Hanna Meretoja • Stop Narrating the Pandemic as a Story of War

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.

Narrativisation is a central mode of communication and sense-making. As the coronavirus pandemic is unfolding and changing the world before our eyes, it makes a crucial difference which cultural narratives mediate our understanding of the crisis. A deeply problematic story of war has come to dominate the public imagination.

President Donald Trump has branded himself as a “wartime president” and calls the pandemic “the worst attack” ever on the United States. “We must act like any wartime government” declared Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while President Emmanuel Macron asserted multiple times in his recent televised speech that “We are at war.” Health organisations and the media have also adopted military vocabulary. Doctors and nurses are fighting on the “frontline” with an “army of volunteers” to help them, and we are asked to come together in a joint “war effort.”

It is easy to understand why the narrative of battle is attractive. It attributes agency to us at a time when we feel helpless, with few weapons to fight a virus with no cure and no vaccination. Instead of positioning us as passive victims, the narrative of war turns us into courageous soldiers in a fight against a common enemy. For political leaders, the rhetoric of war is a convenient way of conveying the gravity of the situation and justifying emergency legislation and the suspension of certain fundamental rights.

But we are not soldiers, and this is not a war. Using war metaphors to ascribe agency to patients, healthcare workers and the public as a whole is profoundly problematic.

First, to talk about patients “battling for their lives” risks implying that those who survive fought so hard that they made it, whilst those who fail to survive lost their battle because their fighting spirit wasn’t strong enough.

The same problem pertains to using the language of war in depicting cancer patients as “fighters.” As I went through grueling breast cancer treatments last year, I was struck by how often I was praised for fighting so hard. I had to deal, not only with the shocking prospect of never seeing my children grow up, but also with ‘normative optimism’ – the pressure to have the kind of fighting spirit that fits the culturally-preferred narrative of battling cancer.

But there is no research to suggest that a strong fighting spirit would help us to survive either cancer or the coronavirus. In fact, research indicates the opposite: military metaphors harm cancer patients. Those who recover from cancer or Covid-19 are fortunate but should not be praised for winning a successful battle, anymore than those who die should be blamed for not fighting hard enough. No one wants to die of these illnesses. Survival depends on access to effective care and treatments – subject to structural inequalities – as well as on biological mechanisms such as the immune system of the patient, rather than on psychological traits like courage or optimism.

The language of battle may lead us to support such assumptions even when we don’t explicitly think this way. For example, when Boris Johnson was treated for Covid-19 in intensive care, President Trump declared that he’d be fine because he is so “special” and such a “strong person:” “Strong. Resolute. Doesn’t quit. Doesn’t give up.” Are those who “lose the battle” weak people? Do they die because they give up?

As potential patients, we are urged to prepare for the fight by keeping ourselves fit and alert. This creates an illusion of control, as if catastrophe only affects people who fail to be strong and alert soldiers in the war against the “invisible enemy.” Most of those who become critically-ill with the coronavirus have underlying health conditions, we are told, often linked to less than optimal life-styles.

But the truth is that life is fragile and no one is invulnerable. Anyone can fall ill. I had no known risk factors and yet got cancer at a young age, out of the blue. It made me realise how much my life was governed by that control illusion. I thought that if I kept myself superfit, ate a healthy diet, had children young, breastfed them for ages and did all the other “right things,” then nothing could go this wrong. I never smoked and was never overweight, yet the cells started to divide in my breast uncontrollably. I simply had bad luck, and only time will tell whether the cancer returns. Similarly, in the current pandemic, we also have to learn to live with fundamental uncertainty and lack of control.

Second, healthcare professionals are crucial agents in the effort to stop the pandemic, but they are not soldiers. Doctors practice agency in making vital decisions about treatment and care as they try to keep patients alive. Researchers around the world are key agents in the joint endeavor to develop tests, drugs and vaccines. But what healthcare professionals practice is care, not war. Universal access to healthcare is essential to the prospects for peace.

The narrative of war is used as a legitimizing discourse. Wars inevitably have casualties. Wars require sacrifice. The narrative of war heroes is used to justify putting health workers at risk. It distracts us from structural inequalities, including the high exposure of low-paid women to the virus. Health workers are offered military flypasts and medals, even though they would rather get a proper salary and Personal Protective Equipment.

Third, the pandemic affects everyone, but just because working together to stop the spread of the virus has to be a collective effort doesn’t make it a war. The war narrative is linked to romanticized, nostalgic and false conceptions of conflict. The analogy is misplaced for numerous factual reasons, ranging from the impact of war and pestilence on the economy and the movement of goods and people to crucial differences between the sensory experience of armed conflict and the pandemic.

Resorting to the narrative of war means missing the opportunity to confront the complexity and specificity of the current crisis. It blinds us to the uniqueness, not only of how the pandemic feels but also of the social and economic challenges it engenders.

Not only is the analogy of war misplaced on factual grounds; it also misses the possibility to cultivate an imagination that builds on narratives of peace, solidarity and social justice – and to foster a more acute understanding of how we are all fundamentally dependent on one another as inhabitants of a shared planet.

This is an opportunity to embrace our shared vulnerability and destructibility. We tend to idealize agency when it is linked to autonomy, control and independence. But agency is also about the ability to respond to others and to their touch, thoughts, needs and affection; the ability to share experiences, anxieties and hopes and to be attached to, and care about, beings beyond ourselves.

Instead of seeing the pandemic in terms of destructive and divisive narratives like the “survival of the fittest” or nations competing in the war against the virus, shouldn’t we see it as a lesson on the fragility of life? The Queen asks us “to take pride” in the British response to the crisis, but isn’t this a time when humility takes us further? If we turn away from the narrative of war, we can envision how a new global awareness of mutual dependency could give rise to a stronger sense of solidarity, which may help us build a more socially- and environmentally-just world for future generations.

Instead of narrating the pandemic as a story of war, we could narrate it as an open-ended story of a point in history at which humankind faces the opportunity to choose between different routes to different futures. We stand at a historical crossroads in which political decisions will save or cost millions of lives. While many leaders are resorting to the rhetoric of war, others are emphasizing the power of people in a democracy to work for a better and more peaceful future. In this moment we can practice our narrative agency by cultivating our sense of the possible, our sense of how things could be.

The future of humankind depends on the path we decide to take, and that path largely depends on how we narrate the pandemic and the lessons to be drawn from it as we move forward. Let’s make sure these narratives hold open the possibility we now have to leave behind an unsustainable way of life and to imagine a world based on solidarity and care.


