James Phelan

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					NEH Seminar
"Narrative Theory: Rhetoric and Ethics
  in Fiction and Nonfiction"
June 16—July 25, 2008

Director: James Phelan
452 Denney Hall
164 West 17th Ave.
Columbus, OH 43210
PH 419.292.6669

 Dear Colleague,

         Welcome! Thank you very much for your interest in the NEH Summer Seminar

 on "Narrative Theory: Rhetoric and Ethics in Fiction and Nonfiction." I regard the three

 previous seminars I directed as highlights in my career, so I am looking forward to this

 one: there are few things as intellectually satisfying as a six-week discussion of the

 subject one loves with fifteen other highly motivated teachers and scholars. In this letter

 you will find detailed information about the NEH seminar. If you have any further

 questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

 Seminar Outline: Goals and Methodology

         "Narrative understanding"; "narrative explanation"; "narrative as a way of

 thinking"; “narrative as self-construction”: these phrases are now common currency in

 the conversations of literary critics, historians, philosophers, social scientists, therapists,

 legal scholars, and even some scientists and medical professionals, as their disciplines

 reflect on the ubiquity of storytelling (representing characters and events in a temporal

 and typically causal sequence) and its power to capture certain truths and experiences

 in ways that other modes of explanation such as statistics, descriptions, summaries, and

 abstract analyses cannot. The consensus about the power of narrative invites

 investigation into its form and into our ways of producing and consuming it: what is it

 about character, plot, and ways of telling that make narrative such an important way of
 organizing and explaining experience and knowledge?

         This seminar will explore the answers to this question provided by a rhetorical theory

of narrative and by a range of fictional and nonfictional narratives themselves. The seminar will

have two major units: (1) the exploration of rhetorical theory and its conception of the

connection between rhetoric and ethics; (2) the placement of rhetorical theory in relation to

other branches of narrative theory, including other approaches to ethics, feminist narratology,

and cognitive narratology. Throughout both units, we will turn to the narrative texts not only to

apply the theories but also to challenge them. Indeed, one of our principles will be that

narrative theory should follow the lead of narrative artists not dictate to them. One issue that

we will examine from multiple perspectives is the rhetoric and ethics of unreliable narration.

         The two main goals of the seminar will be to enable the participants to become (1)

better teachers of narrative by deepening their understanding of how narrative works and of

the analytical tools of rhetorical theory; and (2) better researchers by enhancing their ability to

contribute to the current debates in field.

         The rhetorical model takes as its first principle the idea that narrative is itself a

rhetorical act, and it defines narrative as someone telling someone else on some occasion and

for some purpose that something happened. This emphasis on narrative as an act and on the

teller, the audience, occasion, and purpose distinguishes the rhetorical model from the more

strictly formalist approach of narratology, which defines narrative as the recounting of two or

more related events, neither of which logically presupposes or entails the other. This definition

regards narrative as a product rather than an act and it emphasizes the “something [that]


         The rhetorical approach also views the communication from author to audience as

inviting a multi-layered response, one that simultaneously engages the audience cognitively,

psychically, emotionally, and ethically. How we interpret a character‟s action, for example,

influences both our affective and ethical responses to that character and those responses in
turn influence our desires and hopes for that character‟s fate. In addition, the model assumes

that authorial agency, textual phenomena (including intertextual relations), and reader

response exist in an ongoing feedback loop. That is, texts are designed by authors in order to

affect readers in particular ways; those designs are conveyed through the language,

techniques, structures, forms, and dialogic relations of texts as well as the genres and

conventions readers use to understand them; and reader responses are a function, guide, and

test of how authorial designs are constructed through textual and intertextual phenomena.

