FICTION, EMOTION AND NARRATION IN SELECTED NOVELS OF CHINUA ACHEBE
Fiction and Emotion
Narration as a concept is the weaving of several strands of events into a story. This means narrative comes out of oral or written account of an event or events such as The Man Died (1972) – the autobiographical narrative on the detention and imprisonment of Wole Soyinka. Narration according Gerard Genette also means “the succession of events, real or fictitious” (25). Narration in this sense may be a novel such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. What runs across the two separate definitions of narrative given above is the idea of event without which there can be no narration. Event is the occurrence of action either by man or animal. A student buying a novel at a bookshop is an event and a horse galloping across the field is also an event. The event could be for a very short time and could also be very long such as a civil war. The event or a series of events become a narrative when to use Bridgette Hard et al.’s words they “…are selected and segmented from ongoing information’’ (1221). What Hard et al. mean by “ongoing information’’ are the several existing events from where some have been selected to form the story or narrative.
Selecting from the many episodes has implications on how the narrator perceives each event in order of importance. This means, as Hard et al put it, analyzing segmentation patterns of events indicate “…the breakpoints of larger units aligned with those of smaller units. This hierarchical alignment effect suggested that the events were perceived as partonic hierarchies” (1221). Narration, therefore, involves making sense of abstract events and the selection of events in order of their importance to the narrator. The event may be about the other person written by someone else. The narration, in such a case, is told about a personality other than that of the writer. This genre of narration is known as biography.
Contrary to what some people believe, storytelling is never a matter of “getting the facts, all the facts, and nothing but the facts” (Jacob, 516). This suggests autobiography or biography no matter the perceived reality is mixed with imagination since some events no matter the vividness cannot be presented the way they occurred. What makes a story interesting is the ability of the story teller to select very important events from among the many, for instance, in autobiographical narrative, the way we consider those facts as they are presented to us by a narrator; this is what makes a story different from a simple retelling of factual happenings, as in the familiar secondary school essay composition that starts each sentence with “And then …”. Stories are part of our lives: they extend into our lives and branch out from there; but also, stories can only be understood if they are localized, fleshed out in terms of our daily reality, and by using the right narrative style. A story that has no relation to our world is probably not going to interest us very much. Some stories written in the past have lost interest among contemporary readers due to their monotonous thematic presentations and narrative styles. On the other hand, we also find stories in older literature such as Jane Austen, Pushkin and Shakespeare, which today seem as fresh as when they first were written down.
While it is difficult to pinpoint what makes a story succeed, it is perhaps easier to spot at least a few of the causes that make a story fail, or let it fall into oblivion after the story producers’ and the consumers’ generation that supported them have passed away. In his Evgenij Onegin, Pushkin satirizes the ennuiof the Russian genteel country nobility by pointing to the fabulous array of ‘has-been’ authors who constituted the daily spiritual bread of the country manor, and whose fame faded as their pages yellowed (the incomparable Grandison, whose bore is matched by our snore, is only one among many). For Jane Austen, her works have survived and continued to survive the test of time due to her thematic preoccupations and style of character presentation.
In this and similar cases, the interested readership is confined to students of literature or history; the regular readers will find it difficult to relate to the characters and their voices, as these represent an entirely different social and societal environment. The question thus is what makes for a story, and in particular, for a good story. Literary scholars and the common readership have pondered about this question for centuries, both theoretically, in studies of narrative, and practically, in university courses of the ‘Creative Writing’ type. One thing that is pertinent to making a successful piece of fiction is the technique of narration and character presentation adopted by the author. This makes narration an important part of fiction.
Narration is about storytelling. But a story has to be told by someone called the narrator. Already, it may be clear that the narrator is different from the author: in every story, the author creates a world of fiction, the narrative, in which the narrator plays an eminent role, even though not always discernible on the surface. Narrativity thus deals with the techniques and devices that a narrator has at his or her disposal when telling a story; among these, the notion of ‘character’ and the accompanying ‘voice’ are among the most important. To see how character and voice connect and interrelate in narration in, sometimes, rather oblique and inscrutable ways, one may consider the case of the ‘homodiegetic’ novel, or stories told in the first person. Clearly, we cannot assume that the speaking ‘I’ is identical to or is necessarily the author, who likewise cannot be held responsible for the narrator’s claim as being his own.
