Theses Doctoral

Narrative Units: The Language of Form in British Fiction, 1749-1819

Paulson, Michael

"Narrative Units" traces the development of a unique perspective on narrative form in the theory and practice of the early British novel. From Aristotle's Poetics through twentieth-century formalism, structuralism, and narratology, major theories of narrative have approached narrative form as a unified whole, whether that whole is defined as plot, structure, or discourse. By contrast, early British novelists tended to conceive of narrative as a looser accretion of individual parts, identified with terms such as "adventure," "episode," "incident," "accident," "situation," "moment," "scene," "period,” and "crisis," as well as temporal spans such as hours, days, weeks, and years. This dissertation examines the social, philosophical, and technical implications of viewing narrative through this lens of narrative parts, or what I call “narrative units.” The project begins by comparing the emphasis on narrative units in the early British novel with dominant traditions in narrative theory, which tend to prioritize narrative totalities. It then proceeds to analyze the functioning of narrative units in the novels of three key innovators of the tradition: Henry Fielding, Ann Radcliffe, and Jane Austen. In each of these case studies I identify the key units deployed by the author, considering the dialogic relationship between them and the unique narrative dynamics that they bring about. Ultimately, I show that the unusual emphasis on narrative units in the long eighteenth century emerges in response to a series of major social and intellectual crises of the eighteenth century: in Fielding, the epistemological opacity of cities and institutions; in Radcliffe, the fragmentation of self in the sentimental subject; in Austen, the breakdown of community in a rapidly accelerating society. I conclude that by prioritizing and emphasizing narrative parts over narrative wholes, these authors deformed and disrupted prevailing models of narrative, from Aristotelian plot and Enlightenment progress to the sentimental flow of feelings, and along the way developed a new poetics of uncertainty, stasis, and fragmentation. In identifying and analyzing the historical vocabulary deployed by authors themselves to articulate the fundamental structure of their narratives, “Narrative Units” develops a new methodology for the study of narrative, offers a new approach to the history of the novel, and contributes to current critical efforts to synthesize formalist and historicist methods of literary study.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Davidson, Jenny
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 18, 2017