In the structuralist analysis of narrative a fundamental
distinction is made between story and discourse. Story is conceived
of as the non-textualised, abstract scheme of events in their chronological order which
can be accessed and thus reconstructed by reading the discourse - the work of
fiction itself - in which the story events are arranged non-chronologically (see for
example Todorov 1980, Genette 1980, Culler 1981). The story/discourse model, however, is a
limiting concept in that it centres on one single set of events that constitute 'what
actually happened'. By introducing the concept of virtuality together with its
contrastive counterpart actuality from possible worlds theory, a much more
sensitive conceptual apparatus becomes available with which both to describe the dynamics
involved in the reading process and to chart the more complex networks of ontological and
epistemic levels constructed by works of narrative fiction. (On the virtual/actual
distinction see Ryan 1991 and 1995a; for related approaches see Dolezel 1976 and 1988,
Stanzel 1977, Bremond 1980, Eco 1981 and 1990, Pavel 1985, Prince 1992: 28-38.)
Readerly enjoyment of narrative fiction can be attributed
to the existence of a multiplicity of virtual competing possibilities before definitive
closure is reached. Ryan (1991), for example, calls this the 'diversification principle',
while according to Gerrig (1993: 77) suspense is created by '[u]ncertainty [which] can
take its toll only if readers allow themselves to consider a range of possibilities'.
While it is true that the motivational force operative in the reader is dominated by the
quest for possession of 'the story', this alone does not create the dynamics of
readerly motivation and enjoyment. It is the thrill of the chase, the very anticipation of
possessing the singular story version that motivates the reader. What makes the prospect
of this information so desirable is - from the point of view of the reader immersed in the
narrative, i.e. as yet unaware of 'the story' - is the coexistence of a variety of
competing possibilities, all of which at this stage, when no definitive story version has
yet formed, can be seen as competing virtual events suggested by the discourse or
hypothetically constructed by the reader. Thus the reader devours the narrative with the
desire to be able to trace a single, causal-linear sequence of events through time. In the
detective story, for example, this is the retrospective revelation of the details of the
crime, in the love story it is the revelation of who gets whom (or not, as the case may
be). This information is only interesting because it is offset against the virtual
alternatives that never become part of the actual world of the story. In the detective
story, for example, the final revelation that 'X murdered Z' only achieves value because
it finally crystalises as 'the story' from a variety of alternative possibilities
such as 'Y murdered Z', 'Z killed himself' or 'Z faked his own death and is in fact still
alive'. In the love story, if boy does get girl, this ending is made interesting because
of the alternative virtual ending 'boy loses girl' which seems very probable up until the
last phase of the narrative.
In conventional narrative, therefore, of which the love
story and the detective story are two of the most universal patterns, the spice of the
tale is in the emergence of one actual story version which in the course of the
narrative has to vie for supremacy over other virtual alternatives. This approach to plot
thus downmodes the importance of story, i.e. actual events or what 'really happens' in the
narrative world, and views plot as a much more complex interplay of virtual and actual
possibilities, only one of which, however, in conventional narrative, ever becomes 'the
Beyond the basic narrative patterns discussed above, in the
varied worlds generated by individual works of narrative fiction virtuality can take many
forms and interact with the actual level in a number of ways. Virtual as distinct from
actual events can then be defined as scenarios which are described by the discourse
creating that narrative world, which at some point may even belong or seem to belong to
the actual level of events, but which ultimately do not exist on the actual story level of
what 'really' happens. The following examples illustrate the variety of forms the
interplay of the virtual and actual can take.
1) Virtual scenarios can be created by the subjective
conceptions of characters within the narrative world, e.g. through the representation of
their secret wishes and hopes for the future, but also by their erroneous beliefs; in the
latter case, events they believe have actually happened may only be virtual constructs
generated by a misunderstanding. A further complication occurs when the reader too is
allowed to believe that the erroneous knowledge world of a character is in fact actual.
