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Review of  Stories, Meaning, and Experience

Reviewer: Ludmilla A'Beckett
Book Title: Stories, Meaning, and Experience
Book Author: Yanna B Popova
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Ling & Literature
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 27.2002

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Reviews Editor: Robert Arthur Cote


“Stories, Meaning and Experience: Narrativity and Enaction” by Yanna B. Popova has been motivated by the pivotal question, “How do stories create meaning?” Popova applies multidisciplinary perspectives to argue that making sense of narratives is “an interactional process of co-constructing the story world with a narrator” (p. 175). She develops her theory of narrativity after a careful revision of claims made by psychologists, story grammarians, literary scholars, linguists, narratologists, and cognitive scientists. The author argues that narrative study is a form of enactive cognition. Phenomenology has been proposed as a platform for explaining how the world of text and the world of the reader can come together in an act of reading.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One is concerned with revising theoretical perspectives on constituents and features of narratives. It explains the fundamental elements of narrative organisation—dynamic causality and participatory sense-making. It also offers an analysis of different approaches to explaining the nature of narrativity, i.e. the quality that makes something a narrative rather than just a presentation of sequences of events, descriptions, comparisons, pieces of argumentations etc. Part Two demonstrates how to apply the developed theoretical framework for constructing interpretations of selected literary texts.

The first part of the book consists of three chapters. Chapter One, entitled “Perceptual Causality and Narrative Causality”, defines narrative as “at least two causally linked events, the ascription of intentionality to an agent in reporting these events, and the reader’s enaction of that intentionality” (p. 39). The notion of causality becomes central for understanding the process of extracting meaning from human experience. The author adopts the view of the Belgian psychologist Albert Michotte (1946/63) whose experiments have demonstrated that causality is an inherent aspect of human perception. Thus, causality is not a product of inference but a key instrument of cognition and defined in the book as “the attribution by a mind of an event to a cause” (p. 14).

Chapter Two, entitled “Narrativity and Enaction: The Social Nature of Literary Narrative Understanding”, elaborates the claim that understanding literary narrative is a form of social cognition. Communicating narratives are not restricted to verbal forms. Other channels of transmitting narratives can be used: pictures, mime and dances, musical notes and others. Despite this claim, Popova predominantly discusses the process of engagement with literary texts. The model proposed by the author assumes that a narrator interacts with a recipient (a reader/listener) through the narrative, which conveys the narrator’s agency, intentionality, and some physical perspective. Popova argues that a story can achieve a high level of communion with the reader. On the one hand, readers can be strongly influenced by some books and films. On the other hand, our favourite stories reflect and subsume our experiences. The narrator leads the reader to enact the experience. The reader uses his or her memories, feelings, and imaginings in order to inhabit a fictional world which eventually becomes the reader’s own experience. A reader enacts a particular narratological consciousness, which was discussed in terms of narrator’s agency, intentionality, and some physical perspectives. Mental simulation can be a condition for understanding the narrative but not the main pillar of the process. Hence, Popova argues that contemporary simulation theories remain problematic for understanding fictional minds.

Chapter Three, entitled “Narrative and Metaphors: On Two Alternative Organizations of Human Experience”, discusses the role of metaphor in the organisation of narratives. The chapter starts with an overview of two alternative ways for structuring human experience. The first one involves a (causal) schematic principle of organising knowledge. The second one is a categorical (analytical) way of making sense of the world. The narrative (schematic) organisation subsumes chains of events that follow each other due to their spatial, temporal, and causal proximity. Categorical organisation has been based on the selection of items that have been perceived as similar, identical, or different. Metaphorical meaning is a product of asymmetrical co-authorship between the teller and the reader. Figurative language in narrative suggests the meaning in some broadly defined way. It is not an inclusion which delays or impedes actions.

