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Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa


The Area Surveyed

This dissertation is an investigation into the nature of literature published in English and French and originating in Africa in countries south of the Sahara and north of South Africa. Other bodies of African literature excluded in this way are regarded as being problems of a different kind, on the grounds of language in the one case, and for socio-political reasons in the other. The time-scale of the area surveyed extends from the publication of The Palm-Wine Drinkard in 1952, to 1976. Although isolated works appear before 1952, it is from this moment on that a body of work appears which has the cohesion and identity which is necessary if it is to be observed as a unity. This unity is mainly a function of time: these works appear in such a short period that they are inevitably influenced by the same events and conditions in the political sphere, and are engaged in the same search for adequate form in the intrinsic sphere. Within this perceived unity, there is also diversity: as between those works conceived under the influence of French culture, for example, as against those from the former English colonies. Another spectrum of differentiation exists which has to do with work ideologies. Whereas some works are more concerned with their mimetic function, and some of these more with the political life than the psychic, others at the opposite extreme are more autonomous, and oriented more towards a self-expressive aesthetic.

Theory and Apparatus

The methodology used in this research is to place over the field a critical grid in order, as it were, to plot the co-ordinates which will reveal the notional shape of the object. This grid has not been developed for its appropriateness to the particular corpus and therefore does not contain pre-judgements about the nature of African Literature. It is rather a set of formal categories which have been the subject of continuing investigation by researchers in the field of literary theory. From observations about the nature of the presentational processes and imagined worlds of particular works, it will be possible to project general statements about the field. Such works will be selected for their representativeness as containing in the highest degree those qualities which reflect both the concerns typical of the body of works, and at the same time their most adequate expressions.

The theoretical underpinning of this study is the work in the field of Rezeptionsästhetik, the aesthetics of literary response, and in particular that of Roman Ingarden. However, emphasis is not heavily on aesthetic problems, and other kinds of research have been drawn on freely and eclectically, in response to the demands of particular methodological elements.


Works will be surveyed according to the characteristics which they exhibit with regard to these criteria: their narrative situations, their organisation of spatial and temporal categories, and their handling of action and presentation of personae. Overall form will be examined as to whether works have the characteristics of 'long' or of 'short' forms. Thematic structure or work ideology will be studied separately. Lastly, an examination at a high level of abstraction of the overall aesthetics of a small group of achieved works will form a conclusion to the whole thesis.

The chapter on narrative situation represents the end of the investigative spectrum which has most to do with the process of narration as opposed to the world which it presents. At the same time, it is the point at which the argument is most concerned with micro- rather than macro-structures. The object of the exercise is to examine the status of the narrator in African fiction, and the relationship of the narrative voice to the material with which it deals, with regard to tone, spatio-temporal locus, involvement in the action, and degrees of complexity of the narrative situation.

Spatial and temporal details in narrative have to do with both presentational process and presented world, and discussion of them will therefore represent a transitional concern with structures which connect the spatio-temporal locus of the narration with aspects of the quasi-life-world of the narrative which are presented as existing in space and time. Both these areas are subject to on-going research in narrative theory, and only working hypotheses may be used in this part of the discussion. But as areas which have not in the past been the object of much attention, they are perhaps all the more revelatory as to the way a narrative structures itself as it tends to construct its own ideology. An analogy with the Freudian notion of the psychopathology of everyday life might not be out of place here. The (possibly) unconscious structuration of the narrative's space and time, as well as being an obvious attribute of its presented world, is also a partially concealed means of construction of the work ideology. Spatio-temporal structures implicitly reveal ideology in the same way that slips of the tongue and other parapraxes reveal the latent structures of human drives and beliefs.

The discussion of characterisation is a traditional area of literary criticism, and must therefore be approached with due care that nothing be taken for granted. Character here is not assumed to be a given which may be discussed in the manner of a psychological or sociological thesis. In fictive narrative, character bears only an analogical relationship to its counterpart in the real life-world. Therefore the direction of literary research should rather be towards the investigation of the means by which narrative creates 'characters', and their status in relation to its other elements. The term 'persona' will often be used in preference to 'character' to maintain this distinction.

The term 'action' refers to the whole range of acts which are referred to in narrative: doing, thinking, and speaking. It is used in preference to 'plot', which more narrowly refers to the conceptualisation of the narrative rather than to its actual presentation. The thrust of the discussion will therefore be towards analysing the handling of action in African narratives, in their temporal extension, division, and overall form.

The discussion will then lead to an examination of 'long' and 'short' forms. It is assumed that long narratives will be characterised by amplification of various kinds and what will be called 'motifs of length', while the short story will intrinsically display unity and brevity. Long works of differing kinds will be studied with regard to those aspects which tend to be integral with complexity, multiplicity, and relative length. Short works will be described as evolving from the traditional tale to the short story, in order to comment on the characteristic forms of short fiction in Africa.

The discussion of form in itself will then give place to an examination of the kinds of interpretative abstraction which are conceived of as expressing the nature of a work's ideology or world-view. It is expected that a discussion of macrostructural concepts such as a work's thematic structure will interpenetrate with the earlier discussion of micro-structural formal features, in that investigation of form at one level will throw light on larger or smaller structures. The logic of this hypothesis will be tested by extending the realm of the investigation not only to interpretations of single complete works, but also to the whole corpus of authors who have produced a significant body of work. Four major writers will be studied in this way. It is hoped that this extension will give more substance to this part of the discussion by including a tendency towards establishing the nature of the world-views of authors as well as of their works, although this is not the principal objective.

The final chapter will continue this tendency to the limits of the present synchronic field study. Rather than assay a set of generalisations about the field as a whole, the discussion will attempt to draw together the different elements of the method in the context of specific works which are seen as being major and representative. Such works will be discussed at a high level of abstraction which will integrate observations of details of the works' form with interpretative statements. It is expected that the validity of the results of such an investigation should extend to the field as a whole.

New: 3 August 1996 | Now: 20 December, 2018