Methodologically, a critic may begin an interpretive inquiry with author, text, or reader, but will

inevitably consider how the chosen starting point both influences and is influenced by the other


         The concept of narrative progression, for example, refers to the trajectory of the

reader‟s developing interests in a narrative from its beginning through its middle to its end, but

to describe that trajectory of interests the rhetorical critic must move to the textual phenomena

that guide it—the instabilities between or among characters and the tensions between or

among authors, narrators, and audiences—and to the author‟s choices about such things as

modes of characterization and the order of the events in the telling. Furthermore, because the

model is interested in the connections between the narrative‟s construction and the interaction

of its values and those of the reader, it readily opens out to questions of narrative ethics. It

pays attention both to the ethics of what is told, that is, the ethical dimensions of the

characters‟ choices, and the ethics of the telling, that is, the ethical dimensions of the relations

among author, narrator, and audience. To illustrate the model, I offer this brief rhetorical

analysis of Edgar Allan Poe‟s “The Cask of Amontillado.” (1852)).

       Poe‟s first paragraph introduces the story‟s main instabilities and tensions and invites

an abundance of narrative judgments.

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon

insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose,
however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point

definitively settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea

of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when

retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make

himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

         The main instabilities involve the relation between Montresor and Fortunato and

between Montresor and himself, or more specifically, his code of revenge: the forward

movement of the narrative is generated in large part by our double interest in what will happen

between the two characters and whether what happens means that Montresor executes the

revenge according to the code. The forward movement is also influenced by our awareness of

the tensions generated by Montresor‟s unreliability as an ethical evaluator. To assume that

insults are not only worse than injuries but also cause for carrying out an elaborate revenge is

to reveal a seriously deficient value system, one that places personal pride above the value of

human life. On the readerly side, consequently, our interest in the progression involves not just

whether Montresor will succeed with the revenge but our tentative ethical judgment that, if he

does, he will prove himself to be an extremely cold, cruel, and clever individual—

simultaneously fascinating and repulsive. At the same time, this first paragraph begins our

engagement with Poe as the creator of this extraordinary character, and it raises questions

about the ethical value of that engagement.

       Between the first paragraph and the last, the progression of the action proceeds very

smoothly, as Montresor recounts all but the last step in his successful execution of his plan for

revenge. Montresor takes advantage of Fortunato‟s own pride, luring him into his (Montresor‟s)

cavernous wine cellar on the pretext of needing Fortunato‟s opinion of a new shipment of

Amontillado. Once in the catacombs, Montresor chains Fortunato to a wall and buries him

alive by building a tomb of bricks around him. Poe uses dialogue to carry the middle of the

progression, dialogue that tacitly shows how brilliantly and with what great enjoyment
Montresor manipulates the inebriated Fortunato. At the end Fortunato sobers up and

becomes acutely conscious of Montresor as avenger. Fortunato‟s last words are a plea for

mercy: “For the love of God, Montresor!” Shortly after this plea, Poe writes his ending.

I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return

only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs.

I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it

up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century

no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

       This paragraph highlights one of the especially salient features of narration in fiction:

the same text is used for two distinct acts of telling with two distinct purposes, one act and

purpose involving the narrator (Montresor) in relation to his audience and the other act and

purpose involving the author (Poe) and his audience. Crucial to our understanding of the

relation between the two acts of telling here is our recognition that a new note creeps into

Montresor‟s telling when he reports “my heart grew sick.” Although Montresor quickly supplies

the cause—the dampness of the catacombs—Poe, by placing the report at the moment when

Montresor realizes that Fortunato has stopped struggling after his final quasi-religious plea,

invites us to understand the heartsickness as a metaphorical one. Fortunato‟s resignation

brings Montresor face-to-face with the enormity of what he is doing: murdering a man as a

response to being insulted by him. No wonder his heart grows sick.

         The discrepancy between Montresor‟s explanation for and our understanding of his

heartsickness shows that here he is a reliable reporter (his heart did grow sick) but an

unreliable interpreter and evaluator. He misinterprets the reason for his heartsickness because

he misevaluates his own character, regarding it as more cold and calculating than it actually is.

