Reading for the Plot


Here’s what Peter Brooks has to say about plot. I wouldn’t consider this a definition: it’s more of an elaborate metaphor. But it may help condense some of the issues discussed last week and anticipate our discussion of Julian Barnes’s novel and Tom’s lecture on Freud:

“Plot … is the organizing line and intention of narrative, thus perhaps best conceived as an activity, a structuring operation elicited in the reader trying to make sense of those meanings that develop only through textual and temporal succession [i.e., through elements of the proairetic and hermeneutic codes]. Plot in this view belongs to the reader’s ‘competence,’ and in his ‘performance’–the reading of narrative–it animates the sense-making process….

   Desire is always there at the start of a narrative, often in the form of initial arousal, often having reached a state of intensity such that movement must be created, action undertaken, change begun.” (Peter Brooks. Reading for the Plot. New York: Vintage, 1985. 37-38.)

To Brooks, a plot is a chart or trajectory of desire: a beginning requires arousal, something to destabilize an equilibrium or the norm (he says the “normal” can’t be narrated); the end is a release from desire, a discharge and return to rest or normal that Brooks compares to both death and orgasm. The middle, as we saw in class, is a system of deferral, detour, suspense, expectation, frustration, etc, that delays the end and thus intensifies it. (For example, in The Sense of an Ending, Part II, Veronica’s mystifying refusal just to tell Tony what he “just doesn’t get”).

Brooks’s model is helpful, but there is much to criticize or at least be suspicious of: critics have rightly pointed out that his model of plot is understands desire in male terms only, and anyway we must always be wary of models that explain too much. I’m also not sure I believe there is such thing as a “normal” state that can’t be narrated, which would make his definition of beginnings somewhat tautological. Still, even if we don’t believe he got it exactly right, his model does give us a kind of baseline from which we can assess plots that fit and plots that fit less well.


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