For example, in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) the narrative's
confinement to Elinor Dashwood's perspective means that the reader temporarily believes
Elinor's virtual constructs to be actual. Owing to a misunderstood report, Elinor believes
that Edward Ferrars (whom she loves) has married her rival Lucy Steele. As she digests the
news, Elinor's misconceptionleads her to construct a number of mental
They were married, married in town, and now
hastening down to her uncle's. [...] They would soon, she supposed, be settled at
Delaford. [...] She saw them in an instant in their parsonage-house; saw in Lucy, the
active, contriving manager, uniting at once a desire of smart appearance, with the utmost
frugality [...]. (Austen 1969: 347).
For Elinor and the reader at this point in the narrative
these scenes are all part of a sequence belonging to the past, present and future actual
world of the novel: the marriage, the journey conceived as concurrently taking place and
Edward and Lucy's future married life at Delaford. It is only when, after a further
chapter, Elinor learns that the 'Mr Ferrars' Lucy has married is in fact Edward's brother
Robert, that this section of apparently actual story time is - for both Elinor and the
reader - ontologically downmoded and becomes a virtual strand of events that never took
place in the actual world of the story at all. Austen's fiction is an early example of the
extensive use of various types of the virtual, including another major form, hypothetical
speculations about alternative courses of events voiced by both characters and the
narrator (see Dannenberg 1995).
2) The growing emphasis on the subjectivity and relativity
of experience that characterised modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century marks
the beginning of a period in which the virtual and the actual interact in increasingly new
ways. 'Unreliable' narration (see Booth 1991), for example - a form increasingly common in
this period -, as in Ford Madox Ford's novel The Good Soldier (1915), centres on
the reader's gradual discovery that the world he has been reading as actual is in fact the
virtual construct of the narrator. In Ford's novel, the narrator John Dowell's
bewildering, fragmented and contradictory account of the sequence of events and
relationships in which he, his wife and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham are caught up in
gradually leads the reader to realise that Dowell's virtual world stands between him/her
and the actual world of the story, of which the reader only has insubstantial glimpses.
3) A major hallmark of postmodernist fiction in particular
is an increasingly ambivalent juggling of the virtual and actual; this occurs for example
in historiographic metafiction (see point 5 below) and in texts which include
contradictory multiple story versions (see Waugh 1984: 137-41, McHale 1987: 106-111,
Dolezel 1988, Ashline 1995; see Ryan 1995b for other types of 'virtual narration' in
postmodernist fiction). John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969),
for example, has both a double actual ending with two contradictory outcomes, and also at
an earlier point - similar to the example from Austen mentioned above but with more
metafictional playfulness - allows a character's virtual construction of a future world to
temporarily pass as a representation of actual events. A much more convoluted example,
however, is the short story "The Babysitter" (1969) by Robert Coover which is
composed of numerous fragmentary episodes which describe contradictory versions of events
taking place one evening at the Tucker family's house where the babysitter is, and at a
nearby party where Mr and Mrs Tucker are spending the evening. As the narrative
progresses, more and more different versions are spawned, closing with a number of
alternate endings, for example in which the babysitter is raped and murdered, the
babysitter accidentally drowns the baby, or the Tuckers come home to find all is well.
Unlike conventional narrative all these versions apparently have actual status instead of
a single actual version being privileged over other unrealised virtual ones. Furthermore,
two additional virtual levels are integrated into the text. First, the subjective
wishworlds of some characters are interpolated into the narration of the actual story
He stares benignly down upon the girl, her skirt
rumpled loosely around her thighs. Flushed, frightened, yet excited, she stares back at
him. He smiles. His finger touches a knee, approaches the hem. Another couple arrives.
