In this week's column, I would like to explore another important area in narratology. That is the important part that the passages of description play in fiction. Monika Fludernik observes that it is necessary to describe 'some aspects of actions' in fiction.
Monika Fludernik in a publication titled An Introduction to Naratology further observes this as: "Another largely underexplored area in narratological research is description in novels. Passages of description are often regarded as non-narrative (non-diegetic): nothing happens while the narrator describes a fair, a landscape or a character. Having said that, we also have to concede that description is actually central at the story level since the fictional world through which the actants move is only created through and by it.
Even some aspects of actions have to be described, for instance the order in which they happen and what they are like, and what this contributes to the meaning: He raised his arm in a threatening gesture andswung himself up onto the table from where he began to speak, brandishing his fists wildly.
In this sentence the protagonist's movement is characterised by the adverbial phrase in a threatening gesture, which makes its meaning quite clear. In addition, the expressions swung and brandishing his fists wildly help to specify the nature of the action (and the feelings of the protagonist in a visually impressive manner).
Over and above this, the way description is located in separate paragraphs would also repay study. Early Middle English literature contains hardly any extended passages of description, and those descriptions we do find are very stereotypical:
He [Murry] hadde a sone that het Horn
Faire ne mighte non beo born,
[. . .]
Fairer nis non thane he was:
He was so bright so the glas;
He was so whit so the flur;
Rose-red was his colur.
He was fair and eke bold
And of fiftene winter old.
(King Horn ll. 9–10, 13–18; Sands 1986: 17; my emphasis)
It was only in the fourteenth century and increasingly so in the fifteenth that characters began to be described as individuals and in much more detail. But even then information about countryside, towns or castles was minimal while people, clothes, armour and the like were depicted in more detail. A history of description in English narratives before the Gothic novel, for example, would provide information on when the first descriptions of landscape can be found, or when rooms begin to be described in more detail and what kind of perspective is adopted in such passages.
When do we first come across descriptions of rooms which treat the narratee as a virtual character entering the described setting and provide, as it were, orientation clues? (An example of this is e.g.: To the left there were two chairs near the fireplace, to the right one could see a large table, laid for eight people.)
Extended passages of description may also be analysed in other ways. Birgit Haupt in Peter Wenzel (2004), in the section about rooms (Wenzel 2004: 70–77), lists three phenomenological types of room in novels: rooms presented as subjective experience (rooms that evoke private associations in the character who enters); rooms serving as backdrops to the action (for instance, a church as the setting of a wedding); and rooms presented as objects of visual appreciation. It is the last type of room that serves as an indicator of perspectivism or aperspectivism and deploys ample descriptions.
In the case of mood-setting rooms, the role of description in creating the desired atmosphere and impression is paramount. Since Haupt's contribution Ansgar Nünning has presented a typology of description (2007) which distinguishes several types of description in novels. Descriptions are categorised according to the narrative level at which they occur, their implicit – or explicitness, their objective or subjective nature, their literal or metaphoric quality, their placing in the text (position, extent, frequency, intermingling with action reports and textual shape – interspersed or isolated block description), and their motivational load (for instance, their plausibility within a given context). Especially interesting are Nünning's references to self-reflexive descriptive passages in fiction (2007: 99). Finally, the essay also deals with reception-oriented or functional aspects of description, for instance with the question whether a particular passage serves merely as an effet de réel, or carries key metaphoric information relevant to the semantic structure of the novel.
As far as the representation of speech and thought are concerned, psycho-narration and speech report have so far not received much attention, either. Diachronic studies have already noted that the fifteenth century saw a marked increase in the number of passages containing psycho-narration (Fludernik in Herman, forthcoming). This is frequently associated with the motives of the actants
As Palmer (2004) notes, psycho-narration is the most common form of thought representation in the Victorian novel and, even more so before the nineteenth century. More research could be done on a history of psycho-narration in the novel.
The way in which characters are referred to in narrative texts would also merit more attention. It might, for instance, be possible to establish a connection between 'realistic' tendencies in the novel and the introductory first name + surname formula. It would also be interesting to find out when phrases like the man in the brown hat, the lady with the lorgnette, etc., first appear as an alternative way of referring to protagonists (instead of the use of names: Toby Smith, Mrs Margery or Susan). A great deal remains to be done in this area. The topic could be a fruitful field of research at doctoral level. "
What is important to note is the fact that passages of descriptions in a fiction remains an unexplored area in narratological studies. For a mundane reader, what is important is to bear in mind the pivotal role that the passages of descriptions plays in a novel which, on most of the occasions, shed light on the protagonist and the peripheral characters.