At the same time, Poe uses Montresor‟s unreliable narration to indicate that Montresor has not

fully succeeded in carrying out the revenge according to his code: the heartsickness is

evidence that he has failed to punish Fortunato with impunity. At this point, Poe‟s telling does
not allow us to decide whether Montresor is aware of the gap between the code and the

execution of the code or whether his denial of the reason for his heartsickness protects him

from that awareness.

         The relation between Montresor‟s telling and Poe‟s telling becomes more complex

with Montresor‟s comment that Fortunato‟s grave has not been disturbed for fifty years. This

comment links up with the revelation of his heartsickness to shed new light on the purpose of

Montresor‟s telling. Why tell the story fifty years after the event, and why tell it to one “who so

well know[s] the nature of [his] soul?” Because the heartsickness Montresor felt at the

climactic moment of his revenge has lingered for fifty years, motivating him now to seek some

relief through confessing to one whom he regards in much the way that a regular penitent

regards his priestly confessor. To be sure, Montresor remains too proud to confess outright

(doing so would be a frank admission that he has failed to punish Fortunato with impunity), but

we can now infer his purpose: to confess under the guise of boasting.

         In these ways, the last paragraph adds significant new shadings to our ethical

judgment of Montresor. He remains monstrous for what he has done and how he has done it,

but his getting heartsick humanizes him to some degree. In addition, his need as narrator to

hide his confession under the guise of boasting highlights the way his pride affects his telling,

even as the confession itself is a remarkable acknowledgment of guilt.

       Turning to Poe‟s purposes and the ethics of his telling, we can conclude that he invites

us to contemplate one end of the spectrum of human behavior and that he uses his ending to

insist on both the extremity and the humanness of that behavior. More specifically, he invites

us to engage, through our initial fascination with and repulsion from Montresor and our more

nuanced final response, in a meditation on pride, guilt, and the powers and limits of

confessional narrative.

Project Content and Implementation

         As noted above, the seminar will keep a consistent focus on rhetorical theory even as
it puts different approaches to narrative into dialogue with each other around some specific

issues and individual narrative texts. I will explicitly tell the participants that they should feel

free to argue with the rhetorical approach and to favor other approaches. I want the implicit

dialogue among our texts and the explicit dialogue among the group to be a valuable source of

learning for us all.

         We will meet three times a week in two and a half hour sessions. The first two

sessions of the week will be devoted to our common reading list and, after the first week, the

third session will be devoted to participants' projects. My past experience suggests that this

format provides a good balance of group work on our shared texts and attention to the

individual projects. In addition, I will hold an extra session over lunch one day in week 3

explicitly devoted to publishing. As noted above, we will have guest faculty for two of our

sessions. I will also schedule individual meetings with the participants in the first week to

discuss their projects and specific goals for the seminar.

         The seminar will devote the first three weeks to the principles of the rhetorical

approach, and to the larger issue of narrative ethics. The final three weeks will be devoted to

the dialogue between rhetorical theory and the feminist and cognitive approaches as well as to

the similarities and differences between the rhetoric and ethics of fictional and nonfictional

narrative. I will consistently pair theoretical readings with narrative texts that put some

pressure on the theoretical formulations so that we can develop healthy dialogue between

theory and narrative, one in which the theory can be applied, tested, and perhaps revised even

as it sheds light on the narratives.

          Here's a daily outline of our day-to-day schedule:

Unit I: Narrative Theory and The Rhetorical Approach

 Week 1: Overview of Narrative and Rhetorical Theory

Monday: Introduction: The ubiquity and significance of narrative

Wednesday: H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Robert Browning,
“My Last Duchess,” Edith Wharton, “Roman Fever”; Peter Rabinowitz, “Truth in Fiction: A Re-

examination of Audiences”

Friday: Robert Scholes, James Phelan, and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative Chapter

8: “Narrative Theory, 1966-2006: A Narrative”; Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction,

Chapters VII and VIII

Abbott‟s book provides an excellent, brief survey of claims for the significance of narrative in

culture as well as an overview of contemporary narrative theory. It will provide a useful

context within which to situate the rhetorical approach. Chapter 8 of the Fortieth Anniversary

Edition of The Nature of Narrative provides a helpful survey of the last forty years of narrative

theory. Browning‟s poem sets up our discussion of Rabinowitz‟s useful rhetorical model of the

multiple audiences of narrative. Wharton‟s story is a rich resource for rhetorical analysis.