When the 19th century Russian Mikhail Yu. Lermontov starts his classic story, A Hero of Our Times (1841) with the famous line “I traveled by stagecoach from Tbilisi …”, every reader will understand that this does not mean that Lermontov himself did the traveling: the words are spoken by the narrator (referring to his conversation while sitting on top of the coach with a returning NCO, the ranking shtabskapitan serving in Chechenya). So, the author is not the narrator, not even if the story is told in the first person singular, as in the Lermontov case. The author creates the narrator as the embodiment of the story’s authoritative competence; it is really not important whether this authority assumes the ‘I’-role or pretends to be an outside ‘voice’: ‘Trust the tale, not the teller’, as the old adage has it. What characterizes the story is its ‘narrativity’, its quality of being narrated andreceived as a story. The latter part is important, but it is often overlooked; Robert Scholes has pointed out that the very idea of narrativity is dependent on the reader actively entering the story world and participating in the narration: “a process by which a perceiver (author or reader) actively constructs a story from the fictional data provided by any narrative medium” (60). Thus, on the part of the reader, there corresponds to the act of narration an act of active collaboration, an “active narrativity” (Jacob, 517).
In demonstrating the role of the readers in progressing the narrative and distinguishing between narrative level or styles, Jacob distinguishes between a primary level, where the action unfolds, and a secondary (and possibly further) level(s), where the actors come in and their voices are heard. On the primary level, we have the narrator’s text; on the secondary (“embedded”) level, we are confronted with the actors’ text. The latter text does not necessarily contain only what the actors say or think in the context of the primary level; they may start a story of their own, and this embedded narrative may then again have several levels of its own, where the secondary story is related to the primary one in various ways. A good example is provided by the classic novella by the German author, Theodor Storm, Der Schimmelreiter (‘The man on the white steed’, 1888; Engl. transl. ‘The Dyke Master’, 1996), where the narrator on the primary level is the authoritative retired school teacher, who ‘frames’ the story by telling it to his friends in the local pub (in German, this kind of narrative is called a Rahmenerzahlung (Jacob, 515), literarily ‘a story within a narrative frame’). But the narrative is not about the teacher and his audience; rather, it concerns the legendary local official in charge of dams and levees (in German: der Deichgraf, ‘the dyke master’), whose expertise and innovative efforts form the secondary narrative, which in fact is the story that we, the readers, co-construct and remember. The teacher’s primary voice, as perceived in his narration and buttressed by his memory, lends credence and local colouring to the embedded story and its secondary voices.
Similarly, in one of the most famous collections of stories ever told, the 1001Nights, the main character, Sheherazade, invents and ‘orchestrates’ the stories, which she then attributes to secondary narrators on the embedded level. These secondary narrators remain implicit, that is, they are heard, but not seen; in contrast, another famous collection of stories, Boccaccio’s Decameron, has the actors on the primary level narrate their own stories as narrators of secondary level-stories.
In what have been said so far, it has been implicitly assumed that actors ‘speak’ in narratives; in other words, they have been attributed with a voice. But how does this happen? More precisely: How do we know whose voices we are hearing in a narrative? How do we decide if what we are ‘hearing’ (and this includes of course ‘reading’) is spoken by the narrator, by an actor (primary or secondary), or by some other (‘third’) party in a story? To better understand, and answer this question, the mode of narration and character presentation adopted by the author is pertinent. The author gets into the consciousness of the readers by the way the story is presented to attract emotions (catharsis) from the readers.
Studies in narration show that the concept always has to do with emotion even though it is not expressly stated. Since emotion is a psychological concept, any attempt to relate narration and emotion in a literary analysis would also be approached from a psycho-analytic viewpoint. Collingwood argued that “art is the expression of emotions in languages such as prose, poetry, music, painting, and so on” (5). In a psychological experiment carried out to determine the relationship between narration and emotion, and which also shows that different narrative modes will draw different emotional experiences from the readers, Oatley (2003) in his Communications to Self and Others proposed that “when emotions are important but their experience is unclear, writers of fictional literature explore them by expressing them, and readers can benefit from this exploration and thereby improve their understanding of them” (211). Oatley goes further to argue that fiction is a kind of simulation: one that runs not on computers but on minds. “We could also call it imagination: of characters, their plans as they interact, and the emotions that occur when their plans meet vicissitudes” (211).He notes that there are two aspects of literary simulation. One is the simulation of the minds of other individuals (characters). This is imaginative mind-reading based on empathetic theory of mind. The other is understanding the complexities of social interaction. He exemplifies this by stating that if one learns to fly, one might spend time in a flight simulator, where one can learn more things, and learn them better, than in actual flying when much time is spent aloft with little happening. The skills one learns in the simulator then transfer to flying an actual airplane. Based on this analogy, Oatley et al. argued that people who read a lot of fiction would be better at theory-of-mind and other social abilities than those who read mainly non-fiction.
