The language of stories

The language of stories: A cognitive approach. By Barbara Dancygier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 240. ISBN 9781107005822 $103 (Hb).

Reviewed by William O. Hendricks, Portland, OR

Barbara Dancygier characterizes her book as being concerned with the construction of narrative meaning. She draws primarily upon mental space theory and conceptual integration (‘blending’), as developed by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner. The ‘stories’ she deals with are, with few exceptions, literary novels.

In Ch. 1 (4–30), D outlines her approach and discusses it in relation to current approaches to narrative discourse. In Ch. 2 (31–57), D introduces the notion of narrative space, its topology, such as space and time, and its participants. An emergent story is said to result from the blending of all the text’s narrative spaces. Ch. 3 (58–86) discusses narrative viewpoint and the various types of narrator. The narrator, a textually constructed concept, is located in a story-viewpoint space, which is projected over all of the main narrative spaces of the text and structures the overall narrative viewpoint. These individual spaces can have their own viewpoint configuration, which is the subject of Ch. 4 (87–116).

Ch. 5 (117–38) deals with connections across different narrative spaces by means of referential expressions, specifically proper names and ‘role-descriptors’. For example, in a brief discussion of Philip Roth’s American pastoral, D makes use of such descriptors as ‘the father of the Rimrock Bomber’. Ch. 6 (139–70) considers the question of how a play tells a story. Drama as a genre is characterized as a combination of the verbal and the material. The text of a play is structured primarily as dialogue but includes such special discourse varieties as the soliloquy; the material includes such elements as the physical stage space and props. Ch. 7 (171–94) deals with speech and thought in the narrative. D is not concerned with characterizing the traditional categories of direct discourse, indirect discourse, and free indirect discourse. She is, rather, more interested in the use of speech-like constructions to represent characters’ minds. In a brief final chapter (195–204), D sums up the assumptions that have guided her work and reviews her conclusions.

The focus of the book is narrow in that D is primarily concerned with narrative viewpoint and does not attend to what many would consider the central feature of narrative—the sequence of events that constitutes the plot. D suggests that plot is important in oral narratives because of human memory limitations but that this is not a factor in written narratives. Hence, there is no concern with the syntax of event representation. In fact, there is almost no treatment of syntax in this book. D focuses on lower-level linguistic choices such as first-person vs. third-person pronouns, past vs. present tense, and lexical terms serving as ‘narrative anchors’. In this respect the book’s title is somewhat misleading.

D concedes that blending has been mostly used to analyze compound noun expressions, constructions such as counterfactuals, and discourse fragments, but she believes to have demonstrated that the framework can be applied to analyses of more complex texts. This book, however, discusses only short extracts from dozens of works, with no detailed analysis of any one narrative.