Prose Fiction: An Introduction to the Semiotics of Narrative
with post-publication contributions from Ben Storey and Miranda Rodak.
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© 2019 Ignasi Ribó
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Ignasi Ribó, Prose Fiction: An Introduction to the Semiotics of Narrative. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2019. https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0187
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Original Ribo ISBN Paperback: 978-1-78374-809-9
Original Ribo ISBN Hardback: 978-1-78374-810-5 ISBN Digital (PDF): 978-1-78374-811-2
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Original Ribo DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0187
Cover image by Anatoli777 from Pixabay
Cover design: Ben Storey
About the Authors
Ignasi Ribó (Ph.D. in Modern European Literature and Thought, University of Sussex) is a Catalan writer and scholar. He has been teaching Literary Theory and Semiotics at university level for more than ten years and currently works as a Lecturer in the School of Liberal Arts at Mae Fah Luang University (Chiang Rai, Thailand). Ignasi is the author of several novels, as well as academic essays on literary theory, comparative literature, ecocriticism, biosemiotics, cultural ecology, and environmental philosophy. More information on the author’s website: https://www.ignasiribo.com
Ben Storey (MFA in Fiction Writing, University of Kansas) is an Arkansas-born writer and teacher. He has been an NTT faculty member at three universities, has taught 15 distinct preparations since 2004, and currently works as a Lecturer and Assistant Director of Undergraduate Teaching in the English Department at Indiana University in Bloomington. Storey is a science-fiction author and most-often teaches the course you are enrolled in: L204: Introduction to Fiction.
Miranda Rodak (PhD in English, Indiana University) is a Georgia-born scholar and educator. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor and the Director of Undergraduate Teaching in the Department of English at Indiana University where she specializes in: designing and directing curricula across the undergraduate Writing & Gen Ed programs, mentoring graduate student instructors in pedagogy and professional development, creating and facilitating instructor-training programs, and designing communication courses, particularly in digital collaboration and professional/technical writing.
Please note: Ignasi Ribó does not endorse and has not been consulted on additions made by our other authors. His open-source textbook serves as the backbone for an adaption serving students in Indiana University’s L204: Introduction to Fiction course.
Acknowledgements from Ignasi Ribó:
I would like to thank the School of Liberal Arts at Mae Fah Luang University (MFU) for giving me the opportunity to teach the “Short Stories and Novels” course to English-major third-year students. This textbook was specifically written for that course and would probably have never seen the light of day, at least in this form, if I had not been assigned this task.
In particular, I would like to thank the coordinator of the course, Ajarn Teeranuch Anurit, as well as Ajarn Panida Monyanont and Ajarn Khanisara Sirisit, who taught this and other literary courses with me at MFU. It was an enjoyable and rewarding experience being part of this literature team.
I would also like to thank my English major students, who mostly came from Thailand, but in some cases also from Korea, Japan, China, Bhutan, and Myanmar, for their interest and willingness to learn the basics of narrative theory, especially considering that most of them had limited experience in literary studies before attending MFU. This book was written for them and for many other students like them who might be interested in studying this subject elsewhere.
I also want to thank the anonymous reviewers who contributed to improving the quality of the book with their insightful comments and suggestions during the peer review process.
Finally, I would like to thank Alessandra Tosi and the editorial team at Open Book Publishers for believing in this textbook and making it available to readers and students around the world. At a time when the publishing industry tends to look at its bottom line more than at the lines it prints, it is a truly commendable enterprise to produce high-quality academic books that can be accessed, read and used by everyone free of charge.
Acknowledgements from Ben Storey and Miranda Rodak:
We would like to thank Ignasi Ribó for conceiving of, creating, and providing Prose Fiction free for adaptation. A substantial amount of intellectual labor went into generating this text, and we’d like to acknowledge and celebrate his commitment to open access textbooks.
For our parts in amending this text, we must credit the editing assistance of Sarah Hare, Indiana University’s Scholarly Communication Librarian, the Department of English Culbertson Fund for underwriting our project, and you, our students of English L204: Introduction to Fiction, for choosing our course, committing to an education from Indiana University, and for spending your precious time reading our textbook.
We would also like to thank our spouses, Caroline Boisvert-Storey and Tom Rodak, for supporting our careers. The life of an academic is sometimes thankless, but the role of husband or wife to an academic is almost always so.