Fiction allows entry to simulated social worlds, and the insertion of characters’ goals and plans into our own planning processors. As in ordinary life, the process is empathetic (identifying with characters). As in ordinary life, it has two parts. In one part, we impute emotions to another (a character). In this part, fiction is designed to enable us to imagine a character’s emotions and their causes. In the other part, having given up our own plans and concerns and, instead, taken on the goals and plans of the character, we experience our own emotions in response to the events that befall the character. Oatley et al.’s (2009) experiment with Anton Chekhov’s “The lady with the little dog,” which is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest short stories, was used to determine the level of emotions that goes with narrative modes (fiction and non-fiction). It starts with a man who, while staying at a seaside resort, meets a woman he has seen walking with her dog. They begin an affair and at the end of their holiday they part and return to their spouses. But their feelings for each other become stronger and more important than anything else in their lives. The version in non-fictional format was written by Djikic as a report from a divorce court, with the same characters and events as Chekhov’s story. It was the same length and the same level of reading difficulty. Readers rated it just as interesting, though not as artistic, as Chekhov’s story.
It was found that the personality traits of people who read Chekhov’s story changed significantly more than those of readers of the courtroom account. Changes were in different directions for different readers, and they were mediated by the emotions people experienced while reading. One may ask why readers find emotion or narrative empathy with the fictional version of the story but find little or no emotion with the same story in a court case divorce situation. An answer to such a question would probably lie in the writers’ method of narrative style of characterization or the diction employed in telling the same story. The researchers’ explanation is that, in their engagement with Chekhov’s story, readers experienced emotions (catharsis) with the protagonists: identified with them, felt emotions on their behalf, or perhaps felt disapproval, so that each in his or her own way was affected by them. Readers thus came to understand their emotions and themselves a bit better.
When we read fiction, our own emotions become important, far more so than the emotions of the characters. It is our own emotions that we seek to experience and understand: we would not read short stories and novels, or watch films and plays, which did not move us. Fiction offers simulated social worlds more various than could ever be encountered in everyday life, with characters realized in more detail than those of most people we encounter directly. In fiction, the readers can practice empathetic feeling by exploring their emotions in circumstances encountered by the characters, and thereby also understanding these characters. Reading fiction can, therefore, enhance skills of emotional intelligence (Caruso & Salovey, 208). As we practice experiencing emotions in the simulations of fiction, we improve our understanding of these experiences through the narrative style employed the writer.
Narration is the imaginative way of telling the story of past events. Gerald Gennette defines narrative as “oral or written discourse that undertakes to tell an event or a series of events” (25). Discourse could be in the form of fiction or any other narrative forms like the essay, poetry, etc. The essay was once written deliberately as a piece of literature; its subject matter was of comparatively minor importance. Today most essays are written as expository, informative journalism, although there are still essayists in the great tradition who think of themselves as artists. Now, as in the past, some of the greatest essayists are critics of literature, drama, and the arts. Some personal documents (autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, and letters) rank among the world’s greatest literature. Some examples of this biographical literature were written with posterity in mind, others with no thought of their being read by anyone but the writer. Some are in a highly polished literary style; others, couched in a privately evolved language, win their standing as literature because of their cogency, insight, depth, and scope. One can conceive of Literature as a body of written works. The name has traditionally been applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution. The narrative style employed by an author counts if the aesthetics of a work is to be considered and the value of such work accounted for. Thus, the art of narration can make or mar a particular work of art.
Narration, according to Onochie, means “giving account of what happened in the past or what happens as a routine or custom. Simply, it means telling a story” (1). In a narration, the writer is poised to answer the question: “what happened” or “what happens?” In the process of answering the question, the writer describes how it happened or happens; and such a narration could be factual (i.e. autobiographies) or fictional or the combination of both. Narration, also, could be objective or impressionistic.
