The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Julie O'Leary Green

At least since Plato and Aristotle, space in narrative has often been seen as ornamental rather than functional, relegated disparagingly to the realm of the descriptive or the merely representational (as opposed to the artful or rhetorical) and subordinated to plot and character. It is often seen as nonpurposeful or as mere amplification, and within discourse on the novel it is considered unnecessary (although not useless): most definitions of narrative include tellers and events, but none includes any mention of or relation to space.

Despite this bias, the nineteenth century saw a new interest in narrative space on the part of both authors and scholars. Developments in sociology, biology, and anthropology affirming the individual's dependence on his or her environment influenced aesthetic theories of fiction. These ideas about the role of space in the novel continued to develop throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Importantly, the human-centered bias remains: while there has been more interest in the ways in which narrative space functions, character still remains the nexus around which studies of space revolve.

Today, space is thought to function in the novel in significant ways: it is a frame of action (a place in which things happen), it conveys thematic information, it reveals information about characters and character relationships, it can influence reader expectations, and it is an active partner in the governing of how narrative progresses (i.e., certain spaces allow certain events to occur while other spaces prohibit events).

Spatial Form

In 1766, eighteenth-century dramatist and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729—81) characterized literature as a temporal art, opposed to spatial arts like painting and sculpture (see TIME). His argument centered on the assumption that an artwork's form is dependent on its manner of perception. Centuries later, the novel is still considered an inherently temporal medium. Objects and spaces must be incorporated into a temporal sequence in order to be represented in narratives; spatial structures must be transformed into temporal ones.

Beginning with his 1945 essay “Spatial Form in Modern Literature” and continuing for the next three decades, American literary scholar Joseph Frank broke new critical ground with his argument that a hallmark of modernist literature was that it was meant to be apprehended spatially rather than sequentially (see MODERNIS). He argued that because language proceeds in time and literature is naturally temporal, modernist writers like James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, Djuna Barnes, and Marcel Proust had to find new ways to manipulate novelistic form in order to express their desired simultaneity. The result is that meaning, relationships, and references are arranged across the narrative without respect to temporal sequence and must be connected by a reader and viewed as a whole before meaningful patterns emerge.

Frank's essay drew responses from prominent literary scholars who returned to Lessing's claims and argued that the mode of perception (reading from beginning to end) makes modernist plots no less temporal than any others. Other critiques have centered on the fact that Frank's argument is not actually about space in the novel but rather an alternative reading process.

One frequently invoked theory of space in the novel that both contends with the temporal nature of narrative and focuses on literal spaces is Mikhail bakhtin's (1981) theory of the chronotope, which states that space and time are mutually constitutive and interactive, comprising a single unit of analysis for studying literary texts. Chronotopes are narrative hubs where meanings are housed. They highlight the intrinsic connectedness of time and space. For Bakhtin, the road narrative, in which time spent means distance covered, is the clearest textual expression of the chronotope. It not only illustrates the interconnectedness of time and space but also provides narrative potential: potential for encounter, collision (i.e., of characters who might not have come in contact if they had not met at that exact time and place), and change across time and space.

The French philosopher Michel de Certeau makes a similar claim in “Spatial Stories” (1987), where he argues that every story is a travel story. He also argues for the necessity and ubiquity of boundaries, claiming that stories authorize the establishment, displacement, or transcendence of limits and that they set in opposition two movements that intersect.

All of these arguments about spatial form implicate plot. They all implicitly or explicitly argue that spatial form relates to the temporal organization of words and events in the novel, whether spatial form is created by temporal fragmentation (disjointed plots), as in Frank's understanding; is mutually constitutive of plots and meaning, as in Bakhtin's understanding; or is what actually drives the plot of a narrative forward toward climax and conclusion, as in de Certeau's understanding.

Typologies of Space

Analyses of spatial form tend to focus on the overall shape and progression of a novel. However, such analyses do not provide a way of studying and comparing specific representations of space in the novel. In other words, we must distinguish between spatial form and space as a formal element. Ruth Ronen has characterized two primary ways of classifying types of narrative space. In the first, space is understood in terms of its proximity to characters; in the second, it is understood according to its factuality.

