The Spacetime Configuration of Storyworlds

Using Ian McEwan’s novel On Chesil Beach (2007) as a case study, this essay outlines strategies for investigating the nexus of narrative and mind – that is, the way stories both result from and support modes of intelligent behavior._1 Research on the mind‑narrative nexus, like feminist narratology, work on narrative across media, and other approaches to narrative inquiry, can be described as a subdomain within “postclassical” narratology (Herman 1999). At issue are frameworks for narrative research that build on the ideas of classical, structuralist narratologists but supplement those ideas with work that was unavailable to story analysts such as Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, Algirdas J. Greimas, and Tzvetan Todorov during the heyday of the structuralist revolution. In the case of scholarship bearing on narrative and mind, theorists have worked to enrich the original base of structuralist concepts with research on human intelligence either ignored by or inaccessible to the classical narratologists, in an effort to throw light on mental capacities and dispositions that provide grounds for – or, conversely, are grounded in –narrative experiences.

To investigate these interfaces between stories and the mind, I use the idea of narrative worldmaking as a central heuristic framework, drawing on the pioneering insights of Lubomír Doležel (1998, 2010), Nelson Goodman (1978), Richard Gerrig (1993), and other theorists. In turn, under the heading narrative worldmaking I include two key areas of inquiry: on the one hand, how interpreters of narratives use textual affordances to explore storyworlds, to the extent required by their purposes in engaging with a given story; on the other hand, how narrative itself provides means for making sense of experience, and in particular the conduct of persons._2 Further, in my approach processes of narrative understanding, or what I call worlding the story, link up with the referential power of narrative, its capacity to evoke worlds in which interpreters can, with more or less ease or difficulty, take up imaginative residence._3 I argue that worldmaking is in fact the hallmark of narrative experiences, the root function of stories and storytelling that should therefore constitute the starting‑point for narrative inquiry and the analytic tools developed in its service. Yet the structuralist narratologists, for their part, failed to investigate issues of narrative referentiality and world modeling, not least because of the Saussurean language theory they used as their “pilot‑science”. Of key importance here is Saussure’s bipartite analysis of the linguistic sign into the signifier and signified_4 to the exclusion of the referent, along with his related emphasis on code instead of message – that is, his foregrounding of the structural constituents and combinatory principles of the semiotic system of language over situated uses of that system. By contrast, in the years since structuralism, convergent research developments across multiple fields, including discourse analysis, philosophy, psychology, and narrative theory itself, have revealed the importance of studying how people deploy various sorts of symbol systems to refer to, and constitute, aspects of their experience. Building on this work, my approach assumes that a crucial outstanding challenge for scholars of story is to come to terms with how narrative affords methods – indeed, serves as a primary resource – for world modeling and world creation.

A focus on narrative worldmaking studies how storytellers, using many different kinds of symbol systems (written or spoken language, static or moving images, word‑image combinations, and so on), provide interpreters with affordances for exploring narrative worlds, or “storyworlds” – whether they are the imagined, autonomous worlds of fiction or the worlds about which nonfictional accounts make claims that are subject to falsification. As this last formulation suggests, although narrative provides means for creating, transforming, and aggregating storyworlds across various settings, media, and genres,_5 different kinds of narrative practices entail different protocols for worldmaking, with different consequences and effects. I argue that illuminating these protocols will require bringing scholarship on narrative into closer dialogue with developments in the sciences of mind. More than this, however, I suggest that moving issues of worldmaking to the forefront of narrative inquiry opens up new directions for basic research in the field, in part by underscoring the need to reframe the kinds of questions theorists ask about narrative itself.

To illustrate the approach, I focus here on the way narrative texts like McEwan’s novel enables interpreters to map out, more or less fully, the spacetime configuration of storyworlds. In general, bringing scholarship on stories into dialogue with ideas from psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, and related areas of research_6, my approach emphasizes how engaging with narratives entails using textual cues or affordances to negotiate the when, what, where, who, how, and why dimensions of mentally configured worlds – dimensions that span the spatiotemporal situation of narrated events vis‑à‑vis the time and place of narration, the characters who populate the storyworld, their motives and means for acting, and so forth. As its title might suggest, the present essay focuses primarily on the what, where, and when dimensions of such narrative worlds; but my discussion touches on the other dimensions as well. By using cues to specify or “fill out” these dimensions in more or less detail, interpreters can frame provisional answers to questions about events within unfolding storyworlds and also about their overall configuration. The interplay among the dimensions of a narrative world – in other terms, the specific pattern of responses created by the way an interpreter frames answers to questions about what is going on, where, how, and why while engaging with narratively organized discourse – accounts for the structure as well as the overall impact of the world projected on the basis of the text. Hence even as they draw inferences about the kind of world an act of telling is designed to evoke, interpreters engage with further questions about how a given narrative is situated in its broader discourse environment – questions concerning why or with what purposes the act of telling is being performed at all. These questions fall under the scope of the other side of my approach to narrative worldmaking, which, developed in more detail elsewhere (Herman forthcoming a, forthcoming b), focuses on how stories serve not just as a target for interpretation but also as a means for making sense of experience itself.

