenutics. I believe that . . . it will come to have an impact greater than that of Gadamer's Truth and Method—a work it both supplements and transcends in its contribution to our understanding of the meaning of texts and their relationship to the world."—Robert Detweiler, Religion and Literature

"One cannot fail to be impressed by Ricoeur's encyclopedic knowledge of the subject under consideration. . . . To students of rhetoric, the importance of Time and Narrative . . . is all too evident to require extensive elaboration."—Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, Quarterly Journal of Speech

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Time and Narrative Volume 2

By Paul Ricoeur, Kathleen McLaughlin, David Pellauer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1985 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-71352-6


The Metamorphoses of the Plot

The precedence of our narrative understanding in the epistemological order, as it will be defended in the following chapter in light of the rationalizing ambitions of narratology, can only be attested to and maintained if we initially give this narrative understanding a scope such that it may be taken as the original which narratology strives to copy. It follows that my task is not an easy one. The Aristotelian theory of plot was conceived during an age when only tragedy, comedy, and epic were recognized as "genres" worthy of philosophical reflection. But new types have appeared even within the tragic, comic, and epic genres, types that may make us doubt whether a theory of plot appropriate for the poetic practice of ancient writers still works for such new works as Don Quixote or Hamlet. What is more, new genres have appeared, in particular the novel, that have turned literature into an immense laboratory for experiments in which, sooner or later, every received convention has been set aside. We might ask, therefore, whether "plot" has not become a category of such limited extension, and such an out-of-date reputation, as has the novel in which the plot predominates. Furthermore, the evolution of literature has not been confined to producing new types in old genres or even new genres within the constellation of literary forms. Its adventure seems to have brought it to blur the limits between genres, and to contest the very principle of order that is the root of the idea of plot. What is in question today is the very idea of a relationship between an individual work and every received paradigm. Is it not true that plot is disappearing from the horizon of literature inasmuch as the very contours of the most basic distinction among the modes of composition, the one having to do with mimetic composition, are being wiped out?

It is a matter of some urgency therefore that we test the capacity of the plot to be transformed beyond its initial sphere of application in Aristotle's Poetics, and that we identify the threshold beyond which this concept loses all its discriminating value.

This investigation of the boundaries within which the concept of plot remains valid finds a guide in the analysis of mimesis2 that I proposed in Part 1 of this work. That analysis contains rules for generalizing the concept of plot that now have to be made explicit.


Plot was first defined, on the most formal level, as an integrating dynamism that draws a unified and complete story from a variety of incidents, in other words, that transforms this variety into a unified and complete story. This formal definition opens a field of rule-governed transformations worthy of being called plots so long as we can discern temporal wholes bringing about a synthesis of the heterogeneous between circumstances, goals, means, interactions, and intended or unintended results. This is why a historian such as Paul Veyne could assign to a considerably enlarged notion of plot the function of integrating components of social change as abstract as those brought to light by non-event-oriented history and even by serial history. Literature should be able to present expansions of the same scale. The space for this interplay is opened by the hierarchy of paradigms referred to above: types, genres, forms. We may formulate the hypothesis that these metamorphoses of the plot consist of new instantiations of the formal principle of temporal configuration in hitherto unknown genres, types, and individual works.

It is within the realm of the modern novel that the pertinence of the concept of emplotment seems to have been contested the most. The modern novel, indeed, has, since its creation, presented itself as the protean genre par excellence. Called upon to respond to a new and rapidly changing social situation, it soon escaped the paralyzing control of critics and censors. Indeed, it has constituted for at least three centuries now a prodigious workshop for experiments in the domains of composition and the expression of time.

The major obstacle the novel had first to confront, then completely overcome, was a doubly erroneous conception of plot. It was erroneous first because it was simply transposed from two of the already constituted genres, epic and drama, then because classical art, especially in France, had imposed on these two genres a mutilated and dogmatic version of the rules from Aristotle's Poetics. It will suffice here to recall, on the one hand, the limiting and constraining interpretation given the rule about the unity of time, as it was understood in chapter 7 of the Poetics, and, on the other hand, the strict requirement to begin in media res, as Homer did in the Odyssey, then to move backward to account for the present situation, so as to distinguish clearly the literary from the historical narrative, which was held to descend the course of time, leading its characters uninterruptedly from birth to death, filling all the intervals of its time span with narration.

Under the eye of these rules, frozen into a supercilious didacticism, plot could only be conceived of as an easily readable form, closed in on itself, symmetrically arranged in terms of an ending, and based on an easily identifiable causal connection between the initial complication and its denouement; in short, as a form where the episodes would clearly be held together by the configuration.

