Narrative Expectations

In all of my literature courses that include British modernism, that first short story on the reading list inevitably prompts the question, “where’s the rest of it?” James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf—all rejected previous narrative forms and instead structured their early twentieth-century fiction around heightened “moments of being,” to use Woolf’s term, or “epiphanies,” to use Joyce’s. Because nineteenth-century narrative form still dominates our expectations, however, modernist fiction can seem plotless and pointless to students. We want a narrator who guides and interprets for us and we expect rising and falling action, hinged by conflict.

But is realist fiction actually realistic? Does it reflect our lived experiences, or does the modernist innovation of the literary epiphany—those heightened moments of significance around which narratives are structured—offer us a different realism? If fictions provide insight into the human condition and stimulate the moral imagination, then a modernist disruption of our narrative expectations can offer students a different, possibly more “real” narrative understanding of their own lives.   

The idea of narrating one’s life is familiar in the scholarship on vocation. Douglas Henry, for example, opens his essay on “Vocation and Story: Narrating Self and World” with the claim that vocation “has a narrative quality” because of its goal-driven, unified plot (At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education). Yet the literary definition of narrative does not require such a plot; rather, as M. H. Abrams defines it, a narrative is “a story, whether told in prose or verse, involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do” (Glossary of Literary Terms). In literary studies, we don’t teach students to read for the point of a story or the goal of its plot because literary narratives offer a complexity of both meaning and form that defies such reduction. A study of modernist fiction can illustrate such complexity as it locates meaning—or at least the search for meaning—in the small, seemingly trivial daily experiences of average people rather than in the epic quests of (usually male) heroes. While narratives necessitate cohesion—they have beginnings and ends—their plots are not necessarily unified or goal-driven. 

We might see a troublesome affinity between this trope of “narrating one’s life” as the work of vocational discernment and the current socio-political cliché of “controlling the narrative” as well. That cliché connotes spin or public relations skill, not truth-telling. Here, too, modernist fiction with its heightened psychological moments of significance as the source of meaning shows us the dangers of self-narration. In Mansfield’s short story, “Bliss,” Bertha Young believes that she has a shared epiphanic moment with another female character while they gaze at a flowering pear tree in her garden during a dinner party; they stand together in silence, “understanding each other perfectly.” But Bertha’s interpretation of this moment as one of perfect understanding is shown to be false when she sees her husband’s intimate encounter with the woman as she is leaving their flat. Bertha has not understood the woman at all, so her control over her self-narrative seems illusory. Mansfield does not offer any resolution; the story ends with Bertha exclaiming, “Oh, what is going to happen now?” as she looks out again at the still pear tree. Mansfield mocks her characters’ posing and exposes the difficulty in knowing one’s self, much less other people. At the conclusion of the story, we can’t answer Bertha’s question any better than she can. 

Joyce’s and Woolf’s literary epiphanies are not often false in this same way; in other words, their characters seem to interpret more successfully. Sometimes the heightened moment of significance has a negative emotion attached (the “anguish and anger” of the boy at the end of Joyce’s “Araby”) and sometimes a positive emotion (“all seemed transparent for a moment to Fanny Wilmot” at the end of Woolf’s “Moments of Being: Slater’s Pins Have No Points”). Taken together, the stories offer us glimpses of lives that look much like our own in their array of emotions and events and encounters with others, even if the specific details are dissimilar. Our lives are just as likely to be defined by this multiplicity of meaningful moments as by one significant meaningful event—the climax of the traditional narrative—or perhaps more so. 

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, circa 1917.

Roger Fry (1866-1934)

Instead of focusing on “narrating one’s life” as means to discuss callings with our students, then, we might consider teaching them how to achieve a narrative understanding of their lives. The difference is not negligible. A narrative understanding acknowledges plot, character, and events, but it does not demand a certain formula, a satisfying resolution, a moral lesson, or a singular meaning. It suggests to students that their day-to-day lives—often filled with the mundane, yet now and then illumined by moments of significance—are valuable.  It shows them that having only partial knowledge of other people (the characters) or of the value of each experience (the events) can be misleading but can also be sufficient for flourishing. It can defuse their expectations of the need for a “single story” that collapses the various possibilities for defining meaning into one and may reinforce dominant ideologies, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has argued (TED talk).  It can, as with the example of modernist fiction, assure them that being uncertain about “what is going to happen now” is itself a worthy story. Yet a narrative understanding also allows for rising action with a devastating conflict and resolution if that’s the plot in which they find themselves. 

The philosopher L. A. Paul suggests that to live authentically, one must sometimes abandon the old self and “create and discover a new self” because human existence means awaiting such revelations of “who you’ll become” (Transformative Experience). In other words, our decisions are not merely value-maximizing equations because our values change over time; we occasionally revise our values rather than maximize them, and we may do so even as responses to life events that we have not chosen. The trope of “narrating one’s life” not only privileges the past but also rests on the value-maximizing equations of decision theory when we try to attend to the future. What if we are not sure who we will become?  How do we act and further the plot without full narrative control over our stories?

A narrative understanding emphasizes the act of interpretation, not the act of narration. Rather than ceding control over one’s story, however, our interpretation of the “events, characters, and what the characters say and do” in our lives creates meaning—it brings value and purpose and sense to the story. For students considering their vocations—their callings to work and their callings to multiple responsibilities in multiple contexts—a narrative understanding can open the potential in every moment of their lives to matter. 

Stephanie L. Johnson is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at The College of St. Scholastica. She teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature, literature by women, and poetry, and has published articles on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. She is currently working on a book project that examines Rossetti’s theology of the body as shaped by her poetry and prose.

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