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Chapter 8 - Three ways to interpret narrative

H. Porter Abbott
Affiliation:
University of California, Santa Barbara
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Summary

There are many ways to interpret narrative, but almost all of them belong to one of three fundamentally distinct approaches: the intentional, the symptomatic, and the adaptive. Before I set these out, however, I need to focus on an assumption that has been lurking behind most of what I wrote in the last chapter. This is the assumption that narratives are “whole” in the sense that everything in a narrative somehow belongs and contributes to its meaning. Frank Kermode put this in the form of a question: “Why … does it require a more strenuous effort to believe that a narrative lacks coherence than to believe that somehow, if we could only find out, it doesn't?” (Genesis of Secrecy, 53).

The question of wholeness in narrative

This assumption of some kind of deep coherence or wholeness lies behind an old rule in the history of interpretation. Over 1600 years ago, Saint Augustine wrote with regard to scripture that meanings found in one part must “be seen to be congruous with” meanings found in other parts. In other words, interpretations have to work for the whole text. In my reading of “Now I Lay Me,” I applied this rule, trying hard to find an interpretation that was “congruous with” all the parts of the narrative. But suppose I wanted to make a more sweeping interpretation of “Now I Lay Me.”

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2008

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