One important corollary of this overly narrow conception of plot especially contributed to the misunderstanding of the formal principle of emplotment. Whereas Aristotle had subordinated characters to plot, taken as the encompassing concept in relation to the incidents, characters, and thoughts, in the modern novel we see the notion of character overtake that of plot, becoming equal with it, then finally surpass it entirely.

This revolution in the history of genres came about for good reasons. Indeed, it is under the rubric of character that we may situate three noteworthy expansions within the genre of the novel.

First, exploiting the breakthrough that had occurred with the picaresque tale, the novel considerably extends the social sphere in which its action unfolds. It is no longer the great deeds or misdeeds of legendary or famous characters but the adventures of ordinary men and women that are to be recounted.

The English novel of the eighteenth century testifies to this invasion of literature by ordinary people. Furthermore, the story seems to have moved toward the episodic form through its emphasis on the interactions arising out of a much more differentiated social fabric, in particular through the innumerable imbrications of its dominant theme of love with money, reputation, and social and moral codes—in short, with an infinitely ramified praxis.

The second expansion of character, at the expense of the plot, or so it seems, is illustrated by the Bildungsroman, which reached its high point with Schiller and Goethe and which continued into the opening third of the twentieth century. Everything seems to turn on the self-awakening of the central character. First, it is his gaining maturity that provides the narrative framework; then, more and more, his doubts, his confusion, his difficulty in finding himself and his place in the world govern the development of this type of story. However, throughout this development, what was essentially asked of the narrated story was that it knit together social and psychological complexity. This new enlargement proceeds directly from the preceding one. Narrative technique in the golden age of the novel in the nineteenth cenury, from Balzac to Tolstoy, had anticipated this by drawing on the resources of an old narrative formula which consisted of deepening a character by narrating more and drawing from the richness of a character the exigency of a greater episodic complexity. In this sense, character and plot mutally influence each other.

Another new source of complexity has appeared in the twentieth century, in particular with the stream-of-consciousness novel, so marvelously illustrated by a work of Virginia Woolf, a masterpiece from the point of view of the perception of time, which I shall look at in more detail below. What now holds the center of attention is the incompleteness of personality, the diversity of the levels of the conscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious, the stirring of unformulated desires, the inchoative and evanescent character of feelings. The notion of plot here seems to be especially in trouble. Can we still talk about a plot when the exploration of the abysses of consciousness seems to reveal the inability of even language to pull itself together and take shape?

Yet nothing in these successive expansions of character at the expense of the plot escapes the formal principle of configuration and therefore the concept of emplotment. I will even dare to say that nothing in them takes us beyond the Aristotelian definition of muthos as the imitation of an action. As the breadth of the plot increases, so does that of action. By "action" we have to understand more than the behavior of the protagonists that produces visible changes in their situation or their fortune, what might be called their external appearance. Action, in this enlarged sense, also includes the moral transformation of characters, their growth and education, and their initiation into the complexity of moral and emotional existence. It also includes, in a still more subtle sense, purely internal changes affecting the temporal course of sensations and emotions, moving ultimately to the least organized, least conscious level introspection can reach.

The concept of an imitation of action can thus be extended beyond the "action novel," in the strict sense of the term, to include novels oriented toward character or toward an idea, in the name of the encompassing nature of plot in relation to the more narrowly defined categories of incident, character, or thought. The sphere delimited by the concept of mimesis praxeos extends as far as does the capacity of narrative to "render" its object by strategies giving rise to singular wholes capable of producing their "particular pleasure" through an interplay of inferences, expectations, and emotional responses on the reader's part. In this sense, the modern novel teaches us to extend the notion of an imitated or represented action to the point where we can say that a formal principle of composition governs the series of changes affecting beings similar to us—be they individual or collective, the bearers of a proper name as in the nineteenth-century novel, or just designated by an initial (K) as in Kafka, or even, at the limit, unnameable as in Beckett.

The history of the genre "novel" does not require us, therefore, to give up the term "plot" as designating the correlate of narrative understanding. However we must not stop with these historical considerations concerning the extension of this genre if we are to understand the apparent defeat of the plot. There is a less obvious reason for this reduction of the concept of plot to that of mere storyline—or schema or summary of the incidents. If the plot, once reduced to this skeleton, could appear to be an external constraint, even an artificial and finally an arbitrary one, it is because, since the birth of the novel through the end of its golden age in the nineteenth century, a more urgent problem than that of the art of composition occupied the foreground: the problem of verisimilitude. The substitution of one problem for the other was facilitated by the fact that the conquest of verisimilitude took place under the banner of the struggle against "conventions," especially against what plot was supposed to be, on the basis of epic, tragedy, and comedy in their ancient, Elizabethan, and "classical" (in the French sense of this term) forms. To struggle against these conventions and for verisimilitude constituted one and the same battle. It was this concern for being true—in the sense of being faithful—to reality, or for equating art and life, that most contributed to covering over the problems of narrative composition.