The author stipulates two major ways in which metaphor interacts with the structure of narrative. The first one is represented by allegory. It has been defined as “an extreme case of extended metaphor in which only one source domain is mentioned and developed as a fully-sufficient story, while the target domain is construed without being manifested in the text through explicit metaphoric language” (p.112). The second one has been exemplified by extended, patterned, and recurrent metaphors in ambiguous narratives. The author argues that the form and contents of the story are mutually dependant. If some causal gaps have been left in a narrative, then the use of figurative language assists the reader in repairing the missed connections. The narrative, on the other hand, lends the metaphor its own temporality. The latter can be illustrated by the structure of literary allegory.

In Chapter 4, the author uses the enaction model to solve puzzles presented by the narrator in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. This novella, by Gabriel Garcia Marques, is not a typical murder story, as the murderers and the motif are made known from the beginning. The killing of Santiago Nazar, who was erroneously held responsible by Vicary’s family for dishonouring Angela Vicary, becomes the central event in the novel. Popova argues that three levels of the plot development can be encountered in the process of interpreting the novel. On the first, literal level, the murderers of Santiago are known. They are the Vicario brothers. On the second, non-literal level of the plot development, the narrator assigns the responsibility for the death of Santiago to the whole town who acted as the instrument of fate. However, the real murderer or the person who dishonoured Angela Vicary remains unknown. The narrative directs readers away from finding the real perpetrator. Popova suggests that the unusual narrative strategy serves the purpose of a ritualistic re-enactment of the circumstances that led to the murder of Santiago. The organisation of the narrative in the novel purports to conceal the narrator’s own possible guilt.

Chapter 5, entitled “Narrative and Allegory in Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never let me go’”, examines features of allegorical narrative. Narrative allegory evokes a strong emotional response from a reader on the top of a cognitive process. An allegory offers two levels of a story, which have been bridged by a certain similarity of plot and causal connectivity. “Never let me go” is a novel about the life of clones, who were created for the purpose of their organs being used for medical donation. The clones must die around the age of thirty, but they are not aware of their destiny. The reader is invited to see the world through the eyes of one of the clones. In the process of making sense of the story, the reader has to piece together the clues about the inevitable ending and re-enact the characters’ lack of knowledge about their destiny. When the clones become aware of their fate, two of them explore the rumoured way of postponing the looming prospect of sacrificing their life. However, this procedure turns out to be a fake. The realisation of their inability to change the course of their lives is followed by the unquestionable acceptance of their fate. Popova argues that the literal brevity of the life of the clones gets mapped onto the existential pithiness of the human condition. The artificially compressed life of the clones enhances the awareness of the preciousness of human life and the importance of living fully.

In Chapter 6, “Narrative and Metaphor in the Tales of Henry James”, the author demonstrates how the use of metaphor contributes to the coherence of a literary story. She begins with the analysis of “The figure in the carpet” by Henry James. The “Figure in the carpet” is a highly ambiguous novel, which gave rise to many conflicting interpretations. The plot of the story evolves as a young and selfish literary critic attempts to find out whether a famous writer, Hugh Vereke, is in possession of secret knowledge, a particular pattern of things that gives most sense to his writing, described as “a figure in the carpet”. Literary critics have been engaged in construing two polar interpretations of the novella. The first group hails the existence of Vereke’s secret knowledge and tries to explain its human and aesthetic significance. The second group denies the figure’s existence and interprets it as James’ ironic hoax. Two sets of metaphors, which can be found in the story, reinforce the ambiguity of the tale. The secret itself has been conceptualised as “the figure on the carpet”, i.e. as a manifestation of the metaphor KNOWING IS SEEING. On the other hand, the metaphor of hunt frequently deployed by the narrator is instructive for considering the effect of “the figure in the carpet” on the narrator and other characters. Metaphors of hunt demonstrate the ambiguity of the experience of the “hunter”. A successful hunter is capable of catching his/her prey. Alternatively, an unsuccessful hunter becomes the prey, who has been lured into a trap with the help of bait, an illusion. The duality of the narrator’s perception has been captured by the metaphors in the text. Popova suggests that the reader is able to make sense of the metaphors to the extent they become incorporated in the causally developing story itself.