The first job of any textbook is to justify its existence. Following is the obligation to inspire readers to care about the book’s content and to pull from students a commitment to close reading and study. Never have these challenges been more difficult. With the popularity of YouTube edutainment channels, Wikipedia, and reader help sites (Schmoop, Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, BookRags, and so on), students often gloss assigned textbooks in writing or literature classes, knowing their fleet-fingered “GoogleFu”1 will save them if they don’t recall the definition of metonymy or the function of an X/Y thesis. Worse, readers of textbooks may resent their instructors for assigning dry, lifeless prose when the theoretical information the textbook presents is readily available online.
For any reader tempted to treat this text as you might an Introduction to Psychology or Western Civilization compendium, you will deprive yourself of a resource that was adapted specifically to help you succeed in L204: Introduction to Fiction. While Ribó’s Prose Fiction was created for students in a 300-level literature course, our contributing authors, Ben Storey and Miranda Rodak, are teachers at your university, and they’ve amended this text with you and your educational needs in mind. You are the textbook’s target audience, and every chapter has practical application in the types of assignments you’ll complete in class. The text’s authors created the book because they believe in sparing no effort to bring you the highest-quality education for your tuition dollars and because no other textbook speaks so clearly to your current knowledge level about semiotics, narratology, and the broader challenge of writing about literature. Prose Fiction, which has been provided at no additional cost, knows you, and it’s in your interest to know it.
Appreciating Fiction – Spooky Empathy at a Distance
In early childhood, we are conditioned to respect the power of storytelling to expose hidden truths. Our esteem for fiction flows from trust of and admiration for our parents, grandparents, or caregivers, who are often the first storytellers in our lives. Religious myth, family lore, awareness of the broader world, and early-childhood instruction all come to us from them in the form of . The great (and terrible) storytelling box in the living room, our television, presents to us in 22-minute increments slickly-produced, self-contained narratives that may be just as influential as the stories we hear from family. For one generation, Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), LeVar Burton (Reading Rainbow), and Mr. Hooper (Sesame Street) represent key narrators of early life lessons. For another, Daniel Tiger, SpongeBob Squarepants, or Dora the Explorer reveal the rudiments of , , and . Our childhood conditioning on the importance of narrative is so complete that we put up with not understanding much of the stories we’re told. Only at the age of reason (seven or so) do we begin following complex character motivations, comprehending fiction’s morality lessons, and distinguishing reality from fantasy.
LeVar Burton, apparently lovely man. Host of PBS’s Reading Rainbow (1983-2006). Photo by Tweigel59 on Wikimedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LeVar_Burton.png)
Recall your confusion as Shel Silverstein’s eponymous The Giving Tree sacrifices itself for an undeserving boy, an only-sometimes friend. The tree loses its fruit, its limbs, its trunk. For what? The boy goes off and marries some girl!? Why? What about the poor tree?
When Max’s room transforms first into a forest and then an ocean in Where the Wild Things Are, what has become of Max’s momma, his house, his dog? Did Max make his room change? How? These are important things for a child to know.
A mural of the illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are painted in Thundercloud Subs shop on Burnet in Austin, TX. Photo by Bruce Turner (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/91/Where_the_Wild_Things_Are_Mural_in_Austin%2C_TX.jpg/800px-Where_the_Wild_Things_Are_Mural_in_Austin%2C_TX.jpg)
When Bilbo Baggins bandies wits with the creature Gollum in The Hobbit, how is it that a ring can make someone invisible? And why is Gollum so strange? He seems both pathetic and menacing. Aren’t all monsters simply bad? And aren’t they usually big? Sad little monsters are new to us! Why doesn’t Bilbo, armed with a magic ring and sword, just stab the creature, as Gandalf does the Great Goblin a few pages before? So much to learn!
A giant installation of the creature Gollum from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings looms over the Wellington, New Zealand airport. Photo by Pseudopanax (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/25/Giant_Gollum_sculpture_in_Wellington_Airport.jpg/800px-Giant_Gollum_sculpture_in_Wellington_Airport.jpg)
If you were fortunate-enough to have books read to you as a child, you may not remember the barrage of questions you lobbed at your storyteller, but your caregiver will remember your questions: “Why does the Little Prince want the man to draw him a sheep?” and “How can a peach grow so big that James can fit inside?” and “Why are the Dursleys so mean to Harry?!” Despite regular and total confusion, you likely recall these moments of storytelling with some fondness, if you recall them at all. For from a young age, we know implicitly that stories are fun, surprising, important, and good for us.