Originally published in openDemocracy/Transformation: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/stop-narrating-pandemic-story-war/

Hanna Meretoja (photo by Maria Grönroos)Hanna Meretoja is Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of SELMA: Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientiality and Memory at the University of Turku (Finland) and in 2019-2020 a visiting professor at Exeter College (University of Oxford) and Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. Her research is mainly in the fields of narrative theory, narrative ethics, and cultural memory studies. Her monographs include The Ethics of Storytelling: Narrative Hermeneutics, History, and the Possible (2018, Oxford University Press) and The Narrative Turn in Fiction and Theory: The Crisis and Return of Storytelling from Robbe-Grillet to Tournier (2014, Palgrave Macmillan) and she has co-edited, with Colin Davis, The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma (2020, Routledge) and Storytelling and Ethics: Literature, Visual Arts and the Power of Narrative (2018, Routledge).


R. Lyle Skains • Dissonant Fabulation: Online Narrative Defined by Subversion

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.

The participatory and interactive spaces of the Internet afford producer-users the opportunity to subvert online spaces whose genre conventions do not encompass fictional narrative. This is sometimes done for the purposes of social discourse and criticism and may take the form of satirical personal narratives. Recognition of these texts as a mode of written communication allows for recognition and evaluation of the social discourse that occurs in either unexpected spaces (such as e-commerce), or through unexpected means (such as fictional characters on social media). The juxtaposition of these fictions in non-fictional spaces creates a socio-cognitive dissonance that can lead to further digital intertextual discourse.

This post looks at two examples of this juxtaposition, or dissonant fabulation (Skains 2018):  Amazon’s BIC for Her pen reviews, and the Target “Customer Service” troll. These texts build upon artistic traditions of parody and satire in creating either fictional representations of real people or narrating stylistically exaggerated fictional events.


Dissonant fabulations are defined as fictional narratives emerging in online spaces where generic conventions construct expectations of realism. They contribute to the social activist tradition of “culture jamming”, the practice of using media hoaxes, corporate sabotage, billboard liberation, and trademark infringement to create parodies of corporate marketing rhetoric (Harold 2004). Unlike activist “pranks”, dissonant fabulations are often created initially for the sole purpose of entertainment rather than activism or social discourse. Of course, even texts written solely for laughs can generate social discourse; whether or not the original intent was to contribute to social discourse, dissonant fabulations nonetheless participate in and inspire it.

In order for the message of any text to be communicated, it generally conforms, reproduces, or subverts its genre. The concept of dissonant fabulations draws from Berkenkotter and Huckin’s (1995) genre framework, primarily their notions of situatedness (in that communicators’ knowledge of their genre is derived from everyday immersion within it) and form and content (acknowledging that communicators know how the structures of the genre influence its efficacy), which is often used interchangeably with the term conventions. Situatedness creates expectations on behalf of the receiver; by subverting these expectations, the composer creates a cognitive dissonance in the reader leading to particular effects, such as humor and social commentary.

Anywhere online that commercial entities come into contact in official capacities with their clients or consumers can be defined as “e-commerce”, whether on the company’s own pages or on social media. It is uncommon for commercial spaces to be used for narrative or discursive purposes, though the participatory functions of Web 2.0 have blurred the boundaries between marketing rhetoric and consumer-generated comments.

Social media is predicated almost entirely upon the notion of shared personal experiences, which generally fall into the category of “natural narrative” (Fludernik 1996). These online social spaces establish conventions that seek to remediate face-to-face interactions, and thus carry with them certain expectations of veracity and authenticity. The use of fictional personas or narratives therefore presents subtle, sometimes undetectable, subversions.


The 2012-2014 Amazon.com reviews of BIC Cristal for Her pens created a trend for Internet users playing with the conventions of product reviews. As of 3 August 2017, these products differentiated as “for her” by their pastel coloring, “elegant design—just for her!”, and “thin barrel to fit a woman’s hand”1 had garnered 2,162 customer reviews and 118 answered questions, most of which are satirical responses to the perceived innate sexism of the product. The reviews include variations on misogynistic themes of women as girlish, weak, math- and science-averse, subservient to men, overly body conscious, and even hysterical. The reviews were widely shared in both online and traditional media, and prompted similar feminist and satirical responses to other products online (see Ray 2016).

The genre conventions of Amazon.com’s Q&As and user reviews include the poster’s Amazon.com profile handle (often an actual name); annotation as to whether the review is based on a “Verified Purchase” (confirming the reviewer bought the item from Amazon) and whether the reviewer is ranked as a “Top Reviewer” (a status symbol denoting authority); use of the first-person autobiographical perspective detailing the reviewer’s experience with the item; and even reviewer-contributed photographs to support their written narrative. The purpose of these reviews is in sharing actual product-related experiences, not in entertainment or discourse.

The reviewers on the BIC Cristal for Her pens do not simply use Amazon.com’s reviewing environment to construct rants, direct protests or complaints, or even well-researched opinion pieces. Rather, the reviewers demonstrate a clear awareness of generic conventions for reviews even as they are subverting them: the reviews comply with the expectations of the genre in length, narrative perspective, and content, varying only in terms of tone and fictionality.

One top-ranked review waxes poetic about the pens: “I use it when I’m swimming, riding a horse, walking on the beach, and doing yoga”2, referencing oft-parodied advertising for feminine products that portray menstruating women performing such activities. Another review reads, “I used one of these pens post-hysterectomy, and my uterus grew back. Thanks a lot, Bic”3; clearly this is a fictional narrative, yet it maintains the review genre conventions in its portrayal of a negative experience with the product.

A review by username gobananas bounces off the misogynistic notion that men are smarter than women: “finally, a pen that helps me do math and other difficult man-tasks! until BIC Cristal for Her, I couldn’t write anything down at all!”4, and an anonymous reviewer laments that they were “Disappointed to find that these pens did not actually cost $.72 of the $1.00 cost for man pens”5. These reviews – and hundreds of others like them – specifically draw on feminist satirical rhetoric to amplify the inherent sexism of this product needlessly marketed at women.


Faux Facebook customer service accounts may convey similar messages through their activities. In the more nebulous online commercial spaces of the social media, such messages are usually supporting the company and mocking individual users. While Facebook is ostensibly a sharing platform, commercial entities commonly use its “pages” as sites of customer feedback and interaction, thus falling under the definition of e-commerce.

Facebook profiles and pages establish genre conventions that raise expectations of veracity in their content. Facebook requires users to use their “authentic name” and permits only “authorized representatives” to manage pages for companies, brands, or public figures. Facebook users cannot participate in any element of Facebook without linking their activities to their authentic identity.

On 7 August 2015, Target issued a press release stating that they would be phasing out gender-based signage in their stores wherever feasible. Customers responded on Target’s official Facebook page from both supportive and negative perspectives. The negative comments received humorous and sarcastic responses from a Facebook user named “Ask ForHelp”. Ask ForHelp was a fake Facebook account, and true to Facebook’s pledge to “authentic identities”, the account was quickly shut down.

