Eloquent Reticence

Eloquent Reticence: Withholding Information in Fictional Narrative

Leona Toker
Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Eloquent Reticence
    Book Description:

    The importance of the ethics of form in literature has only recently gained broad recognition and has thus far been explored mainly from the position of moral philosophy and critical theory. Leona Toker develops a narratological approach to the subject, based on studying "reticence" in works of fiction.

    Reticence consists in narrative techniques through which writers create information gaps that build interest, enhance tension, and control the reader's comprehension of theme, character, and event. Using novels by Fielding, Austen, Dickens, Conrad, Forster, and Faulkner, Toker demonstrates how the withholding of information affects readers' attitudes, stimulates their reassessment, and leads to a self-critical reorientation -- and how such manipulation of attention has specific ethical and aesthetic significance.

    Drawing on descriptive poetics, reader-response criticism, and information theory, Toker marks the parallel situations of the characters in the fiction she analyzes and of the readers who encounter it, and presents a novel approach to the issue of first and repeated readings. The inquiry into the twofold role of the reader opens the discussion of narrative techniques to ethical issues.

    Through her analysis of silences in representative works Toker makes a meaningful contribution to modern narrative study and offers new insights into a number of familiar novels. This well informed, sensitive, and judicious study will appeal to scholars interested in narrative theory and ethical criticism and to students of Faulkner and of the classical English novel.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6481-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    In information theory the absence of a message is a message in its own right; in politics reticences and omissions are clues of major significance; in personal relationships evasions are signs more loaded than words. Silence speaks: “Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge” (Psalms 19:2); silence, as in Blake’s “To the Evening Star,” is also spoken. In poetry silence can speak, technically, through pauses, obscure images, tropes, and other channels of psychedelic appeal. In the novel, the most voluble heteroglot genre,¹ it speaks through manipulative informational gaps. The present book is devoted to the study...

  5. PART ONE: The Diffusion of Information
    • CHAPTER TWO The Sound and the Fury The Milk and the Dew
      (pp. 19-41)

      By giving the floor to a mentally retarded person, William Faulkner’sThe Sound and the Furyrealizes the metaphor to which it alludes in the title: life “is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.” This speech of Macbeth is a misreading of the Solomonic belief that all is vanity: an individual’s life, even his own, matters (“signifies”) little for a king. Most characters inThe Sound and the Furyshow little concern for the inarticulate rage of the so-called “idiot,” yet the reader’s quest for meaning can offset the aridity of...

    • CHAPTER THREE Nostromo: “Shaded Expression”
      (pp. 42-58)

      The fragmentariness and the baffling narrative shifts of Conrad’sNostromoare most often accounted for as a structural counterpart of the vision of the world “that lacks a moral center”¹ and is devoid of a stable system of norms. Similar observations about the fragmented narrative reflecting a disorganized world have, however, been made about the work of writers as different as T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Hemingway, and Poe—which, of course, does not mean that they are not correct. In what way, however, are they correct ofNostromo?In what way is the form of this novel linked to its ideological...

  6. PART TWO: The Temporary Suspension of Information
    • CHAPTER FOUR Black House: “Not Quite Straight, but Nearly”
      (pp. 61-83)

      Like most mid-nineteenth-century English novelists, Dickens believed that the aim of his art was to negotiate social change and foster his audience’s capacity for sympathy. Though an individual writer’s success in such endeavors cannot be measured in terms of actual improvements in the civilization that he addresses, a large readership is usually a prerequisite and a sign of influence. It was not merely for pecuniary reasons that Dickens always kept an anxious watch over the numbers of copies that his works sold. An advocate of public entertainment, he felt an ideological commitment to providing its aesthetic equivalent in literature. This...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Emma: “Double Dealing”—Or Triple?
      (pp. 84-104)

      The plot of Jane Austen’sEmmais constructed around a surprise gap: the fact there is a secret engagement between two of the novel’s characters, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, is withheld for a long time, yet on the first reading we are practically unaware of the omission until the suspended information is divulged. Then we realize that the texture of the preceding portion of the narrative is considerably richer than it has seemed to be. The disclosure is so well prepared that it seems to spell out what we should have known for a long while: we have been...

    • CHAPTER SIX Tom Jones: “By Way of Chorus”
      (pp. 105-126)

      In a number of contexts the term “rhetoric” has negative connotations. Philosophical schools of ancient Greece disagreed about the aims and limits of rhetoric;¹ nowadays the word is frequently associated with demagoguery, cynicism, and opportunistic maneuvering. Stanley Fish opposes “rhetoric” to “dialectics”: the former is flattering to the audience since it mirrors and presents for approval “the opinions its readers already hold,” whereas the latter “is disturbing, for it requires of its readers a searching and rigorous scrutiny of everything they believe in and live by.”² Every great work of fiction, however, combines both sides of this Gorgias-Socrates dichotomy, in...

  7. PART THREE: The Permanent Suspension of Information
    • CHAPTER SEVEN A Passage to India: At an Angle to the Universe
      (pp. 129-151)

      Among the significant developments of twentieth-century fiction is the increase in the number of novels that do not satisfy the reader’s wish for what is deemed sufficient information about story events. The narratives of Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby,Nabokov’sThe Real Life of Sebastian Knight,Fowles’sThe French Lieutenant’s Woman,Walker Percy’sThe Movie Goer,Pynchon’sThe Crying of Lot 49,and, among others, the two novels discussed in the following two chapters of this book, permanently withhold instructions that could unambiguously stabilize our pattern recognition.¹ The resulting gaps usually emphasize the unavailability of certain kinds of knowledge and express...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Absalom, Absalom!: “Happen Is Never Once”
      (pp. 152-184)

      William Faulkner’sAbsalom, Absalom!(1936) displays more pronounced modernist tendencies thanA Passage to India,as well as tendencies currently identified with post-modemism.¹ It repeatedly untells its own story, raises new enigmas upon offering clues to old ones, and “writes” its characters out of their presence so consistently² that Derrida could say, with Freud, that some poets have been there before him. Yet it can hardly be doubted thatAbsalom, Absalom!is a humanist novel that restores some central humanist verities to meaning and turns this meaning into an intense private experience for its audience. In the final count most...

  8. Concluding Remarks
    (pp. 185-188)

    In recent decades the study of literature has been regaining the interdisciplinary dimension that came under attack during the fifties and sixties. Yet the intrinsic analysis that New Criticism placed in the very centre of the critical endeavour has not been rendered obsolete by the current wavering of the belief in the hermetic unity, mandatory consistency, or centripetal coherence of a work of art. Apart from being a direct engagement of the mind with the text and the collective fieldwork without which “narrative crossings”¹ can turn into mechanical applications of the problematics of other disciplines, intrinsic analysis is necessary for...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 189-209)
  10. Works Cited
    (pp. 210-220)
  11. Index
    (pp. 221-225)