Before I turn to a closer examination of how textual affordances in On Chesil Beach enable interpreters to map out the spacetime configuration of its storyworld, it may be helpful to contextualize my account by offering a brief précis of the novel. As noted in Herman et al. (2012), I find McEwan’s text to be a productive case study for a number of reasons, including its powerful exploration of how interpersonal conflicts are rooted in larger familial and social contexts, and its reflexive investigation of the way stories provide scaffolding for making sense of one’s own and others’ actions (see also Herman forthcoming a)._7 The novel opens in medias res with two inexperienced and under‑informed newlyweds trying to negotiate the complexities of their wedding night on the eve of the sexual revolution in England in 1962. The first sentence sets the scene: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was impossible” (McEwan 2007, p. 3). The first part of the novel explores the characters’ states of mind as they sit down to dinner in their honeymoon suite in a Georgian inn on the Dorset coast. For Edward Mayhew, the groom, and the son of a father who is headmaster of a primary school and a mother who suffered brain damage because of a freak accident on a railway platform, the idea of having sex with his new wife is at once tantalizing and a source of worry. But for Florence Mayhew (née Ponting), a professional musician‑in‑the‑making whose mother is a professor of philosophy and whose father owns an electronics company, the prospect of consummating her marriage with Edward causes a deep, paralyzing anxiety – an anxiety rooted in what emerges, over the course of the novel, as a buried history of sexual abuse at the hands of her father._8 Thus, whereas Edward “merely suffered conventional first‑night nerves, [Florence] experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness” (ibid., p. 8).

From this point until the final ten pages of McEwan’s 203‑page novel, the narrative alternates between, on the one hand, periodic shifts back in time that provide information about the main characters’ family backgrounds, life stories, and courtship and, on the other hand, a detailed, blow‑by‑blow recounting of the events of the present moment. The present‑day events lead up to what proves to be a disastrous attempt at sexual intercourse by Edward and Florence and an angry, marriage‑ending exchange on the beach – Chesil Beach – afterward. Then, in the final portion of the novel, the pace of narration speeds up drastically, covering some forty years of story time in about five percent of the page space used previously to narrate events lasting just a few hours. Most of this final section is refracted through the vantage point of Edward, who eventually comes to conclude that though all “[Florence] needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them” (ibid., p. 202), on that night on Chesil Beach he had nonetheless “stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light” (ibid., p. 203).

The Temporal Profile of McEwan’s Storyworld

There is of course an extensive tradition of research on the temporal structure of stories, ranging from Viktor Shklovskii’s work on plot as a structuring device, which established the foundational distinction between the chronological sequence of events told about (fabula) and the sequence in which they are told (sjuzhet); to Genette’s ([1972]/1980) systematization of the temporal relationships that can obtain between these two sequences (Genette 1980, pp. 33–160; see also Herman 2002, pp. 211–261, and Ireland 2001); to Meir Sternberg’s (1978) analysis of strategies for sequencing expositional material in the telling of a story, as well as those strategies’ effects on narrative understanding. Key ideas from this research tradition can be harnessed for an approach that investigates the mind‑narrative nexus via a focus on narrative worldmaking; the research can be used to shed light on what I have characterized as the when aspect or dimension of storyworlds.

This temporal aspect of narrative worldmaking can be analyzed into a number of sub‑aspects, each of which can be captured as a question for which interpreters of stories seek to frame answers – based on inferences about the global as well as local designs subtending acts of narration (see Herman forthcoming a). Relevant questions include the following:

1. How does the time‑frame of events in the storyworld relate to that of the narrational or world‑creating act (in Reichenbach’s 1947 terms, what is the relation between event time and speech time?).

2. What is the relation between the temporal structure of events in the storyworld (insofar as that can be reconstructed) and the profile they assume in the process of narration? (As discussed below, this question encompasses issues of emplotment, that is, the way events are, in being narrated, set out in a particular order that in turn implies a particular way of understanding causal‑chronological relationships among them.)