Ask ForHelp’s replies complied with the conventions of customer service in terms of structure and reference. The profile name “Ask ForHelp”, while in retrospect clearly a hurried attempt to circumnavigate Facebook’s first-name last-name only profile standards, referenced a common customer service function of asking for help. The profile image matched the bullseye logo on Target’s Facebook page.  At a quick glance, the combination of the profile name and image strongly suggested affiliation with Target customer service.

The negative posts reflected similar themes: outrage at Target’s announcement, belief that gender differentiation in consumer goods is important, and a desire to cease shopping at Target. Dana Greer “can’t believe that [Target] have decided to pander to the ‘Politically Correct’ nonsense” and comments that their family “of both sexes, by the way … Boys and Girls… will shop elsewhere”. Ask ForHelp applauded Dana for their “bravery in admitting your family has both sexes. It’s customers like you who give us a sense of purpose.”

Almost every one of Ask ForHelp’s responses used the original poster’s first name, a common customer service tactic: “Jewel, we’re sorry that you feel that way…”; “Well, Deanna. We’re sorry to hear that…”; “Actually, Gary, you’re wrong…” The use of the first person plural further aligned Ask ForHelp with the “we” used by Target and its customer service in their messages.

It was Ask ForHelp’s compliance with both Facebook’s posting conventions and those of customer service, coupled with his subversion of them in the actual tone and content of the replies, that elevated his responses into satire. Facebook user “Lisa Marie” was “EXTREMELY OUTRAGED at [Target’s] stupidity for doing away with gender separation”, announcing “You lost my business@!!” [sic]; Ask ForHelp’s response implied that perhaps she just needed some sugar, and invited her down to purchase candy bars in store.

The author behind “Ask ForHelp” stated he did not intend to offer any particular social commentary with his activities; he simply thought it would be funny (Nudd 2015). Yet his Ask ForHelp persona only responded to those who reacted negatively to Target’s announcement; those supporting Target’s decision received no sarcastic responses from Ask ForHelp. Whether he intended his “trolling” as an act of social activism or not, his perspective led to a clear commentary denouncing those who opposed the company’s move toward gender-neutrality.


Product reviews and social media feeds are ubiquitous. The situatedness in the common spaces of the Internet and the acknowledgment of their conventions and expectations allows the texts discussed here to achieve subversive and satirical effects. The producers and consumers of these texts must share an understanding of both the generic situation and the social issues being commented upon; the lack of awareness of gender stereotypes would render the satirical use of the Amazon reviews and faux Facebook profiles ineffectual.

The BIC Cristal for Her texts were all fashioned as if they were actual reviews from users who have purchased and used the product; it is their hyperbole that demarcates them as fiction and satire. Ask ForHelp adopts the placating rhetoric of customer service, while his tone and dressing-down of customers convey an opposition to their perspectives. Through compliance with the form of the genre and fabulation within the content, these writers create dissonance that inspires humour and ignites discourse.

These texts thus fit within a framework of a genre as a mode, and can be categorized together as dissonant fabulations. The distinction between dissonant fabulations and other fictional or deceptive texts lies in their purposeful subversion, and that subversion’s contribution to discourse.

In terms of narrative, the techniques used are not novel nor necessarily of a significant linguistic quality; nonetheless the situated playful subversion of non-fictional generic forms and the reach that these texts achieve in their communities identifies them as a form of discursive narrative fiction. The authors recombine familiar cultural resources in novel ways, using fabulation, humor, sarcasm, satire, hyperbole, and stylized exaggeration to make a statement about current socio-cultural issues.

This modal genre is not restricted to any one type of space, site, or platform, nor any one form of narrative. Rather, it is identified by its effects: subversion of its genre to call attention to and question the topics and spaces it engages. Given this functional quality, it is inevitable that these fabulations will continue to appear in the prolific spaces of the Web, communicating creatively through novelty, dissonance, and the subversion of expectations.


[1] BIC, n.d., “BIC Cristal For Her Ball Pen, 1.0mm, Black, 16ct (MSLP16-Blk)”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/BIC-Cristal-1-0mm-Black-MSLP16-Blk/dp/B004F9QBE6 (accessed 16 June 2016).

[2] Hamilton, Tracy, 2012, “FINALLY!”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/review/R19XO9PS38WRWO (accessed 16 June 2016).

[3] TK, 2013, “Thanks a lot, Bic.”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/review/R33SE932117JNH (accessed 16 June 2016).

[4] gobananas, 2013, “easy enough for a woman to use!”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/RL36A91QV5BIT (accessed 7 Apr 2020).

[5] Anonymous, 2012, “One Star”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R37F4Y7FZD345S (accessed 7 Apr 2020).



Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T. N. 1995. Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/Culture/Power. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Fludernik, Monika. 1996. Towards a “Natural” Narratology, Routledge, London.

Harold, Christine. 2004. “Pranking Rhetoric: ‘Culture Jamming’ as Media Activism”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21 (3), pp. 189–211.

Nudd, Tim. 2015. “Man Poses as Target on Facebook, Trolls Haters of Its Gender-Neutral Move With Epic Replies”, AdWeek, 13th August available from: http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/man-poses-target-facebook-trolls-haters-its-gender-neutral-move-epic-replies-166364 (accessed 17 June 2016).

Ray, B. 2016. “Stylizing Genderlect Online for Social Action: A Corpus Analysis of ‘BIC Cristal for Her’ Reviews”, Written Communication, SAGE Publications 33 (1), pp. 42–67.

Skains, R. Lyle. 2018. Dissonant Fabulation: Subverting Online Genres to Effect Socio-Cognitive Dissonance. Textus 2018 (2), pp. 41-57.

Target. 2015. “What’s in Store: Moving Away from Gender-based Signs”, A Bullseye View, 7th August available from: https://corporate.target.com/article/2015/08/gender-based-signs-corporate (accessed 17 June 2016).


Skains Lyle (3) square.jpegLyle researches and teaches Creative Writing and Digital Media, exploring multimodal creativity, genre fiction, and writing and reading/playing transmedia narratives, and writing and publishing in the 21st century. Her research is largely practice-based, stemming from her work in creative writing (speculative fiction) and digital writing. She is the founder of Wonderbox Publishing, which publishes speculative fiction and digital fiction, aiming to explore innovations in digital and online publishing and creativity. Her digital fiction can be found at lyleskains.com; articles in Convergence, Digital Creativity, and Computers and Composition. Her book Digital Authorship: Publishing in an Attention Economy is now out with Cambridge UP, and she has two books forthcoming from Emerald and Bloomsbury.





