Monday, December 5, 2011

Literary Analysis, Part 3: Metanarrative

I'm sorry for taking so long before writing a new post.  Although this series takes more work for me to write, I am finding it to be really valuable, and I am motivated to continue.  However, I am walking in some territory beyond my expertise, so please read this as a discussion rather than an official instruction.

Metanarrative is another really fascinating lens of literary analysis.  It comes from Postmodern philosophy, which is based on the idea that definitive absolutes - such as Truth - are either extremely elusive or nonexistent.  Inherently, this also makes it difficult to define postmodernism, since it balks against definitions.  Nevertheless, there are theories within postmodernism we can understand and which shed light on the literary subset of metanarrative.

According to this philosophy, everything we experience is subject to our interpretation of it.  We cannot evaluate anything from an objective standpoint because we unavoidably make assumptions based on our interpretations.  Even if we tried to avoid this by taking what is written to be meant literally, this is still a subjective decision.  For this reason, postmodernists believe that our conception of Truth is relative because it is subject to our interpretive limits of "true" and "untrue."  Some postmodernists will go so far as to suggest that there is no definitive Truth at all, but others (like myself) argue that it must exist, though we will never have the assurance that we know it.

Authors who incorporate metanarrative in their writing explore this postmodern idea. To start simply, metanarrative is a story within a story.  These texts are not written with a third-person, omniscient narrator who exists outside of the characters in the story.  Instead, they have active narrators who openly insert themselves in the stories they are telling and are self-conscious of their own narration.  If the narrator appears as a character in the story, the author may take a break from the main storyline to say what the narrator is doing in real time.  This creates a metanarrative by acknowledging that there are two simultaneous things happening - 1. The events of a previous experience from a retrospective point of view, and 2. The present events occurring while the narrator is telling the story.

If the narrator does not appear as a character in the story, he will break the traditional framework to reveal that he is incorporating his personal opinions to the story.  By doing this, the author openly acknowledges that the events of the story should not be taken as factual, unwavering Truth.  A metanarrative identifies that there is a narrator behind the story and not an omniscient, inerrant god.  This emphasizes that the reader's understanding of the story will be affected by the narrator's presentation as well as her own interpretation.

Another aspect of postmodernism that often appears in metanarrative is frequent allusions to past works.  Again, this is meant to illustrate that we are wrapped in the context of various stories which impact our understanding.  The author of a metanarrative is extremely self-aware and wants readers to challenge their own interpretations as well. 

Why would I want to know this?  How will this affect my reading?

Because we are so accustomed to omniscient narrators, we may be baffled the first time we encounter metanarratives.  I find that it is helpful to understand the purpose behind these unusual narrations so that we can scrutinize what the author is conveying.  Of course, if you believe in the heavy subjectivity our interpretation brings, then we should never expect to really understand what the author had in mind.  I find that this makes the piece of writing much more fluid and welcomes readers to entertain various interpretations.

Examples in Literature:

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Honorable mention: Frankenstein, Turn of the Screw, and Dracula are all layered with multiple narrators to play with interpretations among the characters of the story and those of the readers

Useful Explanation:

Purdue University's Guide to Postmodernism
I'll try to find more for this later, but let me know if you have a useful site at hand!


IngridLola said...

These posts are great! You are really good at presenting these complicated ideas in a way that's easy to understand. What sources do you use?

Andrew Shaughnessy said...

Metanarratives and metafiction is fascinating stuff. Some of my favorite authors and works fall in this category: You mentioned Rushdie and Eco, who are both great. Borges (who, by the way, was a major influence on Eco) is another who is brilliant with this. It's a great way for the authors to simultaneously comment on the nature of fiction and the very nature of knowledge itself (Borges' Universe as an infinite library of overlapping and conflicting knowledge, etc...). This is also interesting when it comes to metafiction dealing with history (as with Rushdie especially) - the explicit dealings with the nature of fiction and truth invariably bleed over into the nebulous and malleable nature of history and memory. Oh, also David Foster Wallace - good stuff.

Amy said...