3. How does the chosen narrational mode and/or method of temporal profiling affect the process (or experience) of building the narrative world?

These questions bear on the temporal dynamics of narrative worldmaking, suggesting ways of recasting ideas from classical structuralist narratology by foregrounding issues bound up with the co‑construction and exploration of storyworlds. Thus, when Genette ([1972]/1980, pp. 215–227) distinguishes among simultaneous, retrospective, prospective, and “intercalated” modes of narration (as in the epistolary novel, where the act of narration postdates some events but precedes others), these narrative modes can be interpreted in light of the different kinds of structure that they afford for world building – in ways that bear especially saliently on question 1 above. Likewise, connecting up with questions 2 and 3, Genette’s ideas about duration, order, and frequency further illuminate how interpreters of stories configure events temporally, as part of the process of using textual affordances to explore the when dimension of narrative worlds.

In the case of simultaneous narration, like that used in sports broadcasts or on‑site news reporting about occurrences still underway, events are presented in concert with tellers’ and interpreters’ attempts to comprehend the contours and boundaries of the narrated domain; inferences about the impact of characters’ doings on the larger history of the storyworld thus remain tentative, probabilistic, open‑ended. By contrast, retrospective narration such as McEwan’s accommodates the full scope of a storyworld’s history, allowing connections to be made among earlier and later actions and events (Margolin 1999). Narration of this sort allows for flashbacks to formative occasions as well as proleptic foreshadowings (anticipations‑in‑hindsight) of the eventual impact of a character’s behavior on his or her cohorts – and also of future events over which the characters have no control. Hence, by alternating between narration of what transpires on Florence and Edward’s wedding night, allusions to how their words and deeds will shape the future, and analeptic references to earlier actions and events that led them to this moment, McEwan draws a time‑line that zigzags between present and past while also shadowing forth a future time‑frame when the present, too, will have become past. In doing so, he manipulates narrative order in a way that frames the present moment within a longer life‑course that stretches back into the characters’ past and extends forward into their future, grounding what they do or fail to do in larger patterns of motivation – sets of interconnected reasons for acting – that would otherwise remain inaccessible (here I touch on what I’ve termed the who, how, and why dimensions of McEwan’s storyworld, in addition to its what, where, and when dimensions).

McEwan situates actions and events within a longer time‑span, so that they can be evaluated more holistically, at a key point late in the novel. Just after Florence turns away from Edward on the beach and walks back to the hotel, having said, “I am sorry, Edward. I am most terribly sorry,” the narrative continues:

…Her words, their particular archaic construction would haunt him for a long time to come. He would wake in the night and hear them, or something like their echo, and their yearning, regretful tone, and he would groan at the memory of that moment, of his silence and of the way he angrily turned from her, of how he then stayed out on the beach another hour, savoring the full deliciousness of the injury and wrong and insult she had inflicted on him, elevated by a mawkish sense of himself as being wholesomely and tragically in the right (McEwan 2007, p. 192).

Here McEwan uses the subjunctive verbal mood (he would wake, he would groan) to provide a kind of thumbnail sketch of actions that, stemming from the episode on the beach, take place repeatedly in the future._9 Telescoping forward in time, the passage also compresses into a reportable sequence a wide array of occurrences – thereby bringing into relation Edward’s angry spurning of Florence’s final gesture of conciliation and the years and indeed decades over the course of which that action bears the fruit of regret, self‑analysis, and ultimately self‑contempt. Thus, in a way that illuminates the dynamics of storying the world, the passage just quoted demonstrates how narrative provides equipment for modeling networks of temporal relationships, whereby actions and events at one temporal location carry effects that are distributed across time.

Then, in the final ten pages, after the couple’s angry exchange on the beach, McEwan shifts to a strictly chronological mode of narration but now resets the parameter of duration. Covering a relatively long period of time in a relatively short span of text, McEwan provides the narrative equivalent of time‑lapse photography, enabling readers to witness the unfolding of the consequences of characters’ actions over the longer term – especially for Edward. And the parameter of frequency also comes into play. The text repeatedly alludes to the sailing trips that Florence took with her father and also to actions associated with Florence’s pursuit of a musical career, thereby highlighting the salience of these elements of the storyworld and prompting construction of a story line in which past sexual abuse by her father constitutes a reason for Florence’s compensatory immersion in the world of music (see McEwan 2007, pp. 152, 182) – and also for her actions on her wedding night. More generally, by starting with world creation as a basic cognitive and communicative function served by storytelling, and then working backward to the formal structures that support this root function of narrative, it becomes easier to motivate – to provide warrant for – Genette’s foundational account of time in narrative. Fluctuations in the speed of narration along with manipulations of frequency can be viewed as metrics of value or at least attentional prominence – that is, as means for distinguishing between focal and backgrounded elements in a storyworld. For their part, flashbacks and flashforwards can be studied as means for “thickening” the history of a narrative world (see also Abbott 2008, pp. 160–165) and for underscoring how no action can be understood in isolation from the history of conduct from which it emerges and on which it impinges in turn.