Robert Appelbaum • Pleasant and Useful? A Tale from the Middle Ages

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was taken for granted that the purpose of telling a story was to provide a moral example. That meant showing something that readers ought to emulate, or else something that they ought to avoid. There was no idea that fiction, in other words, was anything other than instrumental. That fiction ought to entertain was also taken for granted, though. The ancient authority Horace said that art ought to be dulce et utile, pleasant and useful. So it would be a surprise to most storytellers that there is anything to worry about if fiction was meant to be useful, and the very idea of “instrumentality,” as in Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous injunction against “instrumental reason,” would have seemed odd.

But that didn’t mean that instrumentality in fiction was straightforward. The example of the perennially popular Aesop’s Fables apart, early European fiction writers knew that though a story was one thing, the interpretation of a story was another. Moreover, although it was pretty important to know, along with the grasshopper, that it was best to live like an ant, and always prepare for the future, the stories that attracted the most interest could be morally ambiguous. In fact, it was common for storytellers to say that a story meant one thing when it actually meant another, or else to put out a story, salacious though it may be, and pretend that it expressed a strait-laced moral truth which it couldn’t possibly be expressing.

* * *

Here is an example from a medieval French fabliau (a comic short story) by one Hues Piaucele, collected (and translated) in what is called the British Library Manuscript.[1] It is about a loving couple named John and Yfame, who had recently fallen on hard times. Knowing this, three separate monks from the local monastery offered substantial amounts of money to Yfame if she would have sex with him. She indignantly told John about the monks and John came up with a plan for revenge, as also a plan for getting a hold of the monks’ money. He told Yfame to accept their offers, and have each of them come to their home at different times one evening the next week, saying that her husband would be gone from the house that night.

In came the first monk – the narrator loves adding the monk was old and fat. He put his money on the table and went after Yfame in the middle of the main room of the house, bringing the two of them down to floor. John, who had been hiding in the loft, came down and whacked the monk on the head with a club, instantly killing him. John took the corpse outside, dumping it beside a tree, where he thought he would later bury him, and collected the cash. In came the second monk, putting down his money and trying to take Yfame on her bed. Again, John whacked and killed him, and dragged the corpse out of the horse for burial. In came the third monk, and the same thing.

The narrator doesn’t spare his readers or listeners the gory details. On the first occasion, for example, we are told that John

who threw himself upon them,
Very hard with the club:
He hit his head so hard
That the blood and brains flowed out.
The man fell dead speechless.

But now it was getting late and John had the hard work ahead of him of burying the three men. And he was exhausted, though delighted at all the money he has suddenly accumulated from the monks’ down payments on sex they would never enjoy. So he asked his wife to go fetch her nephew Estormi, a simpleminded young man much addicted to gambling. She found him in a tavern, losing at cards, and offered to pay his debts if he came right away and helped her in a private affair.

When Estormi arrived at John and Yfame’s home, John told him that the body of a demonic monk had come back from the dead, and his body needed to be buried as soon as possible to prevent him from coming back to life altogether and cause who knows what kind of harm. So Estormi buried him. But when he came back to the house, John showed him the second monk, pretending that it was the same monk, again arisen from death. “There he is again.” Go bury him, John said, lest he return another time. Estormi did what he was told. But then, coming back to the house, he was shown the third monk, the same monk again, it is alleged, arisen one more time. With much effort, worn out by the previous two burials, Estormi went to work again, and found himself successful at ridding the world a third time of the ghostly priest. But as he was finishing the job, he saw a fourth priest walking past him down the street. “Look,” Estormi said, “this priest is getting away from me! By God’s ass, he’s going back! What is this, Sir Priest?”

Estormi took his shovel and attacked the fourth priest. As he reports the incident later on,

“And I gave him one with the pick
So hard that I made
His brains flow out on the street.
Then I took him, and I went back
Down there by the back door.
And I threw him down;
I stuck him into a mud pit.”

When the husband heard this he was flabbergasted. And he said aloud, though in a low voice,

“In faith, now things are going worse,
Because this man [the fourth  monk] hadn’t done anything wrong here.
Someone is paying the penalty
Who has not deserved death for it.
Very unjustly did the priest
Whom Estormi killed lose his life.
The devil has a great talent
For tricking and trapping people.”

And that is just about the end of the story. It has been modelled in typical folktale fashion, following what is often called “the rule of three,” and it has besides exploited what might also be called “the supplement of the fourth.” The rule of three portends an economical balance: readers will probably be most aware of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” where the third alternative portends a golden mean which solves a narrative problem. The device is common in all sorts of tales. There are three little pigs. In the classic Greek myth, The Judgement of Paris, the title character has to choose between three different goddesses as to which one is the loveliest. When a magic being is freed from a bottle or other impediment, his rescuer is entitled to three wishes. But there are cases when a folktale cannot end on the resolution of the rule of three, and so brings in a fourth phenomenon, which upsets the balance altogether. I call it the supplement of the fourth.

And in any case, after the fourth monk is killed, and John bewails the injustice of it, this supplement of the fourth overturning the story’s balance, there is still more to come, because after John finishes speaking, the narrator comes in to tell us the moral of the story:

Through these priests,
I would like to teach you
That it is folly to covet
Or woo somebody else’s wife.
The reason for this is very clear.
Do you think that because of any poverty
A decent woman would forget her duties?
No! She would rather let her throat
Be cut with a sharp razor
Than ever to do for money
A thing that would bring shame to her lord.

Note how different are the responses of John and the narrator, John ending with alarm at the evil circulating in the world, the narrator ending with a caution against trying to seduce another man’s wife by paying her money. Meanwhile four monks lie dead.

* * *

For John and the narrator alike the story is an example of something, a higher moral truth which can come either in the form of a maxim (John) or in the form of a caution (the narrator). It is precisely because of its exemplarity that the story is understood to be “instrumental,” which is to say “useful” as well as pleasant. Watch out for the devil! Don’t try to bribe a married woman! But the author of the story, who uncharacteristically identifies himself at the end of the tale, seems disposed rather to point out that morals of this kind are arbitrary and beside the point. For it should be clear to any discerning reader that the story does not prove that the devil is everywhere, or that all wives would resist a bribe for sex, or that bribing a woman for sex is bound to get the perpetrator in trouble. In other words, whatever John or the narrator may think, the story does not mean what they say it means. Both John and the narrator seem to be committing the fallacy of the excluded middle, where a particular becomes a universal without a middle term to tie the universal to the particular. To put it another way, both John and the narrator assume an either/or state of affairs, although the story itself puts forward any number of alternatives. For example, instead of blaming the devil, John might have blamed himself for entrusting serious work to a fool. Instead of cautioning men to stay away from other men’s wives, the narrator might have said that the would-be adulterer should proceed by steps and make sure of a woman’s affection before he tries to seduce her with gifts.