Filling up here with people. He wouldn't be missed. (Coover 1970: 215)
Here Mr Tucker's virtual fantasy about what he might do
with the babysitter is presented in the same continuous present-tense flow as the actual
events taking place at the party. It is up to the reader to separate Mr Tucker's virtual
fantasy from the actual story level of the party filling up with guests; there are no
markers in the text itself to distinguish the different ontological levels. In the case of
this example, the context makes the ontological hierarchy of the two plot levels clear,
but in the case of other fragmentary episodes involving the babysitter, her boyfriend John
and his friend Mark, the reader can never be certain if they should be read as John's
virtual fantasy or one of the alternative actual versions of the evening's events. The
second virtual plot level is also interpolated in a similar fashion: sections of narrative
taken from the television (which is switched on at the house where the babysitter is), are
also inserted into the running text of the watching babysitter's reactions to the TV
The dark man grunts rhythmically, backs off, then
plunges suicidally forward - her own knees draw up protectively - the sheriff staggers!
caught low! but instead of following through, the other man steps back - a pistol! the
dark one has a pistol! the sheriff draws! shoots from the hip! explosions! she clutches
her hands between her thighs - no! the sheriff spins! wounded! the dark man hesitates,
aims, her legs stiffen toward the set, the sheriff rolls desperately in the straw, fires:
dead! the dark man is dead! (Coover 1970: 214)
Coover's "Babysitter" therefore ensnares the
reader in a dense entanglement of the actual and the virtual without offering clear
signposts as to the events' ontological status.
4) In twentieth-century science fiction the liberation from
the constraints of representing space and time in a realistic fashion gives rise to
further possibilities in the playoff between the virtual and the actual. (On the relevant
science fiction and other related genres see Helbig 1988, Clute/Nicholls 1993: 23-25,
566-7, 1225-9, Alkon 1994, Adams 1994, Rodiek 1997.) In some fictions the premise that
time travel is possible means that a character aware of the network of future
possibilities may influence the causal-sequential flow of time; here the ontological
issues involved are often formulated directly by the narrative in the form of
pseudo-scientific discourse. One of the first science fiction texts to depict a 'timewar'
in which virtual future worlds battle for ontological supremacy, i.e. to become the single
actual world version, is Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time (1938). In this novel
representatives of the two alternate possible future civilisations Jonbar and Gyronchi try
to influence an insignificant but crucial event in the twentieth century which will
ultimately determine the path history takes. Here the scientist McLan explains the
principles of this battle:
'These two possible worlds, each armed with the
secret of time, are fighting for survival. [...] Either Jonbar or Gyronchi [...] may
exist. But not both. The battle is on, all along the front of time. The outcome will be
fixed by that higher progression, in the fifth dimension.' (Williamson 1952: 54)
In the ontological system of this novel there can only be
one actual world; the two competing versions of future history only exist as two virtual
branches until one has destroyed the other and become actual. Other science fiction novels
use the timetravel device to create more complex maps of time, often incorporating
realworld history. Here tampering with time can mean retrospectively cancelling one
version of history, i.e. making it a hasbeen virtual historical sequence and replacing it
with a new actual sequence. This can lead either to the setting up of an unfamiliar actual
course of history, in which real-world history is downmoded to virtual status, as in de
Camp's novel Lest Darkness Fall (1939), where a twentieth-century archeologist is
transferred to the sixth century AD and diverts the course of history and the otherwise
ensuing Dark Ages by introducing such anachronisms as printing, newspapers and modern
military strategies. More commonly the reverse process takes place: the narrative
commences in an actual world with an unfamiliar historical chronology, but during the
narrative this world is destroyed by temporal sabotage and thus consigned to virtual
status and replaced by a new (and to the realworld reader more familiar) actual one. In
John Boyd's The Last Starship from Earth (1968), for example, the time traveller
interferes with the cruxifiction itself, thereby replacing a historical sequence leading
to a twentieth-century dystopian computerised theocracy with the preferable evolution of
Christianity from real-world history.