As already indicated in my previous comments about order, storytelling constitutes a basic technology for modeling events in ways that facilitate their arrangement, or emplotment, into larger patterns._10 These strategies for event‑sequencing produce text‑specific plot structures that correspond to the entwined destinies of the characters as they pursue, with more or less success, sometimes conflicting goals in a narrative world. At another level, distinct modes of emplotment are also associated with generic or canonical plot types such as the marriage plot, of which McEwan’s novel can be viewed as a postmodern debunking. At a still more general level, emplotment yields the patterns of causal‑chronological connection that make a story a story, as opposed to a mere assemblage of events (as in a list)._11

Furthermore, even as methods of emplotment and other discourse features enable readers to map textual designs onto the when dimension of a storyworld, that mapping process itself has a temporal structure – which is partly controlled by textual means (e.g., gapped‑out information that is then returned to via analepses) and partly under interpreters’ own control (as when I flip back through McEwan’s novel to connect up into a sequence the passages that can be read as figuring forth the story line of sexual abuse, McEwan 2007, pp. 8, 20, 61–62, 123, 131, 140–141). Along the same lines, research by Sternberg (1978) and Perry (1979) highlighted processing strategies, such as the “primacy” and “recency” effects, that arise from the situation of a given event vis‑à‑vis the two temporal continua of story and discourse, or fabula and sjuzhet. Events that happen early in story‑time can be encountered late in discourse‑time, or vice versa, producing reading experiences different from those set into play when there is greater isomorphism between the time of the told and the time of the telling. Consider the different methods of world building that would have been set into play if On Chesil Beach had begun with an older Edward looking back on lost opportunities, or alternatively with his first glimpse of Florence at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament meeting in Oxford, many months prior to their wedding night (ibid., pp. 58–59). For that matter, rereading a narrative entails different modes of worldmaking than does reading it for the first time. Thus, with repeated readings of McEwan’s novel, my own initial focus on reconstructing a time line for events has given way to an appreciation of the emplotment strategies that invite me to shuttle back and forth between present, past, and future and to explore how events have the significance that they do because of their relation to a larger world emergent in time.

My next section discusses other aspects of the when dimension of narrative worlds. I have distributed this time‑related material across the two sections because, as Mink (1978, p. 146) argued, a hallmark of narrative is the way it makes constant and necessary reference to the location of entities, situations, and events in a larger process of development (compare Ricoeur 1983–1985/1984–1988). Hence, in narrative contexts, time must be factored into accounts of spatially anchored events; put another way, storyworlds consist of situations and events taking place in (sequences of) spatiotemporally configured scenes.

From Time to Spacetime in On Chesil Beach

My discussion of emplotment in the previous section raised issues that extend beyond the when dimension to the what and where dimensions of narrative worlds. The emplotting of events entails creating not just a temporal sequence but a linked series of spatiotemporal contexts or environments (cf. Bridgeman 2005, Dannenberg 2008) – a series of situated actions and occurrences that, characterized from some vantage point on the storyworld, are connected with one another via the process of narration. At issue is what I termed in an earlier study the “spatialization” of storyworlds (Herman 2002, pp. 263–299), the process of engaging with narrated domains as evolving configurations of participants, objects, and places.

Again, the spatial aspect of narrative worldmaking – that is, the process of coming to terms with the spacetime configuration of storyworlds – can be analyzed into a number of sub‑aspects, each of which can be captured as a question for which interpreters seek to frame answers while engaging with narratives. Relevant questions include the following:

1. Where did/will/might narrated events happen relative to the place of narration – and for that matter relative to the interpreter’s current situation?

2. How exactly is the domain of narrated events spatially configured, and what sorts of changes take place in the configuration of that domain over time?

3. During a given moment of the unfolding action, what are the focal (foregrounded) constituents or inhabitants of the narrated domain – as opposed to the peripheral (backgrounded) constituents?

4. Whose vantage point on situations, objects, and events in the narrated world shapes the presentation of that world at a given moment?