The question may then arise as to the author’s intention. Why did he tell this story? One obvious answer is that he told it in order to mock exemplary fables. Stories like this, he implies, seem to have a moral but really don’t. There is nothing instrumental about them. Or he may be anticipating the Renaissance tradition which begins with Boccaccio’s Decameron, where time and again it is shown that different people may interpret the same story differently, given their own prejudices, needs and struggles. Or again, he may be anticipating the naturalistic tradition of storytelling, which becomes especially prominent in the nineteenth century, according to which the purpose of fiction is to illuminate the (ugly) truth of how the world really works. The story of John and Yfame casts light on a world where poverty can lead people to extremes, where religious people may ride roughshod over their vows to austerity, continence and charity, where violence and vengeance may seem to satisfy our inner needs coupled with our sense of justice … and so forth.

I was myself raised in this last tradition. I was taught, in high school, that Pride and Prejudice was about the vexing rise of materialism in early nineteenth-century Britain, that Macbeth was about the dangers of ambition, and that “Bartleby the Scrivener” was about the power of irrationality in the face of modern-day bureaucratic capitalism. Or at least, that is what I remember having been taught. But what if the stories are not about these things? What if they have no “use,” no propositional and ethical uptake? Or what if, as in the case of the fabliau, the instrumentality of fiction indefinitely recedes into the abyss of excluded middles?

I don’t have a ready answer to the question, but I hope I have at least pointed out that the problem of the instrumentality of fiction is nothing new; it was already a vital concern among storytellers in the thirteenth century.



[1] The French Fabliau B.N. MS. 837, ed. and trans. Raymond Eichmann and John Duval, Two Volumes, Vol. I (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018). Kindle Edition, position 951-1472.




Robert Appelbaum, Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Uppsala University, and Senior Professor in Arts and Communications at Malmö University, is the author, most recently, of The Aesthetics of Violence: Art, Fiction, Drama and Film (2017). He is currently working on a book entitled The Renaissance Discovery of Violence, from Boccaccio to Shakespeare.


James Phelan • Assessing Nonfictional Narratives in Contest: The Rhetoric of Devin Nunes

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.

The impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald J. Trump provides so much material for those interested in “instrumental narratives and the limits of storytelling” that I can imagine some scholars devoting their whole careers to analyzing it. Too late for me to do that, but not too late for me to zero in on the eight-minute speech Devin Nunes delivered as the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives (HIC) ended its hearings on November 21, 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlIjunHrgTM.

Devin Nunes
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


I was initially dumbfounded by Nunes’s speech.  He says almost nothing about the testimony of the many witnesses who appeared before the HIC over the previous two weeks. He never directly engages with the specific question the HIC was deliberating: did President Trump abuse his power by withholding aid to Ukraine until that country’s s recently elected President, Volodomyr Zelensky, announced an investigation into Trump’s political rival Joe Biden? Epic fail! My negative judgment only deepened when I compared Nunes’s performance to that of his Democratic counterpart, Adam Schiff, who spoke immediately after him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4ssrr2OsQ0. Schiff begins by directly addressing the day’s witnesses and continues by making the case that (a) the collective evidence brought forth at the hearings supports an affirmative answer to the question about Trump’s behavior; (b) the defenses offered by his Republican colleagues are unpersuasive; and (c) the appropriate ethical response to Trump’s unethical behavior is to hold him accountable for it. In this contest of narratives—and narratives in the service of arguments—Schiff seemed to me the clear winner. (See Phelan 2008 for more on the contest of narratives.)

 * * *

As I thought more about Nunes’s speech as a rhetorical performance, however, I began to question whether I had judged it too hastily and missed some key features of its rhetorical logic. In what follows, I will attempt to shed some light on the relationship between the standard rhetorical situation of nonfictional narratives in contest and the decidedly nonstandard way Nunes concluded his participation in the HIC contest. Understanding that relationship can then, I hope, illuminate some larger issues involved in assessing the efficacy of narratives in contest.

I find it helpful to start from the default rhetorical definition of narrative: somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose(s) that something happened.  Viewing a contest of narratives from the vantage point of this definition means attending to the ways in which each of the somebodies-who-tell takes some shared common ground—the something-that-happened—and shapes that material in ways that they believe the somebodies-who-listen will find more persuasive than the story told by their competitors. Not surprisingly, the competing tellers will sometimes dispute the something-that-happened because that common ground is so important. The tellers must be responsible to it. It puts constraints on the ways they can plausibly and effectively shape it. Ignoring, distorting, or contradicting what happened weakens any teller’s narrative. Furthermore, when tellers fail to acknowledge any common ground, there can be no genuine contest between their narratives.

* * *

The inquiry played out as an integral part of a larger unfolding contest of narratives about President Trump’s behavior and about what, if anything, Congress should do about it. In September 2019, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had declared that Trump’s actions, as described in a report by an anonymous whistleblower about a phone call involving Trump and Zelensky on July 25th, had made it incumbent on the House to conduct an official impeachment inquiry. The House must act, Pelosi said, because it now had credible evidence that the President had violated his oath of office by making U.S. aid to Ukraine contingent on Zelensky’s agreement to investigate Biden. On the other side, Trump denied any wrongdoing, characterizing the phone call as “perfect,” and many Republicans came to his defense.

During the hearings, the contest of narratives followed a predictable pattern: Democrats attempted to use their questioning of the witnesses to confirm and further develop the whistleblower’s story about Trump’s actions, while the Republicans attempted to use their questioning either to discredit that story or to contend that neither the story nor the testimony indicated that Trump had abused his power. Nunes and other Republicans such as Jim Jordan tried to expand the relevant something-that-happened to include evidence of past corruption in Ukraine and Biden’s possible connections to it through his son Hunter, who was employed by a Ukrainian energy company.  By attempting to expand the common ground, the Republicans tried to advance an alternative narrative about Trump’s behavior: he wasn’t abusing his power but expressing legitimate concerns about Ukraine’s history of corruption.

* * *

As I watched Nunes’s closing speech, I expected him to use the occasion to offer a narrative defending Trump’s behavior that would be as persuasive as he could possibly make it for his multiple audiences: the members of the HIC, the House, and the Senate, as well as those watching the hearings on television, and the members of the media who would represent the speech in various ways for their viewers, readers, and listeners. But the most important member of Nunes’s audience was Trump himself. Trump’s tweeting throughout the hearings continually reminded everyone that he was not only watching closely but also trying to influence the interpretation of the testimony. In appealing to all his audiences, Nunes needed, I thought, to contest the Democrats’ Narrative about the Abuse of Power. Such contestation might proceed by either establishing a Narrative about the Appropriate Use of Power or by arguing that the Narrative about the Abuse of Power is inadequate, or by doing both.

