Text: Barry R. Bell, “Poe, Peripety, and Modernist Narrative,” Poe Studies, December 1980, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 13:p-p


[page 41, column 2, continued:]

Poe, Peripety, and Modernist Narrative

Robert L. Caserio. Plot, Story, and the Novel: From Dickens and Poe to the Modern Period. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979. xxi + 304 pp. $15.00.

Robert Caserio’s title alludes to the Russian Formalists’ well-known distinction between plot (sjuzet) and story (fabula). As the Formalists realized, a single “story,” a causal-chronological sequence of events, lends itself to various forms of “emplotment,” or artistic rearrangement. A formal analysis of narrative could, therefore, describe the relationship between a given story and the particular emplotment (or emplotments) which it received. More generally and perhaps more significantly, it could also analyze the ways in which narrative art, by emplotting stories, “defamiliarizes” those aesthetic conventions which we have come to accept as natural; plot becomes “the specific peculiarity of narrative art,” as Boris Eichenbaum observed, not by imitating the “real” and certainly nor by recommending actions for our own lives, but by forcing us to notice those conventions which artists use in rearranging story elements.

Caserio is not concerned in any very immediate way with the general development of narratology or even with the usefulness of Formalist distinctions. Instead, he introduces their explicit distinction between plot and story in order to deplore their implied one between life and art. In his view, the Formalists, like many other modern writers and critics, alienate plot from story, and in the process devalue plot by making it a merely defamiliarizing arrangement. In the place of this and similarly abstruse renderings of plot and story, Caserio recommends a return to those [page 42:] earlier and more common-sensical definitions which see the two terms as interchangeable and preserve their relation to life as well as to aesthetic convention.

The stakes in this debate are higher than they might first appear. While acknowledging the seductiveness of epistemological skepticism, Caserio wants to argue that “narrative reason” is not an arbitrary, “artificial” imposition of order on the underlying, chaos of experience. Like Ortega y Gasset, he would insist instead that human reality flows only from its narration, its history; eliminate narrative and we are left with no experience at all and, of course, no “truth.” Plot, then, is not a dispensable tool of the novelist at play. Rather, it is the sign of the goal, the terminus ad quem, which makes possible all direction and order in the representation of life. In the same way, the peripeties or reversals of plot are not just structural devices but moments of revelation and enrichment. Perhaps most significantly, by featuring the act, plot also implies a commitment to “action” as the way to realize “purpose.” Plot, in short, is fraught with moral as well as epistemological implications, and the emasculated plots in much modern fiction, aided and abetted by modern criticism, undermine their own claims to truth and ignore their role in modeling their readers’ lives. In Caserio’s view, such narratives are amoral and skeptical in their vision and immoral in their effect.

Caserio illustrates these aesthetic and moral issues with commentary on dozens of English and American writers, the longest discussions concerning Dickens, Eliot, Melville, and James. But the treatment of Edgar Allan Poe, while relatively brief, is central to the developing argument and can serve to summarize some of Caserio’s most important observations concerning modern plot and story.

Caserio’s discussion of Poe flows from a comparison with Dickens, whom he sees as the supreme example of a novelist with a positive sense of plot. In Dickens, the myriad reversals produce recognition: “a radical overturning of expectations, a new awareness in time of a new facr in time, or of a fact so extraordinarily presented as to strike one as surprisingly and perennially new” (p. 69). In contrast to those critics who dismiss Dickens’ plots as absurd, he sees them as labyrinths which, like the mazes of paleolithic cave rituals, lead through their winding ways to revelation and knowledge. Dickens “suggests in all earnestness that by the turns of story and storytelling we can reconcile ourselves to life’s most serious difficulties” (p. 89).

Poe, on the other hand, is not interested in life at all, but in the intricate effects he can achieve by manipulating narrative conventions. He simply “wants to tell stories for the sake of their inward coherence — their mathematical fitness of proportion, their brilliant repetitions and redundancies, their mazes restructured as straight lines or as decorative ‘twists‘ — rather than for their ability to comment on life as we normally experience its terrors and pleasures outside of fiction” (p. 90). For Poe, plots are not revelatory but manipulatory; as exercises in design they can afford to flaunt the use of peripety. Whereas Dickens assumes and demonstrates the reality of differences through his reversal-filled plots, Poe habitually blurs distinctions and, like the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd,” stops pursuing his apparent subject and instead contemplates “what he already knows” (p. 85) .

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” provides Caserio [column 2:] with a paradigm for Poe’s method and for the modern fiction which he prefigures. Nor only does the story exhibit method for its own sake, delighting in the manipulation of story elements, but it also juxtaposes two understandings of plot. The police and the narrator, “Dickensian” storytellers, anticipate revelation through a climactic peripety at the end of a “perplexingly turned labyrinthine search and revelation” (p. 86). This view is discredited, however, by Dupin, who rejects, in his own words, the “undue profundity [with which] we perplex and enfeeble thought.” Dupin, instead, intuits the solution almost immediately: “to solve the mystery Dupin needs only to repeat what has happened, not to develop it; he needs only to resist what is identified as a conventional bur perverse desire to come to truth by wandering a circuitous and reversal-pointed path” (p. 86). The result of this solution is a story which, by playing with the elements of traditional narrative (and thus by playing with the reader) calls into question the very possibility of traditional narrative. As Borges suggests in his tribute to Poe, “Death and the Compass,” the labyrinth of plot is uncoiled in the simplest (though by no means the “easiest”) of mazes — a single straight line.