Booth‟s work provides necessary background for contemporary narrative theory, both

rhetorical and otherwise.

 Week 2-3: Rhetoric and Ethics, Application, and Testing

Monday: James Phelan, from Narrative as Rhetoric: “Narrative as Rhetoric: Reading the

Spells of Porter‟s „Magic‟” and from Experiencing Fiction, “Introduction: Judgments,

Progressions and the Seven Theses about Narrative Judgments”; Katherine Anne Porter,

“Magic”; Edgar Allan Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado”

Wednesday: Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep, Chapters 6-7; Martha Nussbaum,

Introduction to Love’s Knowledge Sandra Cisneros, “Barbie-Q”; Ernest Hemingway, “Indian


Friday: Participant Presentations. N.B. Each of the next four Fridays will also be devoted to

participant presentations.

My essays articulate further principles of rhetorical theory and ethical criticism, and the

chapters from Booth and Nussbaum foreground the relation between the analysis of technique

and the analysis of ethics. The four short stories provide a broad range of examples for
rhetorical and ethical analysis.

Week 3: Unreliable Narration and Narrative Ethics

Monday: Adam Zachary Newton, Narrative Ethics; Introduction, section on Kazuo Ishiguro,

The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Wednesday (AM session): James Phelan, Living to Tell about It, Chapter 1; “Estranging

Unreliability, Bonding Unreliability, and the Ethics of Lolita” (continued)

Wednesday (session over lunch): Publishing in the field, including (a) a demonstration of

how I make decisions as editor of Narrative; (b) sharing of experiences by participants; and (c)

questions and answers.

Newton offers an excellent example of a theorist who draws on previous ethical thinkers—his

are Levinas, Cavell, and Bakhtin—and on narrative theory to develop a narrative ethics. In

doing so, he provides a worthwhile point of comparison to the rhetorical approach, a

comparison that will be explicit in the comparison of his analysis of The Remains of the Day

and mine in Living to Tell about It. Ishiguro‟s novel is a brilliant example of unreliable

narration, one in which the unreliability varies over the course of the narrative, and one that

requires further considerations of the relation between technique and ethics. The essay on

estranging and bonding unreliability offers a new angle on the relation between technique and

ethics. Previous work on unreliability has assumed that its effect is to estrange the narrator

from the audience, but I argue in this essay that sometimes, as in Huckleberry Finn‟s decision

to go to hell rather than betray Jim, the effect is bond the narrator more closely to the

audience. Lolita is such an ethically complex text in part because of its combination of

estranging and bonding unreliability.

Unit II: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Ethics

 Week 4 Feminist Critique and Feminist Narratology

Monday: Margaret Homans, “Feminist Fictions and Feminist Theories of Narrative”; Ruth

Page, “The Question of Gender and Form” from Literary and Linguistic Approaches to
Feminist Narratology” Porter‟s “Magic” and Cisneros‟s “Barbie-Q” revisited; Ian McEwan,


Wednesday, Susan Lanser, Introduction to Fictions of Authority; Alison Case, Introduction to

Plotting Women; Ian McEwan, Atonement

Homans and Page make a good juxtaposition because both are concerned with the

connections between form and ideology in narrative, but Homans argue that they are

sometimes interconnected and Page that they are not. Lanser and Case continue the

seminar‟s investigation of the relation between technique and ethics and raise the issue of the

relation between ethics and politics. Lanser focuses on how women writers establish authority

and Case on the difference between narrators who simply record events and those who

actively design their narratives. These perspectives invite a new look at Porter‟s “Magic” and

Cisneros‟s “Barbie-Q.” In addition, all four essays invite a consideration of the complex ethics

of McEwan‟s Atonement. McEwan delays the disclosure to his audience that we are reading a

novel-within-a-novel and that the embedded novel is written by a female novelist who seeks to

atone for a real transgression by narrating it—and radically changing its consequences.