Proximal and Distant Spaces

On this scale, spaces are classified according to how close and/or how accessible they are to characters in the narrative present. The most immediate narrative space is setting: the place where characters in the narrative present interact and where story-events take place. Setting is considered continuously relevant, capable of extending over a sequence of actions, events, and situations without needing to be rearticulated. As a result, setting is well suited to discussions of why certain authors, in certain texts or certain moments within texts, make widely differing choices about how, when, why, and how much to articulate setting.

Spaces near characters in the narrative present and accessible to them via their senses are called secondary spaces. In Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), the narration follows Sethe in the kitchen as a group of women assemble within earshot outside; the kitchen is the setting, and outside is a secondary space. Secondary spaces allow myriad possibilities for overhearing, misunderstanding, misdirecting, etc., and thus can directly influence a novel's plot.

Fictional spaces might also be nearby but inaccessible to the characters in the narrative present. This inaccessibility may be provisional, thus linking inaccessible frames to narrative progression (meaning that something must happen for characters to gain access, and often gaining access causes other things to happen). In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), the third floor of Mr. Rochester's mansion is an inaccessible space for most of the novel; the moment when it becomes accessible constitutes a significant climax, the result of which is a complete reorganization of the household and all of the relationships therein.

Fictional spaces might also be geographically or temporally distant from the present setting. When Marlow sits aboard the Nellie at the beginning of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) and tells of his trip up the Congo River, that river is geographically distant. The events he retells are temporally distant.

Finally, narrative space can have an ambivalent degree of immediacy. Frequently, novels make reference to generalized or nonspecific spaces. Examples of this include references to “the world” or “the horizon.”

Factual and Counterfactual Spaces

Fictional space can also be classified according to its degree of actuality, where actuality does not refer to the space's verisimilitude (see DECORUM) but rather to whether the characters in question are actually in those spaces. Actual spaces include all of the frames explained above; and non-actual spaces (these might be potential or hypothetical spaces, counterfactual spaces, and nonfactual spaces) are spatial articulations that are subordinated to future-tense sentences, imperatives, conditionals, questions, negative sentences, predictions, or the subjunctive mood. In Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977), the narrator explains Tayo's thought processes as he flees two men on horseback: “They were about a mile away when he first saw them, so he would try to find a deep grove of pine where he could stay until they passed” (198). He never does find a grove, so it remains a hypothetical space. Often, the non-actual space matters less than whether it remains non-actual or is eventually actualized.

Non-actual spaces have various relations to the actual space of the narrative. They can have ramifications for interpreting a novel's overall meaning or thematic bent by establishing binaries, by making or encouraging an evaluation, or by conveying emotion, for example.

Space and Character

As these typologies reveal, what makes space interesting to most authors, readers, and scholars is its relation to narrative agents. Classifying a particular space depends on which characters the narrative follows in the narrative present.

Additionally, descriptions of fictional spaces are often used to provide information about character. In the novels of Henry James, as many have noted, the homes of main characters often function as metaphors for their owners. Miss Birdseye's apartment in The Bostonians (1886) articulates her identity with its refusal to conform to Victorian standards; her somewhat muddled and crowded home is seen as an expression of her character.

Motivation and Focalization

How descriptions of space are inserted can also tell us about character. Because setting and other narrative spaces do not require constant articulation, understanding the motivation for insertions of spatial descriptions can yield insight into characters and narrators. As Mieke Bal points out, the manner of description of a given fictional passage characterizes the rhetorical strategy of the narrator.

Bal lays out three primary motivations for spatial description in the novel. The most obvious (because it is voiced by a character) is motivation via speaking: these are spatial articulations that occur in dialogue (“I went here” or “His house was very large”). Motivation via speaking can help us understand a character's attitude toward space.