Approaches such as deictic shift theory (Duchan, Bruder, and Hewitt 1995) and contextual frame theory (Emmott 1997) illuminate the methods of the cognitive relocation that enable interpreters to take up residence in a narrative world like McEwan’s (question 1); such approaches also elucidate how interpreters are able to remain oriented within that world by monitoring changes in the spacetime relationships among characters, objects, and places (questions 2, 3, and 4). Also relevant for question 4 is work that rethinks narratological approaches to focalization or perspective via ideas from cognitive linguistics, which studies how the structure and use of language reflects the capacities and dispositions of embodied, spatiotemporally situated human minds (Herman forthcoming a).

Consider the opening sentences of On Chesil Beach:

[1] They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. [2] But it is never easy. [3] They had just sat down to supper in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn. [4] In the next room, visible through the open door, was a four‑poster bed, rather narrow, whose bedcover was pure white and stretched startlingly smooth, as though by no human hand. [5] Edward did not mention that he had never stayed in a hotel before, whereas Florence, after many trips as a child with her father, was an old hand. [6] Superficially, they were in fine spirits. [7] Their wedding, at St. Mary’s, Oxford, had gone well; the service was decorous, the reception jolly, the send‑off from school and college friends raucous and uplifting. (pp. 3–4)

These seven sentences evoke a fictional scenario to which the textual affordances provided by the passage, including referring expressions (They, a Georgian inn, the send‑off) and deictic terms (this, before), enable me to relocate._12 Reading the passage in accordance with protocols for fictional world construction, I map these expressions and terms onto the spacetime coordinates organizing the storyworld being evoked – rather than those associated with the worlds that McEwan occupied as text producer or that I currently inhabit as text interpreter. In other words, while interpreting the narrative, I make a deictic shift to a particular night in 1962 (as stipulated by subsequent textual cues), which is in turn part of an autonomous, standalone world that contrasts with storyworlds evoked by accounts of the past that make a claim to fact. Granted, toponymns included in the title of the novel and in the text’s opening pages (Chesil Beach; St. Mary’s, Oxford; the Dorset coast) provide general geographic coordinates in which to situate the world of the novel. These toponymns function as what Even‑Zohar (1980) would term “realemes,” or units within a larger repertory of real‑world elements deemed to be insertable within a given narrative. Generic conventions, authorial preferences, and text‑specific patterns constitute criteria for realeme insertability in a given narrative; such criteria afford scaffolding for particular kinds of world construction and, while obviating the need to build the storyworld from scratch, also determine the degree to which (and ways in which) narrative worlds can be cross‑referenced with the world(s) in which they are interpreted.

The relative abundance of place names distinguishes McEwan’s novel from the storyworlds of some science fiction narratives, for example, where tighter constraints on realeme insertability translate into different methods of world building. Yet a note included at the end of the novel signals the divergence between, on the one hand, the fictional situations and events recounted in the novel and, on the other hand, circumstances and occurrences about which falsifiable claims can be made: “Edward and Florence’s hotel – just over a mile south of Abbotsbury, Dorset, occupying an elevated position in a field behind the beach parking lot – does not exist” (p. 205). This note underscores how interpreting McEwan’s text requires making a deictic shift away from the world of the here‑and‑now, and also the world of a (dis)confirmable historical past, to the world of the story. But understanding McEwan’s text also requires shifting among different sets of spacetime coordinates within this narrative world. Here Emmott’s idea of contextual frames can supplement deictic shift theory, indicating how narrative worlds are in fact composite constructs, built from a constellation of (more or less fully projected) scenes or contexts linking characters, locales, and events. Indeed, the dynamics of frame shifting suggests that the traditional concept of “setting” operates at too gross a scale to capture the fluctuating relations between focal and peripheral elements as interpreters navigate spacetime regions of McEwan’s storyworld.

The first sentence of the novel enables interpreters to move from the contextual frame that corresponds to the present moment in the narrated domain, or what can be called the story‑now (sentence 1), to a frame associated with a gnomic statement anchored in the present moment of narration, or the discourse‑now (sentence 2). The text then cues a shift to a different frame immediately preceding that of the story‑now (sentence 3), followed by a further elaboration of the current frame (sentence 4). Tracking such frame‑shifts, and in longer episodes monitoring when circumstances and participants are bound into or out of a given frame, allows interpreters to navigate (by bringing into relation with one another) the what, where, and when dimensions of the storyworld under construction. Thus, recognizing the frame shift between sentences 5 and 6 allows readers to anchor referring expressions to appropriate subdomains of the storyworld. It is because of this frame shift that they in sentence 6 can pick out Edward and Florence in the spacetime coordinates corresponding to the story‑now rather than during the separate lives they led in the past.