Nunes, however, shows no interest in any of these strategies. Instead, he sets forth a different narrative, and he begins with its abstract: “I have stressed in these hearings that the whistle-blower complaint was a pretext for Donald Trump’s political opponents to do what they’ve been trying to do since he was elected, oust the President from office.” Nunes then sketches this Narrative of Ouster by drawing a time-line upon which he places a wide range of events involving different, often unspecified people, expressing opposition to Trump. The turning point in Nunes’s narrative is that, after the Mueller Report fails to find clear evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election, Trump’s opponents need a new pretext for ousting him. They find it in the whistleblower report, which gives rise to what Nunes calls the “Ukraine hoax.” Nunes then draws on his Narrative of Ouster in order to label the impeachment inquiry a “show trial” in which the “verdict was decided even before the trial began.” He rounds off this use of narrative in the service of argument by characterizing the inquiry as a waste of time, by attacking its process as an example of the “tyranny of the majority,” and labeling it a “farce” and a “travesty.” His final move is to wish his colleagues in the House Judiciary Committee well as they seek to defend the idea that the “American people’s vote actually means something.”

Nunes marshals the Narrative of Ouster in the service of an argument from motives. Since the Democrats’ Narrative about Abuse of Power is driven not by their professed concern for the rule of law but by their unrelenting effort to get rid of Trump, their narrative is no more credible than the ones underlying their previous attempts to oust him. The problem, in short, is not Trump but the Democrats.  Although Nunes does have some valid points (the Democrats have shown that they are committed to the position that Trump’s behavior warrants impeachment), his general strategy has several problems. An argument from motives is a version of an ad hominem/feminam argument, and it suffers from the same logical fallacy: it substitutes an assessment of one’s opponent for an assessment of their argument (or, in this case, their narrative). Some additional problems arise from the particular way Nunes constructs his narrative. The two most significant are that (a) Nunes ignores key recalcitrant evidence in the common ground of the relevant historical record, namely, Nancy Pelosi’s strong stance against impeachment prior to the whistleblower’s report; and (b) in tracing his time-line, he treats the disparate actions by a range of agents as parts of a larger collective effort.

I will come back to these secondary problems, but now I want to focus on an extraordinary consequence of Nunes’s performance. By attacking the Democrats’ motives instead of engaging with their Narrative of Abuse of Power, Nunes effectively opts out of the contest of narratives. Not surprisingly, then, if we assess his performance within the frame of the unfolding contest, we’ll find it deficient. Let’s set aside my spontaneous overflow of powerful judgment (“epic fail!”) and more soberly consider the effectiveness of his speech for one segment of his audience. How might it help Republican voters genuinely concerned about the Democrats’ shaping of Trump’s phone call into the Narrative of Abuse of Power? Nunes’s performance wouldn’t help at all, because it fails to provide what such voters need: an alternative narrative about that crucial event. By opting out of the contest of narratives, Nunes also opts out of trying to persuade such listeners. Amazing. But that observation raises the next questions: what is he opting into, and how might that move illuminate his purposes?

* * *

Nunes’s purpose is less about persuasion and more about consolidating Republican opposition to impeachment. In other words, when he opts out of the contest of narratives, he opts in to circling the wagons. Nunes, to be sure, would be happy to hear that some listeners found his speech persuasive, but his main goal is to fashion a negative characterization of the Democrats that those already on his side can endorse. The speech is far less committed to logical reasoning than to political solidarity. For that reason, the logical problems of the speech are beside the point. What ultimately matters is whether Nunes’s fellow Republicans in Congress and in the electorate find the Narrative of Ouster a useful mechanism for attacking the impeachment inquiry itself.

These points about the relations among strategy (argument from motives), consequence (opting out of the contest), and purpose (consolidating opposition to the inquiry itself) become even clearer when we reflect on how Nunes’s performance implicitly appeals to his most important audience, President Trump himself. Throughout the speech, Nunes reinforces and extends allegations Trump has made throughout his time in office (the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt”), and he incorporates more recent talking points (impeachment is about overturning the results of the election). More generally, in constructing the Narrative of Ouster, Nunes spends his eight minutes deploying two of Trump’s main strategies in his numerous tweets of 280 characters or less. (1) Deny the existence of any common ground upon which to conduct a contest of narratives (the inquiry is a “hoax”). (2) Attack those on the other side committed to the contest (“Do-Nothing Democrats,” “Crazy Nancy,” “Shifty Schiff”). Interestingly, a third Trumpian rhetorical strategy is conspicuous by its absence: the explicit assertion of innocence (the phone call was “perfect.”). If Nunes were to deploy that strategy, he would run the risk of falling back into the contest of narratives with its acknowledgment of common ground in Trump’s phone call. Far better to stay out of that contest and let Trump himself continue to proclaim his innocence.

In this account, then, Nunes opts out of the contest of narratives because he cares far less about Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine than about keeping Trump in office. Judged on its own terms, the performance, rather than being a failure, is quite effective:  impugning the motives of the Democrats fits his purpose of reinforcing Republican opposition to impeachment. Furthermore, subsequent events have indicated that Nunes achieved his purpose. Other Republicans have found the speech a useful jumping off point for their own attacks on the Democrats and the impeachment inquiry. When the inquiry moved to the House Judiciary Committee in December 2019, Republican members often invoked the Narrative of Ouster, and they repeated Nunes’s concluding allegation that the impeachment was an effort to undo the results of the 2016 election. Ultimately, every Republican member of the House voted against the articles of impeachment. As of this writing, the Republicans remain united in their support for Trump, and his acquittal by the Senate appears inevitable.

* * *

If this analysis passes the Horseshoes Test (that is, is close enough to count for something), then it suggests a few larger points about the efficacy of nonfictional narrative and about judging that efficacy.

  1. The efficacy of any nonfictional narrative is to some degree context-dependent, and contexts are frequently shot through with power differentials. Nunes has the luxury of opting out of the contest of narratives because the Republican majority in the Senate gives the Party the ultimate power about impeachment. Within its own terms, his Narrative of Ouster doesn’t need to be logically sound and scrupulous about adhering to the historical record. It just needs to be plausible enough to reinforce the beliefs of those already on his side.
  2. The efficacy of nonfictional narrative is not wholly context-dependent. Ignoring the common ground in a contest inevitably weakens the force of one’s narrative. The context and its associated power differentials do not eliminate the problems in Nunes’s Narrative: its failure to address the central question of the impeachment inquiry, and its significant logical flaws.