The ontological systems of other works of science fiction
reject the premise that only one world can be actual at any one point, and all others must
be virtual. The fiction of Philip K. Dick, for example The Man in the High Castle
(1962) or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), invariably involves a
pluralistic, ambivalent and relativising approach to virtual and actual levels of reality
far too complex to describe satisfactorily in the scope of this essay. In Gregory
Benford's Timescape (1980), in which scientists from a terminally polluted 1990s
retrospectively alter history when they manage to send a message warning scientists in the
1960s about the dangers to come, both versions of history remain actual after the
alteration of the past. Scientific discourse within the novel clarifies this ontological
conundrum, so that the polluted 1990s version of world history is deemed to continue its
existence on a different branch of time from the second version of late twentieth-century
history in which the ecological catastrophe was averted:
Tachyons were a new kind of wave phenomenon,
causality waves looping between past and future, and the paradoxes they could produce gave
a new kind of physics. The essence of paradox was the possibility of mutually
contradictory outcomes [...]. [...] the new wave function did not describe probabilities
- it spoke of different universes. When a loop was set up, the universe split into
two new universes. (Benford 1982: 402).
The mechanism of time travel is not the only device in
science fiction texts to facilitate modulations between virtual and actual sequences of
history. In other texts it is the subjective virtual worlds of characters that achieve
actual status through more fantastic transformations. For example, in H.G. Wells'
story "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" (1898), an otherwise insignificant
mortal, Mr Fotheringay, suddenly finds he has the ability to command anything to happen,
i.e. by an act of will he is capable of transforming his virtual wishworld into actual
reality. Ultimately, however, after wreaking doomsday-like havoc on the planet when he
commands the earth to stop rotating, his final wish is that his miracle-making abilities
and the whole sequence of events caused by them should be cancelled. The result is that
the whole catastrophic scenario becomes a virtual world, replaced by a new actual version
in which the events narrated in the main part of the short story never occurred.
5) In historiographic metafiction (see Engler/Müller 1994,
Nünning 1995) the idea that history itself consists of one verifiable actual world is
undermined by the suggestion that actuality itself is a constantly shifting classification
and dependent primarily on subjective belief. Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton (1987) for
example, contains at least twelve alternative representations of the life of the
(realworld) poet Thomas Chatterton which, although they are credited with authenticity by
individual characters at some point within the story, all turn out to have different
degrees of actuality or virtuality within the world of the novel (they are, variously,
authentic historical documents, latter-day forgeries or works of art). Here the
implication is that what we may believe to be actual history is in fact a virtual
construct of contemporary culture: All versions of history are virtual in that they are
the subjective constructions of one era about another objectively irretrievable one.
In summary, therefore, it can be said that virtual levels
of reality function in all fiction to make a narrative interesting, suspenseful and
therefore readable; the story's actual ending is achieved by that ending triumphing over
all other possible alternatives, which, in conventional narrative, become the unrealised
virtual events of the plot. The examples in the five groups set out above illustrate the
fact that many works of narrative fiction are the product of a more sophisticated playoff
between the virtual and the actual, in which all manner of worlds are constructed with
varying virtual/actual constitutions and modulations between these two states: multiple
actual worlds, multiple virtual worlds, virtual worlds temporarily posing as actual
worlds, virtual worlds permanently obscuring the reader's access to and perception of the
actual world, virtual worlds battling to become the supreme actual world, private virtual
worlds being transformed into the actual world that all characters must inhabit, actual
worlds being reduced to virtual ghosts of history by timetravelling saboteurs. Twentieth
century fiction across various genres has thus particularly been the site of rapid growth
of innovative plot structures which play more convoluted games with the virtual and the
actual than in conventional narrative where there is ultimately a clear hierarchy of the
virtual and the actual. The developmental history of these forms of narrative, which
commences well before the twentieth century (for a more comprehensive account see
Dannenberg 1998), marks the gradual rise of the virtual, and is also the history of the
loosening of mental constraints in which the conception that there is one actual world
gives way to a multiplicity of the virtual and the actual.
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