Richard Eldridge on “The Ends of Literary Narrative”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday in Kohlberg’s Scheuer Room, Professor of Philosophy, Richard Eldridge, delivered a lecture on “The Ends of Literary Narrative.” Professor Eldridge’s lecture discussed the reasons for the use and creation of literary narrative, arguing that the purpose of narrative is revealed in the manner that a narrative is concluded.

“There are no sharp boundaries between literary narrative and other forms of narrative,” stated Eldridge who examined various functions narrative serves. Like art, Eldridge observed, literature’s purpose lies somewhere between the cognitive focus of science and the purely pleasurable realm of entertainment. Narrative blends subjective knowledge, moral insight, and pleasure; a reader can enter the experiences of another character and through such journeys examine the thematic and emotional development of this character.

In understanding what value literary narrative has, Eldridge suggested that narrative reveals “the story of our former life,” driven not only by survival and biological functions but also by culture that comes from humanity’s unique ability to associate many complex concepts and ideas. Ideally, narrative can be an “achievement of expressive freedom,” wherein the author can “face up to and work through the emotions and attitudes that come from being human.” Specifically, the journey through these emotions and the ultimate accepting of these emotions is achieved through closure at the tale’s conclusion.

Professor Eldridge likened such endings to Aristotle’s concept of “catharsis,” wherein the audience experiences the emotion of the characters. Authors achieve this closure in various ways: much of modern literature reflects disillusionment with perfect happy endings, while poetry is itself made up of “parts from a self-completing whole.” Ultimately, storytelling allows the audience to accept these emotional journeys and to relieve the anxieties of an uncertain life by reading deeper meaning and significance into the patterns that storytellers weave into life.

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