Thus, in assessing efficacy,

  1. We should make what I’ll call a step one judgment in relation to the terms the teller sets for the narrative. When I judged Nunes’s performance by terms he was no longer concerned with, I misjudged it. When I viewed it in relation to its own terms, I got a clearer sense of its appeal and its effectiveness.
  2. We should make a step two judgment by assessing the terms the teller sets for the narrative. In Nunes’s case, the U.S. Constitution provides terms within which to assess his. The Constitution calls for an inquiry into the President’s actual behavior. Seen in this light, Nunes’s performance is an ethically deficient act of evasion in the guise of a bold attack. Its logical and ethical problems bleed into each other. It’s hard to imagine that history will be kind to his rhetorical behavior.


Phelan, James. “Narratives in Contest; Or, Another Twist in the Narrative Turn.”  PMLA 123 (2008): 166–75.

head shot.jpg

James Phelan is Distinguished University Professor of English and the Director of Project Narrative at Ohio State University.  He has devoted his research to developing a viable account of narrative as rhetoric. He has written about style in Worlds from Words; about character and narrative progression in Reading People, Reading Plots; about voice, character narration, ethics, and audiences in Narrative as Rhetoric; about the rhetoric and ethics of character narration in Living to Tell about It; and about narrative judgments and progression in Experiencing Fiction.  He has taken up the relationship between literary history and rhetorical analysis in Reading the American Novel, 1920-2010, and he has further extended the conception and consequences of his rhetorical approach in Somebody Telling Somebody Else. In February 2020, he and Matthew Clark will publish Debating Rhetorical Narratology: On the Synthetic, Mimetic, and Thematic Aspects of Narrative.  Since 1992, Phelan has been editor of Narrative, the journal of the International Society for the Study of Narrative.  Since 1993, he has been a co-editor of the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative Series at Ohio State University Press.


Peter Lamarque • Narrative and Emotion: On Not Getting Too Carried Away

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.


One of the pleasures, undoubtedly, of a good novel or short story is experiencing the emotions it arouses.  Sometimes these are positive, making us cheerful, upbeat, hopeful, or amused, but sometimes we are disturbed, shocked, anxious, or deflated. Still, as David Hume recognised, even these latter can afford a kind of pleasure.

My question is this: how important are such emotions among instrumental values of narrative? My answer: not as important as is sometimes claimed.


I will focus on a couple of examples: two emotion-inducing narratives.  In both cases the narrative passages are from well-known novels, both appearing towards the end of the novels.

First, Mrs Bennet’s effusive reaction to news of her daughter Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr Darcy, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Most readers would agree that her happiness, for all its self-serving, materialistic basis, is pleasingly infectious, and amusing:

“Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr. Darcy! Who would have thought it! And is it really true? Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane’s is nothing to it—nothing at all. I am so pleased—so happy. Such a charming man!—so handsome! so tall!—Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted.” (Ch. 59)

In striking contrast, second, here is the dour and dispiriting end (the final two paragraphs) of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

Upon the cornice of the tower a tall staff was fixed. Their eyes were riveted on it. A few minutes after the hour had struck something moved slowly up the staff, and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag.

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Æschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. And the d’Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing. The two speechless gazers bent themselves down to the earth, as if in prayer, and remained thus a long time, absolutely motionless: the flag continued to wave silently. As soon as they had strength, they arose, joined hands again, and went on.

The black flag on the prison tower signals that Tess is dead: she has been hanged. The two “speechless gazers” are Tess’s sister Liza-Lu and Angel Clare, Tess’s husband.

The first passage offers a reader delight and amusement, the second a kind of weary, cathartic sadness.

What role do such emotions play in our appreciation of literary narratives? Answer: It depends on what kind of evaluation is at stake and what kind of reader we have in mind.


I will frame the discussion by introducing two distinctions and then addressing, and challenging, two claims about the significance of emotions for narrative. I will end with some polemical claims of my own.

The first distinction is between two kinds of readers.

I will label them, in a rough and ready way, the Ordinary Reader (OR) and the Professional Literary Critic (PLC)

These are roles rather than exclusive classes, so one and the same person could be an OR on one occasion and a PLC on a different occasion, even regarding a single text.

The role categories are not precisely defined.  Roughly, but precise enough for our purposes, an OR is a reader who gives primary focus to character, plot, incident and (fictional) world, someone prepared to get caught up in a story, imagining the events as if real, and taking pleasure from emotional engagement with the fictional goings-on.

A PLC in contrast, perhaps a literary scholar, academic, teacher, or reviewer, is a reader with a different kind of interest, an immersion in detail certainly, but someone who treats the text as a literary and linguistic artefact, keen to understand how it works, what tradition it belongs in (or repudiates), what its aims are, what themes it explores, and how successful it is at an artistic or aesthetic level.

The contrast between these kinds of readers relates to what I have referred to, in The Opacity of Narrative (2014), as “transparent” and “opaque” modes of reading.

The second distinction is between what I will call felt emotion and expressed emotion.

A felt emotion is an actual emotional experience of a reader in response to a narrative or narrative fragment.

A reader of the first passage is likely to share some of Mrs Bennet’s joy, delighted that the trial of love has ended happily, perhaps smiling empathetically at Mrs B’s enthusiasm, albeit perhaps more impressed by the happy outcome than the promise of new-found wealth for Lizzy.

The second passage will not elicit such positive feelings. There is no feel-good experience at this ending. Only depression and a kind of heavy despair. Readers are likely to be emotionally drained to encounter the end of Tess’s tragic life in this lonely and macabre setting.

An expressed emotion is not an actual felt emotion in a reader but a quality of the narrative text itself.

The Mrs B passage expresses joy, a kind of giddy excitement, and an overwhelming delight. These expressed emotions are emergent properties of the writing, supervening on features of the text: the broken sentences, the short staccato phrases, the vocabulary, the tone, the exclamation marks, the implied breathlessness. Also expressed, with authorial irony, is a view (at the heart of Mrs B’s philosophy) about where the true value of marital happiness lies. Delight about the riches and wealth to come is itself an emotion expressed, both by the character and in the text’s sentences.

The passage about Tess is equally expressive but in a completely contrasting manner. Here the expressed emotions are not attributed, at least directly, to any character. The observers are “speechless”. If the joy in the passage about Mrs B emerges from the bright, exuberant exclamations, the solemn gloominess and hopelessness expressed in the Tess passage shows itself in the plainness of the prose, as well as in the external viewpoint. There is little sign of rhetorical flourish or witticism and only an implied emotion in the characters.

