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Uncertain story – postmodernist narrative strategies in Flaubert's Parrot by J. Barnes and Possession by A. S. Byatt


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Solar, Vesna. (2017). Uncertain story – postmodernist narrative strategies in Flaubert's Parrot by J. Barnes and Possession by A. S. Byatt. PhD Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of Comparative Literature.
(Poslijediplomski doktorski studij književnosti, izvedbenih umjetnosti, filma i kulture) [mentor Zlatar, Andrea].

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This work attempts to establish new term of uncertain story as a key aspect of postmodernist narrative by analysing two postmodernist novels: Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes and Possession by Antonia Susan Byatt. The analysis is based on narratology, intertextuality and hermeneutics. Story is a term that has always been connected with literature in general, in everyday speech as well as in critical discourse. In the contemporary fiction it is possible to witness a certain “return to the story”, which is connected to postmodernism. But the postmodernist story differs from the traditional one by its uncertainty. Although much is said and written about postmodernism, there are many controversies regarding its definition. According to Linda Hutcheon, all definitions of postmodernism (Lyotard, Callinescu, McHale, Lodge) fail to recognize its central paradox: it both uses and problematizes concepts it deals with. Therefore Hutcheon argues for a complex and flowing “poetics of postmodernism”, not its definition. Critical discussion about the concept of story starts with Aristotle, who established the connection with tragedy and saw it as a complete and meaningful action which has the begging, the middle and the end. That notion of story remained valid until the 20th century Russian formalism, structuralism and poststructuralism, which developed the notion of narrative as opposed to the story or the plot. Aristotle’s notion, however, remains the basis for our term certain story, which can be found in realistic novels. It is a story that makes an illusion of narrating itself: the narrator is usually “hidden” to put the story in the foreground, which is itself concentrated on its content, not its form. That kind of story is prevalent during literary history and has not been seriously challenged until the rise of modernism, which has in turn introduced two new aspects. The first aspect forms a modern story, a story that differs from the certain one, but still remains a story. The other aspect destroys the story altogether in the stream of consciousness narrative mode and the French New novel. A complete destruction of the story leads to the impossibility of narration, to silence. Postmodernism therefore returns to the concept of narrating stories, but those stories are uncertain. Their uncertainty is not based on their connection to the reality, but on multiplicity of narrative devices that continually question the story itself. However, it must be emphasised that an uncertain story always remains a story, which implies the narration of events. Flaubert’s parrot narrates three different stories: the most important one is the search for the truth about Flaubert, while the other two focus on the narrator Braithwaite and his wife Ellen. Although Braithwaite tells a story about Flaubert, Flaubert’s parrot is anything but a traditional biography. It is not possible to define it within the conventiontional genre system because it not only fuses fictional narration with critical discourse but combines various narration strategies of novel and biography and forms an uncertain genre. It continually undermines every presupposition of realistic and biographical narration to form a narrative which constantly questions itself: not only a first person narrator tells a story that is traditionally bound to a third person omniscient narrator, but he demonstrates his very limited knowledge of the story he narrates. That leads to a narrative paradox: Braithwaite is an unreliable narrator, but his repeated acknowledgement of the limitations of his knowledge makes him a reliable source of the uncertain narration. His version of Flaubert’s life is contrasted to Louise Colet version, which represents a complicated mise en abyme of the three stories on the first diegetic level. Coupled with various “ontological scandals” (McHale), mise en abyme further destabilizes the story. The parrot itself functions both as a real stuffed parrot and a fluctuating symbol. The impossibility of identifying the parrot sitting on Flaubert’s desk indicates the impossibility of finding the one true meaning of a text. Byatt’s Possession narrates two main stories on two different diegetic levels, but it also incorporates a myriad of intradiegetic stories which form multiple mirror texts that reflect one another. It is therefore impossible to decide which story is the most important one, so the mere concept of a story is destabilized. The uncertainty of the story is enhanced by the complex role of the most important intertextual relations (Grimm’s fairy-tales, French Melusine legend, Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman) and of the romance tradition, which leads to Possession as a metaromance. Further destabilization of the story is achieved by forming complex relations between the main narrator on the first level of diegesis and many first person narrators. The motifs of the tower, the hair, colours green and white, water, garden and possession are intertwined and can be found throughout the narrative; they form a system of leitmotifs. Since the use of motifs is characteristic of poetic genres and not of a narrative of any kind, the introduction of a poetic structure in a story makes it uncertain. Uncertain story is a story that keeps the essence of being a story, but it questions itself through many narrative strategies: the use of narrator, relations between narrative levels, intertextuality, metafiction and the use of poetic structures. That kind of story is the key characteristic of postmodernist literature.

Item Type: PhD Thesis
Uncontrolled Keywords: story/narrative, “certain story”, “uncertain story”, postmodernism, narrator, mise en abyme, Flaubert’s Parrot, Possession
Subjects: Comparative literature
Departments: Department of Comparative Literature
Supervisor: Zlatar, Andrea
Additional Information: Poslijediplomski doktorski studij književnosti, izvedbenih umjetnosti, filma i kulture
Date Deposited: 25 Oct 2017 09:14
Last Modified: 25 Oct 2017 09:14

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