Modes of perspective taking likewise bear crucially on narrative worldmaking, suggesting the need to reorient accounts of focalization around the key question of how storyworlds are spatialized. Up to now scholars of narrative have for the most part concentrated on developing taxonomies of modes of focalization, distinguishing, for example, between fixed modes of focalization, where the vantage point on the events being narrated does not change (as with Jack’s perspective in McEwan’s earlier novel The Cement Garden), and variable modes like that used in On Chesil Beach, which switches back and forth between Florence’s and Edward’s vantage points. Theorists have also contrasted internal or character‑specific modes, where the action is filtered through the perspective of one or more characters, with external modes, where, as in the opening pages of McEwan’s novel, the vantage point is wider in scope than any character’s and is thus “ambient” rather than “strict,” to use Jahn’s (1999) terms. But an emphasis on worldmaking necessitates a less taxonomic and more functional approach to narrative perspective. Tracking frame‑shifts of the sort just discussed requires monitoring what vantage point orients the configuration of circumstances, participants, and events in a given frame and across frames. In turn, in ways that can be illuminated by recent work in cognitive linguistics, perspective‑marking features can be counted among the textual affordances that allow interpreters to negotiate storyworlds.

Cognitive‑linguistic research (Langacker 1987, Talmy 2000) suggests how such perspective‑marking features can be situated within a wider array of construal operations – ways of organizing and making sense of domains of experience – that are anchored in humans’ embodied existence and that may be exploited in different ways in different kinds of narratives (for fuller discussion, see Herman forthcoming a; see also Grishakova 2002). The opening of chapter 5 of McEwan’s novel suggests the advantages of assimilating issues of perspective to a broader concern with the construal of situations and events in narrative worlds. Here, having hurried away from the honeymoon suite after her and Edward’s unsuccessful attempt at sexual intercourse, Florence watches Edward approach her on Chesil Beach as the last of the daylight fades:

[1] She watched him coming along the strand, his form at first no more than an indigo stain against the darkening shingle, sometimes appearing motionless, flickering and dissolving at its outlines, and at others suddenly closer, as though moved like a chess piece a few squares toward her. [2] The last glow of daylight lay along the shore, and behind her, away to the east, there were points of light on Portland, and the cloud base reflected dully a yellowish glow of streetlamps from a distant town. [3] She watched him, willing him to go slower, for she was guiltily afraid of him, and was desperate for more time to herself. [4] Briefly, she saw the outline of his shoulders against a silver streak of water, a current that plumed far out to sea behind him. [5] Now she could hear the sound of his footfalls on the pebbles, which meant that he would hear hers (McEwan 2007, pp. 169, 172–173).

In this passage, the retrospective narration is oriented around Florence’s sighting of a scene that, featuring Edward as the focal participant, unfolds in the real time of the story‑now. Yet the scope of the construal fluctuates from sentence to sentence – indicating that, as with the concept of “setting”, distinctions like internal vs. external focalization operate at too gross a scale to capture moment‑by‑moment processes of worldmaking. Thus, within sentence 1, the scope of the construal widens as one moves from the first to the second clause – a widening that continues in sentence 2, which presents elements of the scene that are situated behind Florence and thus outside her visual field. The scope then narrows again in subsequent sentences, with Florence’s standpoint orienting the narration of events, although in sentence 5 Florence does imaginatively project herself into what Edward must be able to hear as he approaches her on the beach. As Edward nears the proximal end of the line of sight from which Florence watches his approach, the degree of detail of her visual and auditory perceptions increases, prompting continued spatialization of the scene from Florence’s standpoint.

This passage thus underscores how what can be seen or perceived alters with the spacetime coordinates of the embodied self who is doing the looking or perceiving. But more than this, the passage suggests how a self is in part constituted by what it perceives, and when and where such acts of perception take place – with narrative being one of the principal means for situating selves, or persons, in evolving sets of temporal and spatial coordinates. In my contributions to Herman et al. (2012) and also in the more detailed account of my approach presented in Herman (forthcoming a), I build on these last remarks concerning the interconnections between perspective and character or identity. Specifically, I investigate how stories portray model persons in narrative worlds, and in doing so at once draw on and contribute to the models of persons circulating in a given culture or subculture.

