(that quotation has almost nothing to do with the book's main points; I just like it)
As promised in the comments section of my review of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I have dipped my feet farther into the waters of narrative theory. What I found was...a bit...too...theoretical. This is not Professor Brooks's fault. He is, after all, a literary critic. I should not have expected anything other than literary theory.
But honestly, sometimes I don't think I get the point of literary theory. Like, what do people do with this stuff (ahem, English master's degree folks)?
Brooks endeavors to discuss narrative as a distinct concept; he wants to start to explain narrative as its own form of conceptualization, in the same way that logic or math are ways of understanding. However, because he's writing in the 1980s, he also doesn't want to forget everything structuralism and poststructuralism have taught us (cough, cough, assuming they taught us anything), so he is less interested in defining rules than recognizing patterns.
His preliminary discuss, the first chapter, tackles the possibilities of "narrative" as its own form of discourse, and lays out basic principles. The most important are fabula and sjuzet. Fabula refers to "the order of events referred to by the narrative. Sjuzet "is the order of events presented in the narrative discourse." I know this is grossly simplifying what Professor Brooks meant, but as I read I basically thought of this as: "fabula = facts" and "sjuzet = meaning."
These two separate concepts are important because for something to have a plot it must have both. Facts without meaning are, well...just facts. We need meaning so that we know what to do with the facts. Brooks explains that what we do as plot-seekers is gradually have the meaning revealed to us as the facts are given to us. We are given more and more fabula; eventually--because the selection and ordering of the fabula--we get the sjuzet.
Professor Brooks then takes these basic concepts and explores them in more depth by adding new concepts to describe how the fabula and sjuzet work together. And he uses novels to exemplify his points.
I say this was a bit too theoretical for me because I do not know what I'm going to do with this information. My internal purpose for seeking more information about narrative was to find tools to assist with my legal writing (or, perhaps in my fantasy-future life, my novel writing). This, however, was far too theoretical for that purpose. Legal writing does not (and really cannot) embrace the nuanced and sophisticated approach to plot that Brooks creates.
This is not a slam against Brooks; it's more a warning to any lawyers out there who think they will find the book useful: it is useful, but the usefulness to time-spent ratio makes it a bit too much. I'd point people in the direction of the storytelling chapter in Minding the Law and call it a day.
That aside. It was interesting. Completely changed the way I think about Great Expectations, which I'd always considered an entertaining page-turner. Now, I agree with Brooks that it is a master work of plot.
For lack of any other concluding remarks, I'll attach a passage I enjoyed:
As at the start of the novel we had the impression of a life not yet subject to plot--a life in search of a sense of plot that would only gradually begin to precipitate around it--so at the end we have the impression of a life that has outlived plot, renounced plot, been cured of it: life that is left over.In choosing that passage, am I making a statement about my relationship with narrative theory? Maybe, maybe not.