Ingrid, I'm glad you've been enjoying the series! The majority of what I write comes from my personal understanding of knowledge I've acquired over the years. So when I sit down and write it, I'm not looking at the original sources I studied from however long ago. When I do use online guides as reminders, I include them at the bottom of the post. But I keep trying to say that these are not perfect definitions because they are coming from me rather than an expert source.

Andrew, this sounds like excellent fodder for that guest post that is still pending... :)

Andrew Shaughnessy said...

Still thinking Amy! I promise. There's just too much to say about too many things

Andrew Shaughnessy said...

Looking through old notes of mine about this subject I found some possibly helpful sources:
Nicol Bran - The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodern Fiction - Very broad but helpful overview of postmodern themes with case studies from specific works - there's a section on metafiction; Patricia Waugh - Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction - this one is very easy to read and extremely helpful. On a more focused level Peter Brigg's: “Salman Rushdie’s Novels: The Disorder in Fantastic Order” in Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie deals a bit with Rushdie's use of fiction, and fantasy in particular, as an explicit means of making sense of a senseless world.

Jillian said...

Thanks so much for posting this series. I've never read a metanarrative book but find the concept of it fascinating! I'm almost thinking I need to build a framework of the narrative style of the past (like the Victorians, and perhaps even the Modernists) before I could fully appreciate Post-Modernism.

I believe in a single truth but believe too that it is rarely recognizable, due to the viewer's jaded perspective. :-)

Brian Bither said...

Interesting. I thought you did a good job representing "postmodern" philosophy (perhaps it may be more precise to label what you're talking about "post-structuralist"), and I really appreciated your introduction to metanarrative literary criticism. However, I might add one philosophical footnote.

Originally, the term "metanarrative" had a negative connotation in postmodern circles. The classic text on this subject (which many believe introduced the very term "postmodern" to philosophy) is Jean-Francois Lyotard's, "The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge." In this essay, Lyotard famously defined postmodernism as "incredulity toward metanarratives." By his description, narratives are ways in which people fundamentally perceive reality, but they do not necessarily claim to be universally valid. Metanarratives, on the other hand, claim to be the best or only way to understand reality, and every society or organization that attempts to gain power over other groups is guided by a metanarrative. Although this dominance over others is acquired through a variety of coercive methods, the most subtle and effective method is to explain away competing narratives with reference to the dominant power's narrative. (For example, a scientific metanarrative may dismiss religious and social accounts of reality because they lack empirical evidence; a Marxist metanarrative may write off scientific and religious ways of explaining reality as being motivated by the desire for political power; a Biblical metanarrative may interpret competing theories as "false prophecies", etc.) Postmoderns, according to Lyotard, are suspicious of any attempt to explain the whole of reality objectively, because they see this as the attempt to subsume competing accounts of reality under the logic of one overarching narrative (i.e. a metanarrative). Needless to say, I find it odd that postmodern authors would embrace "metanarrative" writing.

But given your description, the literary use of metanarrative makes sense. By acknowledging the way that they subsume all the events and descriptions in the novel to a "higher" logic (the logic of the author), these authors show that even that narration is not objective or universal. In this way, calling attention to the "metanarrative" function of the narration keeps it from being a "metanarrative", but instead presenting it as one narrative among many. This is fascinating insofar as it reveals how much effort postmodern authors must employ to resist the human tendency toward "metanarrating."

Clarice said...

This was definitely helpful in my understanding of metanarratives. I really like that you can explain something 'complex' simply and succinctly :) As a literature student studying post-colonial literatures, I sometimes find terms overwhelming especially when they're used in social and politcal contexts. I will be checking out novels that are an example of metanarratives. Thank you!

Adhari Abroader said...

I feel like your writing talks more about Frame-narrative than Metanarrative. In frame-narrative, it is true that the characters play the role of narrators as well. We can see a clear example of this in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales where the characters in turn become narrators (story tellers).

It's just my personal view. Feel fee to correct me because I am trapped in postmodernist atmosphere where false and truth are not visible anyomre :D