Unit III: Week 5 Cognitive Narratology, Fiction, and Nonfiction

Monday: Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction (selections on Theory of Mind and unreliable

narration) Atonement

Wednesday: David Herman, Stories as a Tool for Thinking. Joan Didion, The Year of Magical

Thinking Visit by David Herman.

Cognitive narratology offers a different approach to narrative form because it seeks to identify

the mental tools, processes, and activities that make possible our ability to construct and

understand narrative. In addition, cognitive narratology focuses on narrative itself as a tool of

understanding, that is, on how narrative contributes to human beings‟ efforts to structure and

make sense of their world and their experiences within that world. Zunshine‟s work on Theory

of Mind and unreliable narration provides some productive new ways to think about technique
and ethics in Atonement. Herman‟s essay provides a frame work within which to understand

Didion‟s memoir as a way to cope with her husband‟s death. As the author or editor of many

books and essays in cognitive narratology, Herman will be an excellent resource for the group.

Throughout the week, we will seek connections and conflicts among cognitive theory, feminist

theory, and rhetorical theory.

 Week 6: Unreliability and Ethics in Nonfictional Narrative

Monday: Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography (selections); Frank

McCourt, Angela’s Ashes. Visit by Julia Watson

Wednesday: John Barbour, “Judging and Not Judging Parents”; Nancy K. Miller, “The Ethics

of Betrayal”

Julia Watson is a leading scholar in autobiography studies. In Reading Autobiography, she

and Sidonie Smith offer an excellent overview of current issues in autobiography studies

including ways to distinguish the narrator from the implied author that are especially relevant

for the seminar. Frank McCourt chooses to narrate his memoir from the perspective of his

naïve and ethically limited childhood self, thus leading us to address the issue of the ethics of

unreliable autobiographical narration. Barbour and Miller both offer thoughtful reflections on

the ethics of the autobiographer‟s use of other people‟s lives, reflections that are very relevant

to McCourt‟s work.

Project Faculty

 I have spent a good part of my career working out my own version of a rhetorical theory of

narrative and much of the rest of it thinking about its relation to other approaches to narrative.

The results so far can be found in numerous essays and books on a range of narratives from

Jane Austen‟s Pride and Prejudice to Sandra Cisneros‟s “Woman Hollering Creek.” My single-

authored books consider a range of narrative issues named in their subtitles: Worlds from

Words: A Theory of Language in Fiction; Reading People, Reading Plots: Character,

Progression and the Interpretation of Narrative; Narrative as Rhetoric: Essays on Technique,
Audience, Ethics, and Ideology; Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character

Narration; and Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of

Narrative. My other single-authored book, Beyond the Tenure Track: Fifteen Months in the

Life of an English Professor, taught me some things about character narration and about the

relations between autobiography and fiction. My recent contribution to the Fortieth Anniversary

Edition of Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg‟s The Nature of Narrative was a fifty-page

chapter entitled “Narrative Theory, 1966-2006: A Narrative.” I am currently dividing my

research time between two books that I have under contract: Narrative Theory: Contested

Concepts, Rhetorical Solutions (co-authored with Peter J. Rabinowitz for Ohio State University

Press), Reading the Twentieth-Century American Novel (in Blackwell Press‟s Reading the

Novel series). In addition, my work as editor of Narrative and as co-editor of The Ohio State

University Press series on the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative keeps me immersed in

the world of narrative theory.

