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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Chapter 3 - Narrating the novel


Nobody can work in material of which the properties are unfamiliar, and a reader who tries to get possession of a book with nothing but his appreciation of the life and the ideas and the story in it is like a man who builds a wall without knowing the capacities of wood and clay and stone. Many different substances, as distinct to the practiced eye as stone and wood, go to the making of a novel, and it is necessary to see them for what they are.

Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (1921)

What makes the narration of Tristram Shandy so striking is that we are never allowed to forget that everything we learn reaches us mediated by the idiosyncratic voice of Tristram himself. You could put it more strongly than this and say that the telling of events constitutes the main event, as would later become the case in many twentieth-century novels: “There is the story of one's hero,” Henry James wrote of his novel The Ambassadors (1903), “and then … the story of one's story itself.” That novels are never simply unfolding before our eyes but are narrated from somewhere is one of the most important factors to keep in mind as we read them. Although other predominantly narrative forms such as theater and film have strategies of their own to direct our perceptions and make particular meanings possible, they usually present events as if they are happening before our eyes rather than being “told” to us: unlike the events of a novel, dramatic and cinematic events are enacted rather than narrated.

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