Motivation via action occurs when an actor carries out an action with an object, e.g., a character rides a bicycle. The very act of riding that bicycle motivates a description of the bicycle and provides a justification for any related spatial description. This kind of spatial description can, but need not, reveal something about the character's relationship to his or her space.

Motivation via looking occurs when the narration (not the dialogue) describes what a character sees or saw. The narrator of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001) follows Briony as she stands at a window and sees “a scene that could easily have accommodated, in the distance at least, a medieval castle. Some miles beyond the Tallises' land rose the Surrey Hills and their motionless crowds of thick crested oaks, their greens softened by a milky heat haze” (pt. 1, chap. 3). This description of the landscape is motivated by the act of Briony's looking.

Spatial articulations motivated by looking are the most common and often the least noticeable kinds of descriptions of space. They are also the motivations that, so far, have yielded the most significant understanding of the relationship between characters and the fictional spaces in which they interact. This is because spatial descriptions motivated by looking are often a case of focalization (see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE). Focalization refers to the perspective from which particular events or elements of the narrative are narrated. When fictional spaces are described via the narration (i.e., via looking), places are linked to certain points of perception: how space is articulated tells us about the ways in which characters bring their senses to bear on space, especially as they see, hear, and touch their surroundings. In the Atonement example, the narrator adopts the limited point of view of one character (Briony) not only to motivate a description of the scene she is about to witness but also to portray Briony's particular mindstyle. How she sees the landscape tells us about how she sees the world.

Space and the Reader

Recent work in cognitive narratology has explored other possible functions of space. Here, we find not only an interest in the relationships among places and agents in the narrative world but also an interest in the interaction between readers and the spaces of narrative. David Herman, Monika Fludernik, Marie-Laure Ryan, and others have suggested that space functions in narrative at the same time that narrative helps us create mental representations of space. Thus, story-telling necessitates modeling and enabling others to model spatially related entities.

The concept of deixis is important in this account of fictional space. Deixis is any reference to the context of the production of an utterance (as in the expression “come over here”). Herman argues that narratives, including novels, prompt readers to relocate from their own here and now to the here and now of the storyworld. Others, like Ryan, argue that paying attention to spatial deictics allows us to construct mental maps of the world inside the novel. These cognitive maps, which may be rudimentary or elaborate depending on both the reader and the amount of spatial data provided in the novel, can help readers orient fictional characters, places, and positions in terms of relational systems rather than geographically located points, which in turn can help them develop thematic readings of characters or places in spatial relationships. Recent research suggests that readers may construct cognitive maps of fictional space as background for understanding plot, character motivation, and moral or ethical issues articulated in the text. Furthermore, the extent to which readers compare their mental models of fictional spaces to their mental models of real-world spaces is also a focus of recent literary inquiry, particularly under the rubric of possible-worlds theory (see Ronen, 1994).

SEE ALSO: Metafiction, Narrative Structure, Rhetoric and Figurative Language, Story/Discourse.


1. Bakhtin, M. (1981), “Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel,” in Dialogic Imagination, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist, ed. M. Holquist.

2. Bal, M. (2002), Narratology, 3rd ed.

3. de Certeau, M. (1984), “Spatial Stories,” in Practice of Everyday Life, trans. R. Rendell.

4. Fludernik, M. (1996), Towards a “Natural” Narratology.

5. Frank, J. (1963), “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” in Widening Gyre.

6. Frank, J. (1978), “ Spatial Form: Some Further Reflections,” Critical Inquiry 5: 275—90.

7. Herman, D. (2001), “ Spatial Reference in Narrative Domains,” TEXT 21(4): 515—41.

8. Herman, D. (2002), Story Logic.

9. Lessing, G.E. (1962), Laocoön, trans. E.-A. McCormick.

10. Ronen, R. (1986), “ Space in Fiction,” Poetics Today 7.3: 421—38.

11. Ronen, R. (1994), Possible Worlds in Literary Theory.

12. Ryan, M.-L. (2003), “Cognitive Mapping and the Representation of Narrative Space,” in Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, ed. D. Herman.