Reading Fiction Makes us Wiser
Joseph Campbell, the legendary professor whose work inspired Star Wars, reminds us in The Power of Myth (1991) that the author or storyteller, by posing as a sage with special knowledge and shareable wisdom, assumes the power of a parent, priest, or mystic. Myths we learn and tales we’re told are “initiation rituals” into adulthood. The child’s most frequent question is “What does this mean?” The storyteller’s most common response is “Listen.” Often those reciting us our first stories are parents, religious figures, or authorities of a kind (teachers, librarians, the Walt Disney Corporation), yet childish acceptance of the imbalance of power that exists between speaker and listener fades over time. Of course, even adults have heroes, idolizing video game directors, movie producers, songwriters, and fiction writers. But as we enter our formative college years, it’s less satisfying when the teachers who choose what we read smile wryly at our direct inquiries and say, “Read closely and discover for yourself!”
Both power disparity and withholding of wisdom are sources of frustration for busy college students, who are long-removed from their halcyon days of childhood wonder. The authority of authorship can no longer be asserted or accepted as a given. We discover that parents are often flawed, complicated people; priests are only human; and mystics are often frauds. Similarly, for adult readers, authors of fiction are not infinitely wise. Maybe The Giving Tree is in an abusive relationship with that selfish boy. Who is letting that very hungry caterpillar eat single holes through all those sweets? That’s terribly wasteful. Isn’t this a pest-control problem? If you give that mouse a cookie, you’re going to need to invest in mousetraps. J.K. Rowling said what on Twitter? The relationship between author and reader has fundamentally changed.
When confronted with ambiguity in a novel or short story, college students sometimes think, Why doesn’t the author just say what she means? Why don’t you, teacher, just tell me what this means? Yet it is the ambiguity in, discoverability of, and revelation of meaning in literature that is responsible for the joy and utility of reading. Even knowing that authors are human and make mistakes doesn’t diminish the value of literary analysis. Instead, it encourages us in adulthood to see meaning-making as a negotiated process between author and reader, rather than a dispensation of wisdom. You are not a child. The author is not your caregiver. Readers of literary fiction are authors’ partners in the search for truth and wisdom.
Why Young People Stop Reading Fiction and Why That’s a Mistake
A time comes in our intellectual development when seeking hidden knowledge of human nature, society, or metaphysics in stories and from literary sages seems to diminish our independence, our sense of agency. The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in “The Child’s Need for Magic” argues that “[T]he more secure a person feels within the world, the less he will need to hold on to ‘infantile’ projections—mythical explanations or fairy-tale solutions to life’s eternal problems—and the more he can afford to seek rational explanations. The more secure a man is within himself, the more he can…accept an explanation which says his world is of minor significance in the cosmos.”2 Literature, which constitutes lies that exist only in the minds of readers, may appear subjective and small or even self-indulgent in the light of the hard sciences, which are testable, repeatable, concrete, and irrefutably real.
For Bettelheim, disillusionment from myth (and the storytelling that brings it to us) is a prerequisite for adulthood. When young, children should be read fairy tales and taught religious myths because they provide a sense of security: “Most of all, the child wants support for his still very tenuous belief that through growing up, working hard, and maturing he will one day be the victorious one.” But to reach adulthood without delayed development, fiction(s) must be abandoned: “Many young people who today suddenly seek escape in drug-induced dreams, apprentice themselves to some guru, believe in astrology, engage in practicing ‘black magic,’ or who in some other fashion escape from reality into daydreams about magic experiences which are to change their life for the better, were prematurely pressed to view reality in an adult way. Trying to evade reality in such ways has its deeper cause in early formative experiences which prevented the development of the conviction that life can be mastered in realistic ways.” Is Bettelheim right that our Game of Thrones or Harry Potter or The Mandalorean obsessions reflect stunted childhoods? The great novels of the literary canon assigned in English classes everywhere are as much lies as is Rick and Morty. Should we run screaming from classes like L204 that indulge the ‘childish’ impulse to seek meaning in lies?
Attendees wear Rick and Morty paper-machete costumes at WonderCon 2016. This isn’t nerdy at all. Photo by William Tung (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b9/Wondercon_2016_-_Rick_and_Morty_Cosplay_%2825988428002%29.jpg/800px-Wondercon_2016_-_Rick_and_Morty_Cosplay_%2825988428002%29.jpg)
Even your English teachers can agree that being a functioning adult means solving the small, daily, practical problems of life. When we’re working through professional and home-life checklists, what time’s left for pondering Riddles in the Dark with Bilbo in Gollum’s cave? Does it matter much if, by reading and thinking about The Hobbit, I learn that villains can be pitiable yet remain dangerous? There are bills to pay. I have stuff to do. Should I give over mental processing cycles to thinking about that damn tree in the kids’ book again?3
What’s to be gained by entertaining the meaning-making negotiation required to appreciate literary fiction? Reading is time consuming, with little immediate evidence of practical utility. There’s a reason PEW Research finds that 27% of adults in the US haven’t read even part of a book in the last year4. To be fair, 25% of US adults think the sun orbits the Earth. Perhaps there’s some overlap in these demographics. You might find the correlation between income and higher reading rates5 a persuasive reason to engage fully in L204, but it’s worth acknowledging that for many students, our class represents not an “Introduction to Fiction” but a “Farewell” to it. That is, unless this textbook and your experience in class this term convince you otherwise.