As explained by Onochie (2), “objective narration is also called factual narration. As an expository mode of writing since its aim is to inform or educate, all forms of sentiment and prejudice should be avoided. All that is required is the hard fact.” This means that the writers feeling or impression is not allowed to interfere with the fact. On the other hand, impressionistic narrative tells a story from the point of view of the writer. It could be in the first person perspective where the writer is also a participant in the story, or in the third person where the writer is not directly involved in the event or story being narrated. The author is simply a witness or has heard or read or has imagined the story.
However, the art of narration could employ both the objective and impressionistic narrations especially in the case of faction (combining fact and fiction). What is salient here is the idea that impressionistic narration is tied to the feelings and sentiments of the writer who creates an event or an already existing story in such a way that the readers are persuaded to think alongside the author. The ability to manipulate language or use appropriate diction to persuade is key to such a narrative. The audience must think and see things from the writer’s point of view; emotional empathy is achieved at the end of reading such a story.
Emotions exert an incredibly powerful force on human behaviour. Strong emotions can cause one to take actions one might not normally perform, or avoid situations that one enjoys. A writer who is able to bring out emotions or sentimental feelings in his/her readers mind at the end of a literary work has achieved catharsis. Why exactly do readers have emotions after reading a piece of literature? In psychology, emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behaviour. Emotionality is associated with a range of psychological phenomena including temperament, mood, and motivation. According to David Meyers (2), human emotion involves “…physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience.” Meyers noted that the major theories of emotion can be grouped into three main categories: physiological, neurological, and cognitive. Physiological theories suggest that responses within the body are responsible for emotions. Neurological theories propose that activity within the brain leads to emotional responses; while cognitive theories argue that thoughts and other mental activity play an essential role in forming emotions. The author is influenced by all or any of these theories because as a member of a society, the socio-political events that go on around him influences his mood and being, and this is in turn reflected in his mode of narration as he portrays the events of his time. An author who is negatively affected by societal happenings tends to influence his narration with emotions due to his choice of words or narrative mode. At the end of reading such a work, the author’s aim among other things is for the readers to perceive things from his viewpoint and share in his feelings by using language that endears his audience to his own angle of thought. Thus, the readers feel emotions after reading a piece as they conjure up images and situations portrayed by the author’s language.
The author who adopts the right language or point of view in his/her narration ends up achieving empathy or narrative empathy (emotion) because the readers are attuned to the world created, the perception formed and the message being passed. According to Taylor et al., narrative empathy is “the sharing of feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition. Narrative empathy plays a role in the aesthetics of production when authors experience it” (376–77), in mental simulation during reading, in the aesthetics of reception when readers experience it, and in the narrative poetics of texts when formal strategies invite it.
Susan Keen (169) observes that narrative empathy overarches narratological categories, involving actants, narrative situation, matters of pace and duration, and story world features such as settings. The diversity of the narratological concepts involved suggests that narrative empathy should not simply be equated with character identification nor exclusively verified by readers’ reports of identification. Character identification may invite narrative empathy; alternatively, spontaneous empathy with a fictional character may precede identification. Empathetic effects of narrative have been theorized by literary critics, philosophers, and psychologists, and they have been evaluated by means of experiments in discourse processing, empirical approaches to narrative impact, and through introspection. Non-fictional narrative genres may involve narrative empathy, but most of the published commentary and theorizing on narrative empathy centers on fictional narratives, especially novels and film fiction, and to a lesser degree, drama. Brecht’s disdain for the evocation of audience empathy in favour of estrangement effects has had a lasting legacy, depressing the theorizing of reception in performance studies. Individual readers testify to greater or lesser intensities of emotional fusion with non-fictional subjects of autobiography, memoir, and history, contrasted with fictional characters. Whether non-fiction arouses greater or lesser empathy in individuals and in larger populations of readers and viewers is a question for future empirical work.
Keen (12) notes that scholars have proposed some factors or elements adopted by writers in their narration that induce emotion in the readers. Elements thought to be involved in readers’ emotion include vivid use of settings and traversing of boundaries (Friedman 1998). Most of the existing empirical research on emotional effects in narration concerns film (Tan 1996; Zillman 1991) although a number of researchers are investigating potentially emotion-inducing techniques using short fiction. Novels and stage drama are least studied empirically (though often theorized about), their length and performance conditions being, respectively, at odds with the current modes of empirical verification. This study examines the idea of emotion in the narration of Achebe’s There was a Country and Anthills of the Savannah respectively.
