Questions in Narratives from Oral Tradition to Literature
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“Questions in Narratives from Oral Tradition to Literature” examines the functions of questions in fictional narratives. By attending to the interplay between performance and text, the dissertation encompasses both literature in the conventional sense and orature, a relative newcomer to literary studies that enriches the examination. The progression of chapters and of the material I analyze follows the development of narrative genres from epic song (an oral genre in an oral society; with chapters on South Slavic “The Song of Bagdad” and on Homer’s Iliad), to the New Testament epistles of Saint Paul (a written genre in a predominantly oral society), and novels (a written genre in a literate society, or at least one with access to printing technology and a distribution system; specifically Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). My analysis relies on four intervening concepts: authority, performance, writing, and irony. Tracking the use of questions—primarily rhetorical ones—through this range of genres and periods I demonstrate that, in addition to the emphatic function that rhetoric has assigned them, questions: (a) project authority, (b) espouse an ethic through their deontic illocutionary force, (c) are fundamentally antithetical, if only in the right-vs-wrong sense, and (d) are ultimately heuristic. By identifying particular mechanisms and rhetorical functions, the dissertation lays out a framework for examining questions and questioning in narratives. In the Western oral tradition and subsequently literature, the functions of questions evolve as a result of the converging influences of the medium, genre, and historical conditions. Questions in South Slavic oral epic are characteristically devices of authority: social, epic, and narrative. Rhetorical questions in particular come as strong commands or deontic utterances. Strung together, they morph into powerful statements delivered at climactic moments. And when things go wrong, they counteract the inappropriate actions of those in power and restore justice and order. In the Iliad, the authority-challenging and topic-setting functions of questions merge, marking the beginnings of contentious speeches by heroes. More importantly, interrogative apostrophes and invocations to the muses by the singer/narrator mark narrative beginnings in narrative as well as in dialogue. In the New Testament, Saint Paul combines the authority of the written sources (Hebrew Bible) with the truth-seeking power of the educational oral genre of diatribe, using questions as the guiding principle of the new genre of catechism to assert the new truth. Early-modern comic novels too use the previous written sources to establish authority, but less by relying on them and filling in the gaps of what remains unsaid, and more by overriding them: the questions are ultimately mainly ironic, negating one side of the antithesis and leaving the other implied and open-ended, thus prompting the reader to actively engage in answering them. Finally, combining the theories on questions in philosophy of language (Michel Meyer), philosophy of science (Bas van Fraassen), and literature (Christoph Bode) leads to the conclusion that, while propositions are answers to questions, narratives are streamlined, after-the-fact distillations of the originally more complex questioning and problem-solving processes. Questions as markers of narrative beginnings ultimately reveal the primal logic of the structure of narrative, while at the same time pushing against ossification as the main characteristic of the medium of writing.