And yet these problems were not abolished. They were only displaced. To see this, it suffices to reflect upon the variety of novelistic procedures used to satisfy this requirement to depict life in its everyday truth in the early days of the English novel. For example, Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, made recourse to a pseudo-autobiographical form, through imitation of the innumerable diaries, memoires, and genuine autobiographies published during the same period by people shaped by the Calvinist discipline of daily self-examination. Following him, Richardson, in Pamela and Clarissa, believed he could depict private experience—for example, the conflicts between romantic love and the institution of marriage—with even greater fidelity by using as artificial a device as the exchange of letters, despite its evident disadvantages: little selective power, the encroachment of insignificant matters and garrulity, much marching in place and repetition. But, to Richardson, the advantages won out without any need for discussion. By having his heroine immediately write things down, he could convey the impression of great closeness between writing and feeling. Moreover, use of the present tense contributed to this impression of immediacy, thanks to the almost simultaneous transcription of what was felt and its circumstances. At the same time, the unsolvable difficulties of the pseudo-autobiography, dependent as it was on the resources of an unbelievable memory, were eliminated. Finally, this method allowed the reader to participate in the psychological situation presupposed by the very use of an exchange of letters, the subtle mixture of retreats and outpourings that occupy the mind of anyone who decides to confide in writing her or his intimate feelings. On the side of the reader, we find in response to this, the no less subtle mixture arising from the indiscretion of peeking through the keyhole, so to speak, and the impunity that goes with solitary reading.

No doubt what prevented these novelists from reflecting upon the artifice of these conventions, which was the price to be paid in their quest for the probable, was the conviction they shared with empiricist philosophers of language from Locke to Reid that language could be purged of every figurative and decorative element and returned to its original vocation—the vocation, according to Locke, "to convey the knowledge of things." This confidence in the spontaneously referential function of language, returned to its literal usage, is no less important than the will to return conceptual thought to its presumed origin in experience of the particular. In truth, this will could not exist without this confidence. How, indeed, render the experience of the particular by language, if language cannot be brought back to the pure referentiality attached to its presumed literalness?

It is a fact that, once transposed into the realm of literature, this return to experience and to simple and direct language led to the creation of a new genre, defined by the proposal to establish the most exact correspondence possible between the literary work and the reality it imitates. Implicit in this project is the reduction of mimesis to imitation, in the sense of making a copy, a sense totally foreign to Aristotle's Poetics. It is not surprising, therefore, that neither the pseudo-autobiography nor the epistolary formula really provided any problem for their users. Memory was not suspected of being fallacious, whether the hero recounted something after the fact or as directly from the scene. For Locke and Hume themselves, memory was the support for causality and for personal identity. Hence to render the texture of daily life as closely as possible was taken to be an accessible and, finally, not problematic task.

It is no small paradox that it was reflection on the highly conventional character of such novelistic discourse that finally led to reflection on the formal conditions of this very illusion of proximity and, thereby, led to the recognition of the basically fictive status of the novel itself. After all, the instantaneous, spontaneous, and frank transcription of experience in the epistolary novel is no less conventional than the recalling of the past by a supposedly infallible memory in the pseudo-autobiographical novel. The epistolary genre presupposes, in fact, that it is possible to transfer through writing, with no loss of persuasive power, the force of representation attached to the living voice or theatrical action. To the belief, expressed by Locke, in the direct referential value of language stripped of ornaments and figures is added the belief in the authority of the printed word substituted for the absence of the living voice. Perhaps it was necessary that at first the declared aim of being probable had to be confused with the aim of "representing" the reality of life so that too narrow and too artificial a conception of plot could be wiped out, and that subsequently the problems of composition should be brought out by reflection on the formal conditions of a truthful representation. In other words, perhaps it was necessary to overthrow the conventions in the name of the probable in order to discover that the price to be paid for doing so is an increase in the refinement of composition, hence the invention of ever more complex plots, and, in this sense, ones more and more distant from reality and from life. Whatever may be said about this alleged cunning of reason in the history of the genre of the novel, the paradox remains that it was refinement in narrative technique, called for by the concern for faithfulness to everyday reality, that brought attention to what Aristotle called, in the broad sense, the "imitation of an action" in terms of "the organization of the events" in a plot. What conventions or what artifices are not required to put life into writing, that is, to compose a persuasive simulacrum in writing?


Excerpted from Time and Narrative Volume 2 by Paul Ricoeur, Kathleen McLaughlin, David Pellauer. Copyright © 1985 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Paul Ricoeur is the John Nuveen Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School, professor of philosophy, and a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He was for many years dean of the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at the University of Paris X (Nanterre).

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