1.3 Statement of Problem
Every literature aims at informing or educating the readers by passing across certain messages thereby, instructing them to chart a course or change their orientation. The narrative style of a literary work is an important device that the writer explores to drive home his/her point thereby, convincing the readers to hold a particular belief or subscribe to a new idea. Either way, the author has succeeded in creating emotions in the minds of the readers who are persuaded to see things from the writer’s point of view.
Emotion in narrative tends to be persuasive and a good writer like Achebe who intends to persuade his audience to see things from his own vision must use language to create emotions in his writings. The issue or problem is that emotion affects the story we tell and this constitutes a problem. The problem to be solved in this study is to examine the two texts of study and demonstrate how emotions affect Achebe’s narration. Thus, this study focuses on the examination of emotion in the narration of Achebe’s There was a Country and Anthills of the Savannah respectively.
Aim/Objectives of Study
The aim of this research is to examine emotion in the narration of Achebe’s There was a Country and Anthills of the Savannah. The objective that will strengthen this study is to demonstrate that emotions affect narration. The study will discuss Achebe’s emotion in the narration of the two texts because as a member of society, he is also affected by the issues he tries to portray in his story telling. To get the readers to see things from his point of view, Achebe’s emotive tone that underlies his narration will be critically discussed.
The study will also try to determine the effect of emotion in the narration of the texts. When a writer becomes too emotional in his/her narrative, the audience may perceive a lack of objectivism in the narration and this may attract criticism for the author. This study will examine how effective emotion helps in the interpretation of the two texts.
Also, another objective of this research is to determine the narrative style of the two texts and discuss the emotive effects of such a style. The effective development of a particular narrative style may enhance the critical perception of the readers in becoming attuned to the author’s viewpoint. On the other hand, a not well developed narrative style may defeat the aim of the author and negatively influence readers’ perception.
The study will also evaluate the thematic concerns of the two texts and how emotion affects the development and portrayal of the themes. When the author becomes too emotional in his character and thematic presentation (narration), the readers may deduce subjective attempts by the author to report societal issues as he/she perceives them rather than how they really appear.
Scope of the Study
The scope of this study is emotional narration which comes under the purview of literary psychoanalysis which interprets literary text from a psychological or mental point of view. This is because the topic of emotion is psychological and narration is relative to imagination. The research will use relevant studies from other domains to situate the view that emotion affects narration. However, in other to limit the scope of this study, this paper’s discussion covers the place of emotion in the narration of Achebe’s There was a Country and Anthills of the Savannah.
Significance of the Study
This research is significant for the following reasons:
- It will expose readers to the place of emotion in literary narration.
- The study will discuss the relationship between emotion and narration in literature.
- It will also explore the effects of emotion in the narration of Achebe’s There was a Country and Anthills of the Savannah.
- The research will relate the two texts to contemporary society.
- It will serve as a source material to students, teachers and future researchers in similar topic.
- This research is also relevant for its contribution to literature in literary psychoanalysis.
The study is content analysis based and the psychoanalytic approach involving the concepts of emotion and narration will be adopted for analysis. These concepts cover two fields i.e. emotion is cognitive and narration is imaginative. This gives an indication that the best approach to the study is psychoanalysis. For obvious reasons, this approach allows for not only the analysis of themes, language and style but other aspects that revolve around emotion and narration.
1.8 Theoretical Framework
This study adopts the psychoanalytic theory which relates literary work in terms of character and actions to the workings of the mind. This theory relates to the Freudian psychology that interprets character’ actions to underlying complexes of the Id, Ego and Superego. These complexes influence character actions and determine their mood at any given time to create emotions and empathetic feelings towards other characters.
The author who narrates a story is also influenced by the workings of these complexes due to the influence of the socio-political contradictions that affect his society and narratives. The author in his narration reacts to these issues and sometimes, emotions come into play in the process of the story telling.
Achebe’s There was a Country and Ant hills of the Savannah are narratives that portray the happenings in the Nigerian society. In exploring these happenings, it is clear that the author’s emotion may interfere with his narration thereby affecting the objective level of the narration. These emotional features can be interpreted from character presentation and plotting which underlie the author’s perception on the societal happenings of his time. The idea of emotion in narration will be examined from the portrayal of the themes, language use and style of narrative adopted by the author, and how this affects readers’ interpretations.
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