PETER BROOKS, IN THE VERY FIRST SENTENCE of Reading for the Plot, states that "This is a book about plots and plotting" (xi), which he understands as "the design and intention of narrative, what shapes a story and gives it a certain direction or intent of meaning" (xi). Brooks is specifically interested in questions of "temporal sequence and progression" (xi). Indeed, by "plotting" Brooks means "that which makes a plot 'move forward," and makes us read forward, seeking in the unfolding of the narrative a line of intention and portent of design that hold the promise of progress toward meaning" (xiii). Brooks therefore sees his own theories as moving away from structuralist narratologists (like Barthes or Greimas) who he sees as "excessively static and limiting" (xiii). Instead, Brooks turns to "the temporal dynamics that shape narratives in our reading of them, the play of desire in time that makes us turn pages and strive toward narrative ends" (xiii). He is interested in "the motor forces that drive the text forward, of the desires that connect narrative ends and beginnings, and make of the textual middle a highly charged field of force" (xiii-xiv). Whereas Barthes in S/Z wishes to explode the boundedness of a narrative, Brooks is interested in exploring precisely a work's boundedness, the ways it "demarcates, encloses, establishes limits, orders" (4). As a result, Brooks also reads "plot" in the sense suggested by a grave plot: a bounded space, one that is, indeed, intimately tied with questions of death, or at least closure; in other words, Brooks reads plot as following "the internal logic of the discourse of mortality" (22). This is not to say that Brooks does not build on Barthes; he just concentrates on the two codes that Barthes sees as tied to narrative temporality: the hermeneutic and proairetic codes. Indeed, Brooks writes that plot "might best be thought of as an 'overcoding' of the proairetic by the hermeneutic, the latter structuring the discrete elements of the former into larger interpretive wholes, working out their play of meaning and significance" (18). Brooks argues, that is, that we keep reading (proairetically) in order to achieve the sense at the end of the narrative that everything finally makes sense (hermeneutically): "Perhaps we would do best to speak of the antipation of retrospection as our chief tool in making sense of narrative, the master trope of its strange logic" (23). Whereas Barthes dismisses as "readerly" the temporal structures of the hermeneutic and proairetic codes, Brooks concentrates precisely on the logic of that temporal structure in order to make sense of the drive that keeps us reading (or viewing) until the end of a narrative. Largely for this reason, Brooks' favorite texts for analysis are from the nineteenth century (the great period of the classic novel) whereas Barthes tends to turn to modernist, anti-narrative forms like the nouveau roman.

In addition to seeing a relationship between the hermeneutic and proairetic codes in his understanding of plot, Brooks also sees plot as the principle by which a narrative organizes the relationship between story and discourse. Few narratives present events in a chronological order but, rather, manipulate the story in various ways (starting in medias res or jumping back and force, revealing certain facts while concealing others). This discursive manipulation of the story provides the dilation necessary for a story to create suspense, the dilation that is necessary also to give us a sense at the end that the narrative has reached a proper closure—that feeling of "ah yes, of course!" The simple chronological progression of our lives, by contrast, rarely affords us the same feeling of proper fullness or correctness, which may be one reason we feel compelled to keep telling stories that re-order events in more satisfying, narrative, bounded ways. For this reason, Brooks presents the detective story as exemplary of narrative logic, for such stories are all about how narrative makes sense of the traumas of life. The detective's plot also amounts to "the active repetition and reworking of story in and by discourse" (25). Brooks therefore concludes that "all narrative posits, if not the Sovereign Judge, at least a Sherlock Holmes capable of going back over the ground, and thereby realizing the meaning of the cipher left by a life" (34).

Brooks makes sense of the relation between space and time in narrative (the grave plot vs. the narrative plot) by mapping that relation onto not only the hermeneutic/proairetic opposition but also the opposition between metaphor and metonymy or between the paradigmatic and syntagmatic poles of language. Brooks convincingly shows that narratives often begin with metaphors of temporality that are then worked out metonymically through the telling of the story until we reach a closural metaphor (similar to but perhaps slightly different from the opening metaphor) that then sums up the whole story that came before. Brooks thus builds on Roman Jakobson's claim that narratives tend towards the rhetorical figure of metonymy since narratives tend to work by moving from one connected thing or event to another. Metonymy is, similarly, the rhetorical figure by which one names something by turning to something adjacent in space or time, for example, "the crown has spoken" in place of "the king has spoken" or "the pen is mightier than the sword" rather than "writing is mightier than military action." Metaphor, by contrast, brings together disparate elements into a single unity outside of temporally or spatially contingent elements, for example, the dead metaphor "table leg." A table's leg and a creature's leg are not tied together because they are contiguously connected in space or time in a particular situation but because they are similar (though also different). As Brooks puts it, metaphor is the "substitution... of a present signifier for an absent one" (59). According to Jakobsen, poetry is especially dominated by metaphor since poetry is concerned with tying together all its rhymes and images into a single atemporal, metaphorical unity. Metonymy is syntagmatic because it tends to work temporally like the syntax of a sentence; metaphor is paradigmatic because it ties together disparate things outside of time as in a graph or paradigm.

According to Brooks, narratives are not solely dominated by metonymy but, rather, always work out a dynamic interplay between metonymic and metaphorical forces. Brooks' innovation is to align metonymy and metaphor respectively with the pleasure principle and the death drive. The final metaphorical meaning of a narrative retrospectively orders or makes sense of all the metonymical deviations of the narrative that came before the end. As Brooks puts it, "the metaphoric work of eventual totalization determines the meaning and status of the metonymic work of sequence—though it must also be claimed that the metonymies of the middle produced, gave birth to, the final metaphor" (29). Endings and beginnings are automatically related metaphorically, according to Brooks, a fact that is often underlined in narratives by quite specific, explicit metaphors. One need only think of the many films that begin and end with metaphors for their own plots: for example, the closed gate and "No Trespassing" sign at the beginning and end of Citizen Kane (see Lesson Plans: Citizen Kane), the winding road of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, even the game of cards being played in the Star Trek: TNG episode that I analyze with my class under Lesson Plans: Star Trek.


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Brooks: On Plotting." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.






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