What Bettelheim misses and other psychologists like David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano6 or Dan Johnson7 establish is that reading fiction demonstrably improves human empathy, a crucial adult skill for maintaining human relationships. Besides winning friends and influencing people, empathy matters in every sales, marketing, management, and leadership position. A 2013 research initiative called Project Oxygen8 conducted by Google Corporation discovered that among the eight most significant qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise was least important. The top seven characteristics are all soft skills: “being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.” Empathetic employees are also more innovative9 because they understand and value the needs of all stakeholders, including bosses and customers. Reading literary fiction boosts our empathetic capacity by improving our Theory of Mind, or cognitive perspective taking. It’s easy to see how investing in the inner-emotional lives of fictional characters prepares us for actually caring about real-world human beings. Kidd and Castano demonstrate experimentally that benefits happen in real time, immediately after reading literary fiction. So reading fiction is good for us, and reading it with more sophistication leads to greater socio-cognitive gains.
The Problem with English Classes and a Textbook Solution
For analytically-minded students—those most comfortable with science, computer science/informatics, finance/accounting, or mathematics—ambiguity is a villain. Ambiguity loses you points on your proof or in your business plan. There is but one truth in our objective reality, and discovering it is the function of all learning, especially formal education. Right?
Consider the contrarian position of the Romantic poet, John Keats, whose poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” might have been forced upon you in high school. In a letter to his brothers in December of 1817, Keats holds court on what he thinks causes success: “It struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…. [W]ith a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” Keats was quite young when he wrote this and never repeated the negative capability term in his correspondence. In fact, the poor man died young, at age 25, of tuberculosis, so it’s worth wondering if his definition reaches a great truth at the heart of human achievement or if he merely coined an aphorism, something pithy and shallow. By “negative capability,” Keats means that greatness in literature often comes from those who linger comfortably in mystery or doubt, from those who do not possess the bothersome trait of needing to reduce complexity. For the film buffs in class, this sounds a bit like J.J. Abrams’ notion of The Mystery Box10.
John Keats (1795-1821) in oil by artist William Hilton (1786-1839). National Portrait Gallery, London: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1a/John_Keats_by_William_Hilton.jpg/508px-John_Keats_by_William_Hilton.jpg
But Keats’ idea can be extrapolated to matter in English classes today. Negative capability isn’t only a path to literary success for an author; it’s a mark of intelligence in the 21st century. How much of our thinking (politics, morality, consumer behavior) is reductionist or binary? How many of us are seriously bothered by ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty? Are the smartest people you know made insecure by difference of opinion or by the clash of ideas? Or do they happily exist in a world that is full of shades of gray, rather than black and white dichotomies? How is it that people grow comfortable with ambiguity? Is it through empathizing with perspectives different from their own? How many of us can legitimately lay claim to true empathy—holding others’ perspectives and worldviews and politics and religions and ideologies in our heads, next to our own, without attempting to destroy the invading ideas? How many of us can say with straight faces that we actually understand other human beings, that we could imagine ourselves being them, that we understand their motivations and the causes of their behaviors? Few.
But this is precisely the skill reading literature fosters, as readers gain access to the minds of fictional characters for long stretches of time, hundreds of pages even, in novels. Few of us would impatiently reject the perspective of a narrator who is a different race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation from us, yet biases exist against these differences in our real lives. Communion with a character’s mind is often why we read fiction in the first place—because seeing through someone else’s eyes (or over their shoulder in third-person limited points of view) is entertaining and emotionally engaging. Setting and dramatic plot is occasionally responsible for the escapist pleasure of reading fiction, but we should not ignore the attraction of empathy. While we might call a real-life human being a bigot or a fool on Twitter, we’re content to sit patiently with radically different minds while reading fiction. Reading makes us tolerant, intellectually generous, kind, and emotionally intelligent.