 Guest speakers: David Herman is Professor of English at Ohio State and the author, editor,

or co-editor of six books in narrative theory, including the award-winning Story Logic (2002), is

one of the leading cognitive narratologists in the world. Julia Watson, Associate Professor of

Comparative Studies at Ohio State, is co-author of Reading Autobiography and co-editor of

four collections of essays on autobiography. Julia also participated in my 1995 Summer

Seminar when she was at California State University at Northridge.

Selection of Participants

 The seminar is designed primarily for college teachers who work on written narratives, both

fictional and nonfictional, especially those in English. It would be open, however, to historians,

philosophers, lawyers, medical humanities scholars, or others who wanted to learn more about

how literary critics think of narrative. Participants need to be experienced readers of narrative,

but they need not be advanced students of narrative theory. In the past, the seminar has

attracted—and admitted--applicants from many fields, including English, American, French,
Spanish, Russian, and comparative literature, classical Greek literature, philosophy, and

theology. The variety of perspectives brought to bear on our common interest in narrative has

been illuminating and productive, and many participants have gone on to publish essays and

books on their seminar projects. I would anticipate attracting a similar range of applicants this

time. The two colleagues who have agreed to visit, David Herman and Julia Watson, have

also agreed to review applications with me.

Institutional Context

       Over the past dozen years, Ohio State has been host to numerous Summer Seminars,

and the English Department and the University have good support systems in place.

Participants can get ID cards that grant them the rights and privileges of OSU faculty, including

complimentary membership at the Faculty Club. In 2005 the participants had a satisfactory

housing experience at The Ohio Stater, a well-managed apartment complex across the street

from the University and about 3 blocks from Denney Hall, the building that houses the English

Department. The Ohio Stater offers furnished air-conditioned suites containing one or two

bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small kitchen area with a full-size refrigerator and microwave;

furniture includes bed, dresser, desk, and lamp. The complex also has laundry facilities, a

parking garage, and a fitness center. For a six-week period, a one-bedroom suite rents for

approximately $1000, a fee that includes utilities and a cable connection. There are many

other housing options available in Columbus in the summer for participants who might not

want to use The Ohio Stater, including sublets of houses and apartments in a variety of

neighborhoods. In the past, I have been able to provide guidance to participants who wanted

to explore these options, and I would be glad to do so again.

       The Ohio State library, to which participants will have full access, is one of the largest

research libraries in the country, and has the leading journals in narrative studies and excellent

holdings in the novel and in narrative theory. Although the main library building is undergoing
renovation, the collection is still easily accessible both in other locations on or near campus

and via campus mail.

        Seminarians will have reasonable work space, computer facilities, and e-mail access.

Participants will be able to use one of the English Department‟s computer laboratories, a room

equipped with twenty computers with access to the internet and with state-of-the art equipment

for document scanning and other technological needs. If participants encounter any

technological difficulties, the English Department‟s computer support staff will be available to

help them.

       Columbus has many of the advantages of a large multicultural urban area without

some of the disadvantages of more heavily populated cities. It offers many opportunities for

extracurricular activities likely to be of interest to participants: Shakespeare in the park, poetry

in the park, music of all kinds (classical, popular, jazz) in the open air and in concert halls. The

Columbus Museum of Art frequently brings in special exhibits to supplement its already fine

collection, and the University's own Wexner Center for the Arts has a very active exhibit series.

The first Saturday of every month the art galleries in the Short North area of the city (about a

mile and a half south of campus) sponsor tours at which they serve free wine and cheese.

Those interested in athletic activities will have access to the university's extensive facilities, or

can take advantage of the city's many bike and running trails and its extensive park system. In

addition, the city is now home to many excellent restaurants, including a variety of ethnic

establishments. In each of my three previous seminars, the group gathered for dinner at least

once a week in a restaurant, and I would hope that this year‟s group will do so as well.

       Thank you for your interest in "Narrative Theory: Rhetoric and Ethics in Fiction and

Nonfiction." I look forward to working with you.

James Phelan

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