The Atlantic has published a list of 20 novels to read this summer while spending a lot of time at home. They range from classic science fiction to naturalist nonfiction, and all points in between. Narrative in novels is nuanced and dynamic.
The book list published by The Atlantic came about in light of the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on social life. “For many of those lucky enough to be able to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, books have taken on a special meaning,” the article said. “COVID-19 book clubs have popped up to help readers feel connected to one another, group readings have brought new life to old poems, and—in this time of ambient anxiety—the value of losing yourself in a novel has never seemed more apparent.”
Novels aren’t just about page-turning plots and clever twists. There are subtle mechanics playing out behind the scenes of every page.
Five Modes of Narrative
“The critic Northrop Frye once proposed a way of thinking about types of narrative that I’ve always found helpful,” said Dr. Leo Damrosch, the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. “He described five modes, as he called them, that developed as a chronological sequence in Western culture, but often overlap with each other in later narratives.”
Dr. Damrosch said that Frye’s first mode is myth, which tells a tale about gods but is supposed to have universal significance. The second mode is romance, which is not meant in the modern sense of sultry physical encounters. Frye’s mode of romance describes tales of mortal heroes superior to ourselves, often aided by magic and wizards—Arthurian tales of gallantry.
“Continuing with Northop Frye’s five modes, he calls the next two high mimetic and low mimetic,” Dr. Damrosch said. “By ‘high mimetic,’ Frye means a sense of nobility that we see in tragedy and epic. They imitate people who are like us: They are not gods, not romantic questers; nevertheless, they are clearly superior to us.”
He mentioned Hamlet as an example of a high mimetic character. On the other hand, Frye’s low mimetic describes comedy and most novels. The characters are everyday people like us living some sort of wish fulfillment. The couple get together and get married, an obstacle is overcome, and there’s some kind of happy ending.
Dr. Damrosch said the fifth mode is irony, in which characters are inferior to us and generally trapped in miserable existence, but their suffering is “kept at arm’s length, with ironic detachment.”
Implied Author, Implied Reader
Another device in novels is that of the implied author and the implied reader.
“The implied author is never identical with the actual person who wrote the book, because it’s a narrative stance, or a persona, or a voice that’s intended to affect readers in a certain way,” Dr. Damrosch said. “Fielding, for example, makes it clear the implied author in Tom Jones is a relaxed, amusing, even affectionate guide to his story.
“That’s not the same thing as the actual Henry Fielding, who was a hard-working lawyer, struggling to make ends meet, grieving for the loss of a wife he adored, and afflicted by illnesses that would kill him at the age of 47.”
The implied reader, Dr. Damrosch said, is more of an abstract concept. He defined it as the role we assume when we immerse ourselves in a novel. In order to do so, we must understand the language of the novel and at least appreciate if not agree with the values expressed in it.
“Novelists understand that very well, and they do everything they can to draw readers in, to make them accept the role of being the kind of person who can appreciate this particular book,” he said. “Some novelists put this relationship right up front with constant addresses to the reader, even playfully teasing the reader. Others take it for granted but don’t emphasize it. Still others refuse to even honor that implied contract between author and reader.”
If you have the opportunity to get some reading done while practicing stay-at-home measures, knowing about the modes of narrative and the implied author and implied reader may enhance your literary journey.
Dr. Leo Damrosch contributed to this article. Dr. Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University, where he has been teaching since 1989. He earned a B.A. from Yale University; an M.A. from Cambridge University, where he was a Marshall Scholar; and a Ph.D. from Princeton University.