Caserio alludes briefly to Eureka and to Poe’s ideas about the inter-identity of life and death, of matter and spirit. Bur he insists that Poe is not using his fiction to lead the reader to an understanding (or even an intuition) of these terms; instead, Poe uses the terms because they allow him to tell stories in a proudly original way — in a way that subverts the interdependence of plot and peripety” (p. 83). Poe is, in the final analysis, an experimenter; and if his experiments constitute “one of the significant turning points in our consciousness,” as Caserio argues, it is also clear that Caserio’s sympathies are with the more traditional recognitions and affirmations of the Dickensian plot.

Although he never mentions Yvor Winters, Caserio’s discussion of Poe is reminiscent of In Defense of Reason. Winters, who like Walter Blair recognized early the importance of Poe’s affective aesthetics, believed that Poe’s desire to diddle the reader exceeded his capacity to inform him. Winters’ ridicule of Poe — contentiously if playfully overstated — has drawn fire from Poe’s defenders for thirty-five years now, largely because his charges of immorality and triviality (not to mention deceit) provide a convenient stalking horse. The bulk of modern American criticism of Poe can be seen as an attempt to refute Winters’ embarrassing charges, whether through thematic renderings of the tales, celebrations of their experimentation with form and irony, general defenses of the seriousness of their informing vision, or admirably detailed descriptions of the complex self-referentiality of Poe’s designs.

One question raised by Caserio’s criticisms of the “decorous” Poe, then, is whether such criticisms are any more sensitive than those of Winters. He clearly wants to defend Winters’ common-sensical belief that great literature involves action and purpose in life and therefore depends on plot and story, and his argument just as clearly forces him to see Poe as a dissenter from such principles. But unlike the more outspoken (and bolder?) Winters, Caserio stops short of dismissing Poe altogether. In fact, he argues that Poe is emblematic of a change in consciousness, a progenitor of new narrative values, and even if he dislikes the change he willingly acknowledges that strong arguments [page 43:] have been made in its defense. Moreover, he credits Poe, in his discussions of several tales, with considerable subtlety and concedes the theoretical brilliance behind his deliberately “plotless” narratives. At the same time, he insists that admiration for Poe’s skill and influence, along with the feasibility of a modernist defense of his self-referential techniques, need not blind us to the dangers implicit in his strategy. Nor should it lead us simply to forget the narrative alternatives.

Caserio’s argument is much more subtle and qualified than a brief summary can suggest. As he moves from Poe to other nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, he maintains his defense of plot and story and shows in detail the consequences of their devaluation. But he also shows through his skillful explications that these writers vary widely in the kind and degree of their rejection of traditional plotting and in the moral and epistemological consequences for their narratives. The result is an argument which demonstrates that moral criticism and Aristotelian terminology can still provide fresh perspectives for familiar texts. Caserio’s proleptic style, subtle yet forceful readings, and suggestive theoretical comments make for a book which, if widely read, could lead to a serious reappraisal of well-known novels and critical commonplaces.

The book is not without faults. Although its subject is sufficiently broad to justify rigid selection, some of the self-imposed limits seem questionable. Especially troubling in my view is that, although his subject is the “modern novel,” Caserio limits himself to English and American texts. This restriction is particularly unfortunate when Caserio reads Gertrude Stein as a “typical” modernist struggling to write a plotless novel; the faults he finds with Three Lives might be harder to demonstrate — or for that matter more profoundly demonstrated — in work by Robbe-Grillet or Sollers.

Even more troubling than his omission of modern European novelists is his inattention to recent European critical theory. While Caserio’s text has scattered references to contemporary Structuralist and Post-structuralist critics, his basic argument develops in apparent ignorance of their views — even when they address the same basic issues. Especially conspicuous by their absence are post-war European thinkers like Pierre Macherey, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida, who also speculate about narrative’s claim to truth and use Poe’s plots as illustrations. Their arguments are admittedly very different from Caserio’s (and from one another), but they subtly raise issues pertinent to this book. Nor does Caserio seriously address the closely related (though again different) criticism of his Yale colleagues — mentioning Hillis Miller’s comments on George Eliot in a few sentences, remarking in a footnote on the “stimulation” provided by Harold Bloom’s The Ringers in the Tower, and ignoring Paul de Man altogether.

The book neglects, then, much fiction and recent criticism relevant to its concerns. Omissions can, of course, be justified in many ways, but I feel that Caserio would find interesting and valuable things to say if he moved from his common-sensical discussion of plot and story ro deal directly with the alternative critical positions. His book is provocative and rewarding as it stands, but perhaps most satisfying in its invitation to future efforts in this direction.

Barry R. Bell, Washington State University


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]