Concluding Remarks

In this essay, I have used a single case study to outline some of the aims and implications of an approach to investigating the nexus of narrative and mind. The approach explores the mind‑narrative nexus by foregrounding issues of worldmaking and, in doing so, broaching two key questions: How do textual designs in stories across media interlock with interpreters’ mental capacities and dispositions, thus giving rise to narrative experiences? And how does narrative itself scaffold efforts to make sense of the world? A more comprehensive test of the possibilities and limitations of the approach will require taking more fully into account other dimensions of storyworlds besides those bearing on their spacetime configuration. It will also require examining how processes of worldmaking differ across different kinds of narratives within a particular medium, as well as how those processes play out differently across stories presented in different media. In previous studies (Herman et al. 2012, forthcoming a, forthcoming b) I have described strategies for undertaking a wider‑scope investigation of this sort, suggesting how a dual‑focus approach to narrative worldmaking – an approach that profiles narratives as both a target for interpretation and a resource for sense making – raises productive questions for research on narrative within and across several storytelling media. Of course, these studies constitute only a beginning.

Already, however, these initial attempts to flesh out the approach have brought into view larger methodological issues. In particular, the studies underscore how the mind‑narrative nexus, and the processes of narrative worldmaking that both emerge from and contribute to this nexus, constitute field‑transcending questions for research. By recruiting as necessary from a range of descriptive nomenclatures and analytic methods, and by suggesting how traditions of narrative study might be interwoven with narrative‑pertinent modes of inquiry associated with developments in discourse analysis, social and cognitive psychology, the philosophy of mind, and other mind‑oriented areas of inquiry, I have tried here to keep the target phenomena at the center of my account, drawing on various disciplinary resources as they became relevant to the study of the spacetime configuration of storyworlds like McEwan’s. In this way, instead of subordinating humanistic vocabularies and methods to those of the social or natural sciences, or vice versa, I have sought to demonstrate the advantages of a what can be called a “transdisciplinary” approach to the mind‑narrative nexus in particular, narrative inquiry more generally (Herman 2011, forthcoming a).

In contrast with unidirectional transfers of terms and concepts from one discipline to another – transfers that can inhibit rather than promote genuine dialogue across disciplinary boundaries – the goal of transdisciplinary research on stories is for different frameworks for study to converge on complex investigative problems, such as the processes of worldmaking that I have discussed in this essay. New strategies for inquiry can then emerge in a bottom‑up fashion from the interaction of the fields brought to bear on the problems at hand, rather than being predetermined and imposed, in a top‑down manner, by one or the other disciplines concerned._13 Furthering this kind of research on stories, however, will require more transdisciplinary exchanges – about a wider range of case studies in narrative worldmaking.


The present article is based in part on material I contributed to the co‑authored volume Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (Herman et al. 2012).

Here, in parallel with my contributions to Herman et al. (2012), I foreground questions about narrative viewed as a target for interpretation – or aspects of the process that I term worlding the story – while backgrounding somewhat questions about narrative viewed as a resource for sense making – or aspects of the process that I term storying the world. However, in two forthcoming studies (Herman forthcoming a and forthcoming b), I seek to give equal weight to both aspects of narrative worldmaking. In addition, Herman (forthcoming a) suggests how, when it comes studying narrative under both of these profiles, traditions of narrative scholarship can not only be informed by but also inform research in the sciences of mind.

I use the term referential in a broader sense than does Cohn (1999), for example. Discussing ideas also explored by theorists such as Lejeune (1989), Doležel (1998), and Ryan (1991), Cohn argues that fictional narratives are non‑referential because, in contrast with historiography, journalistic reports, biographies, autobiographies, and other narrative modes falling within the domain of nonfiction, fictional works are not subject to judgments of truth and falsity (p. 15). As Cohn (1999) writes, “in fictional poetics, though the concept of reference has recently been reinstated, its qualification by such terms as fictive, nonostensive, or pseudo‑ sufficiently indicates its nonfactual connotations, even when it denotes components of the fictional world taken directly from the world of reality” (p. 113). By contrast, I link worldmaking to “the referential dimension of narrative” to preserve the intuition that fictional as well as nonfictional narratives consist of sequences of referring expressions (see also Schiffrin 2006), whose nature and scope will vary depending on the storytelling medium involved. Through such textual patterns, narratives enable interpreters to explore a storyworld featuring the situations, events, and entities indexed by world‑evoking expressions at issue (for further discussion, see Herman 2002, 2009, Herman et. al. 2012, Herman forthcoming a). In other words, narratives refer to model‑worlds, whether they are the imagined, autonomous model‑worlds of fiction or the model‑worlds about which nonfictional accounts make claims that, by being cross‑compared with other accounts, can be falsified.

