2.5. The narrated world


Although arguably the universe is one, each sentient being may be said to inhabit a second-degree universe of its own, a universe which amounts to a perspective on the first-degree universe.[1]  Each human being inhabits one of a multiplicity of possible worlds, one which is largely constructed by the culture he inhabits.  A culture is of course not homogeneous.  There are cultural layers, mixtures, shading from one into another.  We might picture the human psyche as a textual system, or rather as an intertextual system, where many narratives,  interpretive codes, norms and representations co-exist with one another, usually (but not necessarily always) in a hierarchical order.  Both the contents and the structure of this intertextual system vary from one individual to another, from a culture to another.  Contact between possible worlds is not an exclusively literary or fictional phenomenon: it is one of the basic communicative activities in "real" life.

            Any narrative constitues a narrated world which is different from the reader's world, a world the reader constructs from the words in the text.  The narrated world may be fictional or real, credible or fantastic, relatively close to the reader's world and experience or far from them. A fictional narrative builds a world which is ontologically autonomous.  It may share the characteristics of the world of the communicative partners (assuming they  share the same world) or it may deviate from the authorial or the reader's norm into fantasy.  It is clear from this definition that realism or fantasy are not just specific registers chosen by a text within a tradition . It also involves an implicit negotiation between the participants in the narrative act. 

            In principle, the laws of the possible world of the text, the fictional world, are assumed by the reader to coincide with the laws of his own possible ("real") world.  Any deviation is a cue for generic re-codifying of the text as fantastic in some degree or other. 

            In a narrative text, the reader's experience of this world is articulated through the experience of the characters: it is the world they live in, and the reader comes to know of the narrated world as the characters live and act in it.  The action takes place in the narrated world: it is a part of that world and the reader's main guideline through it. 

            It is clear, however, that a textual world need not be "narrated".  It may just be described, with no action to structure the text.  The descriptive element may also be dominant even if the text is a narrative one: descriptions may be loosely linked to the action and acquire an interest and value of their own.  We see therefore a continuous spectrum of texts, ranging from those with an exclusively narrative interest, with the descriptive element playing an ancillary role, to those which are primarily descriptive, the action being just a connecting thread between the descriptions.  The analyst must weigh the relationship between the narrative and the descriptive element in a text and determine the nature of their connection.

            The same applies to other textual elements which are neither narrative nor descriptive, but digressive or commentative.  We shall return later on to the role of commentary, since it is one of the functions of the narrative voice.  The relationship between action and description is different, since they are both characterisations of the narrated world from different perspectives: a temporal, dynamic one, and a spatial, static one. 

            So far we have assumed that a narrative refers just to one world.  But this need not be so: many novels could be described as depicting a complex system of worlds.  The possible articulations between these worlds are varied.  Nevertheless, the grammatical concepts of coordination and subordination may provide a helpful way of approaching the question.  A narrative may coordinate two different worlds if none of them is ontologically dependent on the other.  We shall have to take into account, nevertheless, the relationships of each of these worlds to the real world, to which both of them are subordinated.

            Any world, in its turn, may have further subordinate worlds. For instance, many narratives contain second-level fictional constructs, such as embedded narratives, which may refer to fictional worlds different from the first-level narrated world ‹ this happens, for instance, in those novels where characters invent fantastic stories, as in A. S. Byatt's Possession.  Narrated worlds may establish a variety of relationships.  There may be one main world (the most frequent case) to which the others are subordinated.  That is, the relations between narrated worlds tend to be unambigous and hierarchical ‹ which means, of course, that they can also be otherwise.  Worlds may also, for instance, alternate in two different narrative lines, without any priority being established between them. We shall deal further with such questions in our section on narrative status.  Let us only note that an alternance of narrative lines need not entail an alternace of worlds.  For instance, in Faulkner's The Wild Palms  there are two independent and alternating action lines which never meet on the level of action, but both take place in a realistically presented twentieth-century America.  And of course, they do meet at other levels (mythical or symbolic values). 



[1]          Cf. Leibniz, Monadology  § 57.