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Text in the Natural World

Topics in the Evolutionary Theory of Literature


Laurence A. Gregorio

The study of literature has expanded to include an evolutionary perspective. Its premise is that the literary text and literature as an overarching institution came into existence as a product of the same evolutionary process that gave rise to the human species. In this view, literature is an evolutionary adaptation that functions as any other adaptation does, as a means of enhancing survivability and also promoting benefits for the individual and society. Text in the Natural World is an introduction to the theory and a survey of topics pertinent to the evolutionary view of literature. After a polemical, prefatory chapter and an overview of the pertinent aspects of evolutionary theory itself, the book examines integral building blocks of literature and literary expression as effects of evolutionary development. This includes chapters on moral sense, symbolic thought, literary aesthetics in general, literary ontology, the broad topic of form, function and device in literature, a last theoretical chapter on narrative, and a chapter on literary themes. The concluding chapter builds on the preceding one as an illustration of evolutionary thematic study in practice, in a study of the fauna in the fiction of Maupassant. This text is designed to be of interest to those who read and think about things literary, as well as to those who have interest in the extension of Darwin’s great idea across the horizon of human culture. It tries to bridge the gulf that has separated the humanities from the sciences, and would be a helpful text for courses taught in both literary theory and interdisciplinary approaches to literature and philosophy.

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Chapter 8. Narrative


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· 8 ·


“Tell me a story!” Nothing comes more naturally to a child still too young to understand notions of responsibility, obligation, or reciprocity, still too young to fret over tomorrow’s challenges or yesterday’s annoyances. And it is basically what we all say every time we sit down to watch a film or read a novel (or a classical novel, anyway). And it is what we say, too, when we invite someone to tell us a joke or fill us in on events that transpired in our absence. We rely so implicitly on the functioning of narrative and on what has become known as the narrative pact that, on the one hand, it is hard to imagine life in society or many forms of entertainment and instruction without it. And on the other hand, it rarely occurs to us to examine its origins or reflect on how such a fundamental human social process would have come about. Again, we appeal to the postulate of a human function, universal and inborn, a function of what must be a common and universal human nature, evolved and not a product of arbitrary or idiosyncratic construct. The evidence is compelling for such an assertion, since the very same narrative pact and practices, storytelling’s tools and assumptions, have been in use in all the most far-flung human societies for as long as history has been able to detect them. History itself is a form of narrative, and...

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