With signified and signifier, compare story (fabula) and discourse (sjuzhet).

In Herman (2009), I characterize narrative as a mode of representation that (a) must be interpreted in light of a specific discourse context or occasion for telling; (b) focuses on a structured time‑course of particularized events; (c) concerns itself with some kind of disruption or disequilibrium in a storyworld inhabited by intelligent agents; and (d) conveys what it is like for those agents to live through the storyworld‑ in‑flux.

For other studies contributing to this sort of dialogue, see, for example, Doležel (1998); Duchan, Bruder, and Hewitt (1995); Emmott (1997); Gerrig (1993); Herman (2002, 2009, forthcoming a, forthcoming b); Pavel (1986); Ryan (1991); and Werth (1999).

There are as yet few critical studies of this recently published text. But see Head (2009) and, for background on the novel’s composition, Zalewski (2009), who reports that Timothy Garton Ash’s comments on an early draft caused McEwan to remove more explicit references to Florence’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Meanwhile, Head (2007) provides invaluable insights into McEwan’s oeuvre prior to the publication of On Chesil Beach.

Readers of On Chesil Beach familiar with Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel The Good Soldier will recognize that the first names of McEwan’s two main characters echo those of Edward Ashburnham and Florence Dowell, whose ill‑fated, destructive affair is narrated ex post facto – and through a complex layering of time‑frames – by Florence’s perversely obtuse husband, John Dowell.

In the Genettean terms that I go on to discuss, this technique can be characterized as iterative narration, a mode of frequency in which what happens more than once is narrated only once (Genette [1972]/1980, pp. 113–160).

Just as (as mentioned earlier) I work with a broader understanding of the concept of narrative referentiality than does Cohn (1999), so too do I use the term emplotment in a broader sense. In my approach, emplotment is a way of talking about the event–ordering potential of narrative – a potential also suggested by distinctions between story and discourse, or the chronological sequence of events told about and the sequence in which those events are told. By contrast, Cohn suggests that the idea of emplotment is pertinent only for nonfictional narratives: “A novel can be said to be plotted, but not emplotted: its serial moments do not refer to, and can therefore not be selected from, an ontologically independent and temporally prior data base of disordered, meaningless happenings that it restructures into order and meaning” (Cohn 1999, p. 114).

The three effects of emplotment described here correspond to the three understandings of the concept of “plot” identified by Abbott (2007). Meanwhile, my next paragraph is indebted to Dannenberg’s (2005) discussion of approaches to plot that foreground narrative dynamics.

Deictic terms like I, here, and now can be defined as expressions whose meaning changes depending on who is uttering them in what discourse context.

I should clarify here that I do not use the terms top‑down and bottom‑up in the sense in which Ryan (2010) uses them in her critique of previous efforts to study the nexus of narrative and mind. For Ryan, studying the mind‑narrative nexus in a bottom‑up fashion (her preferred strategy) means starting with the narrative text itself (2010, p. 489); but as I see it this formulation begs the question: in this context of inquiry, what is the best way to characterize the text itself? For me a bottom‑up approach instead means working across disciplinary boundaries to identify textual patterns, and strategies for studying them, that can be jointly agreed upon as productive for investigations of storytelling vis‑à‑vis the sciences of mind.


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Časoprostorová konfigurace vyprávěných světů
Studie je založena na analýze románu Iana McEwana Na Chesilské pláži, na tomto materiálu jako však sleduje obecnější problematiku vztahu vyprávění a čtenářské mysli. Mapuje způsob mentální světatvorby za pomoci konfigurace časových a prostorových složek. Z hlediska času analyzuje vztah mezi chronologizujícím řazením jednotlivých událostí v rámci zobrazeného světa příběhu, jež se složitě a produktivně váže na časovou strukturu toku samotného textu, jak ke čtenáři přichází v textově lineárním uspořádání. Časový aspekt je poté vtažen do analýzy aspektu prostorového: studie sleduje, jak je doména vyprávěných událostí prostorově uspořádána. Zde ukazuje vzájemné propojení perspektivy jako způsobu vytváření zobrazeného prostoru a budování identity jednotlivých postav textu. Cílem studie je ověřit v praxi cíleně transdisciplinární přístup, který není založen na vypůjčení jednoho konceptu v určité oblasti a jeho následném přenesení do oblasti jiné, ale na vzájemném prolínání podnětů vzešlých z filozofie mysli, kognitivní psychologie, diskursivní analýzy a dalších disciplín a oblastí.