Shakespeare is still relevant in the 21st century because his plays are living documents, with readers negotiating meaning with the long-dead author and navigating the many interpretations presented by literary critics. To continue Keats’ negative capability metaphor, when going swimming, we do not become frustrated that we’re wet. In other circumstances, wetness is bothersome, yet being wet is the point of swimming. The water provides resistance. We exercise. So it is for confusion and uncertainty in the reading of fiction. In fact, fiction that does not make us confused, that doesn’t pose an intellectual challenge, that doesn’t make us think hard about its meaning, is thoroughly unsatisfying. You hate it as you hate predictable movies, overly-simple video games, or boring music.
Why doesn’t the author just say what she means? Well, why don’t adult swimmers wear floaties to cross the pool? Why didn’t the designer of the pool keep the whole thing shallow so we could walk across? The challenge is the point. Swimming is good for us, and so is the exercise of close-textual analysis required for essay writing in English courses.
But isn’t demystification, explanation, and simplification the goal of literary analysis? Aren’t students asked to solve the riddles of fiction in their essays? “Explain how device A reveals theme B” is a common essay prompt. Is this textbook really telling students to “stop trying so hard to understand literature”? No. Keats advocates for a specific rhetorical stance, a way of approaching literature that acknowledges uncertainty, one that imagines a matrix of possible meanings for a text, each requiring textual evidence and argumentation to sell itself as plausible. The strongest essays in L204 position themselves as part of an ongoing discussion about a text, anticipate reader objection in rebuttal sections, and expand the conversation about a text’s meaning, rather than close or end that dialogue.
To reach those kinds of products—the exercises that will develop Theory of Mind—students need an intellectual framework, a way to access the unfamiliar world of literary analysis. They need an applied vocabulary that marks them as sharing the academic values of their audience. Prose Fiction solves those problem by presenting the key concepts of in a thorough but accessible way. It follows a model of narrative communication, which is based on the most recent literary theory but avoids engaging in technical, scholarly debates. By using simple language and relying on examples from a wide range of short stories and novels, some well-known to students, the text allows them to develop a thorough understanding of the core elements of narrative.
Now that we’ve been reminded of the power of fiction to shape our realities as children and our minds as adults, considered the central problem of ambiguity in fiction, and weighed how a theoretical framework can help us achieve the major objectives of a course like L204, it’s time to explore the text!
-Ben Storey, Bloomington, Indiana, 2021
1. Kung-Fu-like skills with search engines: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=google-fu
2. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Vintage, 1989)
3. Ford, Anthony. “Why ‘The Giving Tree Makes You Cry (It’s Not Why You Think).’” Observer. Mar. 6, 2017. https://observer.com/2017/03/why-the-giving-tree-makes-you-cry-books-culture-love-life-lessons/
4. January, 2019 Core Trends Survey. See: https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/FT_19.09.25_NonBookReaders_Methodology_Topline.pdf
5. 86% of those earning $80k report to having read at least one book in the past year: https://www.statista.com/statistics/249795/book-reading-population-in-the-us-by-household-income/
6. Kidd, David Comer and Emanuele Castano. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science. 18 Oct 2013: Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377-380. DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918
7. Dan R. Johnson, Brandie L. Huffman & Danny M. Jasper (2014) Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36:1, 83-90, DOI: 10.1080/01973533.2013.856791
8. See Davidson, Cathy. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Basic Books. New York: 2017.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Vintage, 1989).
Davidson, Cathy. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Basic Books. New York: 2017.
Ford, Anthony. “Why ‘The Giving Tree Makes You Cry (It’s Not Why You Think).’” Observer. Mar. 6, 2017. https://observer.com/2017/03/why-the-giving-tree-makes-you-cry-books-culture-love-life-lessons/
“January, 2019 Core Trends Survey.” Pew Research Center. March 8, 2019. Online: https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/FT_19.09.25_NonBookReaders_Methodology_Topline.pdf
Johnson, Dan R., Brandie L. Huffman, and Danny M. Jasper. “Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36:1, 2014. 83-90, DOI: 10.1080/01973533.2013.856791
Kidd, David Comer and Emanuele Castano. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science. 18 Oct 2013: Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377-380. DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918
Semiotic representation of a sequence of events, meaningfully connected by time and cause.
The meaningful arrangement or representation of the events in the story in a temporal and causal sequence.
Anything that represents something else by virtue of an arbitrary association. In narrative, symbols are existents of the story that become arbitrarily associated with internal or external meanings.
The meaningful arrangement or presentation of the characters of the story.
The systematic study of narratives in order to understand their structure (how they work) and function (what they are for).
Study of meaning-making processes, especially the use of signs and signifying systems to communicate meanings.