But the narrative point of view is unmistakable. The inverted commas round “Justice” mocks the patent injustice manifested and the bitterly sarcastic phrase “President of the Immortals” to refer to a supreme, but implacably cruel, god (seemingly based on Zeus as portrayed in Aeschylus’ tragedy of Prometheus) emphasises the crushing of Tess by forces (fate, the gods) quite beyond her control. The term “sport” reminds us of Gloucester’s anguished cry in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. / They kill us for their sport”. The final words in the novel “they arose, joined hands again, and went on”, echo the end of Paradise Lost when Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden, “They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way”. Such allusions again reinforce the expression of gloom and despair.


Before we seek out some connections between these distinctions, let me introduce two claims sometimes made about emotional responses to fictional narrative, both concerning the instrumental values they might contribute to.

These claims concern a supposed didactic value of such emotions, and a clarificatory value.

First, it is sometimes claimed that the emotions aroused by literary narratives perform a didactic function: they can teach us about emotional response itself, its forms and its appropriateness, and if all goes well can make us more emotionally sensitive, in particular more empathetic.

Jenefer Robinson makes such a claim: “it is only through an emotional experience of a novel that one can genuinely learn from it … the emotional process of engaging with characters and situations in a novel is part of a ‘sentimental education’, an education by the emotions” (Deeper than Reason, 2005, p. 156).

Then, second, it is sometimes claimed that emotions aroused by a literary narrative can also serve to clarify the narrative itself, thus aiding our appreciation of a work. Here, again, is Jenefer Robinson: “our emotional responses are a vital part of understanding a narrative text…:  if I laugh and cry, shiver, tense, and relax in all the appropriate places, then I can be said to have understood the story” (Deeper than Reason, pp. 122–123, italics in original).

The didactic and clarificatory roles of emotion are distinct because one could occur without the other.

I suggest we should be cautious about both claims.

Take the didactic claim: that the arousing of emotions in literary narratives has the capacity to increase emotional sensitivity in readers, in particular empathy. Clearly this is a claim about felt, not expressed, emotions: it involves the actual emotional states of readers. It is also an empirical claim. Do readers who respond with (appropriate) emotions to works of fiction exhibit significantly high degrees of sensitivity or empathy (against a control group)? There is no conclusive evidence one way or the other. How could there be? The terms are far too vague.

What kinds of readers are at issue? If they are those who habitually adopt the PLC role then the field of enquiry is narrowed but anecdotally there is no strong evidence that literary academics or teachers are more empathetic than academics in other areas or members of the public at large. However, ORs are simply too diffuse a group, sociologically, psychologically, or in terms of age, education, interests, or disposition, to promise any kind of coherent empirical result.

Yet it is ORs that seem more suitable experimental subjects. Why? Because felt emotions are likely to play a more prominent role in their responses than in the responses of PLCs. A PLC reader will attend primarily to expressed rather than felt emotions: i.e. emotions grounded in narrative itself. That is not to say that those in a PLC role do not feel emotional responses to the works they study but given their focus of interest they will seek out empathy, for example, not in their own felt reactions but as a quality of the writing they set out to explore.

Does feeling joyful with Mrs B and depressed at Tess’s death tend to make us more empathetic? Surely the explanation is the other way round. Only a reader already possessed of some degree of empathy will respond in these ways. Empathy is a condition for the responses not a consequence of them. There is no reason to believe that empathy is increased by exposure to such passages. So the didactic claim, in this context, is unsupported.

What about the clarificatory claim: that the arousing of emotions in literary narratives can help us understand and appreciate the narratives better?

This is also partially an empirical claim but it is also normative, to the effect that a condition for a proper understanding is having the appropriate emotions. Once again, it is felt, not expressed, emotions that are required. And that suggests that the focus is on ORs more than PLCs.

However, in both our examples a test for understanding the passages is, arguably, the ability to grasp the expressed emotions: to see in the narrative the emotions of excitement and depression. It might be that some readers (ORs) will recognize the expressed emotion on the strength of experiencing the felt emotion. But for an experienced PLC reader such a prompter is not needed. The expressive qualities of the writing are plain to see. In fact it is virtually inconceivable that any (serious) reader should wonder, for example, if it is joy or sadness expressed in the lines about Tess and only able to confirm the right answer by appealing to an emotion felt. Some degree of understanding must be a condition for an emotional response, even though misunderstanding can lead to inappropriate responses. So the normative claim is deeply suspect.

This suggests that there is no indispensable role for felt emotions in understanding narrative. What a proper understanding requires is the recognition of expressed emotions. This is part of the training of a PLC and it is rooted in a sensitivity to language as much as a sensitivity to feelings. Needless to say, someone with no emotional capacity is unlikely to have a deep grasp of expressiveness in language.


In conclusion, our two passages offer little support for either the didactic view of emotional response or the clarificatory view. Admittedly, much more could be said about both views. What the passages do suggest is that the felt emotional responses––joy or depression––in ORs arise when readers become attached to characters, with the pleasures that this attachment entails. Only because the lives of Lizzy Bennet and Tess in some sense matter to us do we react as we do. But these empathetic feelings do not in themselves either explain or justify a heightened literary value in the works. In fact, such responses are more characteristic of, and often more pronounced in, many forms of fiction we rarely consider in terms of literary value, romances or TV soap operas, for instance.

PLC readers, in contrast, will not give special weight to felt emotions, concentrating on the expressive qualities, among other kinds, exhibited in the novels. Thus for an informed opinion of literary and aesthetic value the PLC standpoint is likely to be more securely grounded than that resting on felt emotions alone.

It is one thing to feel pity and fear watching a tragedy, another to discern the pitiable and fearful in the tragedy itself. We do not do justice to narrative if we overemphasise the former at the expense of the latter.



Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. 1891.

Lamarque, Peter. The Opacity of Narrative. London: Rowman and Littlefield. 2014.

Robinson, Jenefer. Deeper than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005.



Peter LamarqPL image (standing).jpgue is Professor of Philosophy at the University of York and was Editor of the British Journal of Aesthetics (1994–2008). He works principally in aesthetics and the philosophy of literature. His books include Truth, Fiction, and Literature (Clarendon Press, 1994, with Stein Haugom Olsen); Fictional Points of View (Cornell UP, 1996); The Philosophy of Literature (Blackwell, 2008); Work and Object: Explorations in the Metaphysics of Art (Oxford UP, 2010); The Opacity of Narrative (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2014); and The Uselessness of Art: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Literature (Sussex Academic Press, 2019). A revised and enlarged second edition of his co-edited volume (with Stein Haugom Olsen) Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell) was published in 2019. His book Work and Object was awarded the American Society for Aesthetics Outstanding Monograph Prize (2011) and the Premio Internazionale d’Estetika (2018) from the Italian Society of Aesthetics.