The Rhetoric of Fiction Revisited
English 550: The Rhetoric of Fiction Revisited
This course takes its title from Wayne Booth’s groundbreaking study of narration, The Rhetoric of Fiction. Distinguishing between narrator and implied author, Booth examines how novels use various types of narration (e.g. reliable/unreliable, personal/impersonal) rhetorically, to shape readers’ interpretations. We will take as our premise for the course Booth’s argument that novels teach their readers how to read them largely through the rhetorical effects of narration.
To test and refine this premise, we will apply it to four classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, each of which constitutes a milestone in the genre’s development: Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. We will place these novels in conversation with a range of critical studies of narration including, among others, Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller”; Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader; Roland Barthes, “The Reality Effect”; Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination; Lennard Davis, Factual Fictions; and Nicholas Paige Before Fiction. As we move From Defoe’s and Richardson’s uses of found documents and fictional editors to Stowe’s highly politicized sentimentalism and Henry James’s almost affectless use of free indirect discourse, we will gain a sense of how the novel’s development as a genre depended in part on changing beliefs about the moral and aesthetic purposes of narration.
This course will be particularly useful for students who are interested in narrative theory and the history of the novel, but it requires no prior background in these areas. Course requirements will include two short (3pp) critical summaries and a final conference-length paper.