In another novella, “A beast in the jungle”, the central metaphor takes the place of a single narrative goal to which nearly all narrative elements are subordinated. The main character of the tale spends his life in passive expectation that “the beast” will turn his existence into a great adventure. However, the beast happens to be the failure of the main character to recognise other opportunities in his life and his ultimate tragic inability to experience human affection and other pleasures. The meaning of the central metaphor becomes known to the reader upon the unfolding of numerous events. The life of the main character is a leap of the beast, but this leap signifies the process of living rather than of a single extraordinary event in his lifetime. Popova concludes that the meaning of the metaphor is determined by the specific narrative context.


The book is of interest to scholars and students involved in the study of relationships between text and readers’ responses to it. Popova suggests a novel “enactivist” framework, which explains how the reader arrives at interpretations of narratives. The framework brings together insights from cognitive sciences, literary criticism, and linguistics. The book also demonstrates the basic organisational principles of the narrative. Popova moves away from the popular assumption that text conveys a fixed and predetermined meaning that needs to be decoded. She argues throughout the book that stories should not be taken as autonomous and self-contained worlds. The book advocates a shift from study of text representations encoded in structures and features to an interactional process of co-constructing a story world with narrator. This shift allows to account for a multiplicity of readings of the same text.

However, it is possible to envisage that many linguistic paradigms will raise objections to the elimination of the so-called “shared ground”, which is also called “some common consensual norm” in interpretations or “mental representations of linguistically structured propositions”. One of the challenges, which the interactive model can present, is the absence of a meta-representation of the text, which allows the comparing and validating of diverse interpretations. Popova argues that “structure of fabula is never available to us directly in some abstract medium-independent way” (p. 122). Nevertheless, it should not prevent scholars from their attempts to linearize and conventionalize the fabula for various technical purposes.

Popova engages the reader with the ongoing debate on the relevance of the distinction between deliberate vs non-deliberate use of metaphors (cf. Gibbs, 2011; Steen, 2011). The deliberate nature of metaphors or rather their novel and creative aspects is presented as a relevant aspect in the study of narratives (p. 107).

The author also assists with the recognition of problematic areas within popular theoretical schools of thoughts such as blending theory, simulation theory, and conceptual metaphor theory (cf. Chapter 2, 3). In Chapter 6, the author analyses instantiations of the popular conceptual metaphors which, nevertheless, do not become subsumable to them. Many critical comments of the author reinforce positions which were expressed by other scholars. For instance, addressing problems with application of blending theory corroborates comments made by Gibbs (2006, p. 7) and Ritchie (2006, p. 156). There is a certain commonality between Popova’s view (p. 110) that “Metaphorical meaning … [is] ...a result of interacting in a particular context” and the claim made by Zinken and Musolff (2009, p. 4) that the metaphor understanding becomes “a matter of dialogue, of engagement in debate”. However, the dialogical nature of metaphor understanding reveals its diverse facets in political discourse and in literary narratives. It is also worth noting that despite the support of simulation theory expressed by some renowned researchers of metaphor (El Rafaie, 2015; Ritchie, 2006, 2010), the enaction model developed in the book considers some claims of this school to be problematic.

The emphasis on the dynamic and cumulative effects of metaphor in texts can be seen as common ground with the discourse dynamic framework for metaphors (Cameron and Maslen, 2010). As Cameron (2010a, p.147) argued “[m]etaphors …will be chosen and adapted to fit their environment of use, reflecting ideas, attitudes and values through the prism of the discourse event [or the narrative!—L.A] in which they are expressed.” Although there are differences between the approaches, especially in respect to procedures for recognition of interactions between metaphor and context, which were developed by the discourse dynamic framework, the two frameworks share several theoretical perspectives. In fact, one of the reasons why I was interested in this book relates to the fact that the collection of articles advertising the discourse dynamic framework for metaphor was lacking a case study on metaphor analysis in literary text (A’Beckett, 2014, pp.135-136). In many ways, “Stories, Meaning and Experience” can be regarded as a response to the research demand for developing a contemporary framework recovering cognitive and evaluative responses to metaphors in literary texts.

In relation to the interpretation of “Chronicle of a death foretold” given in Chapter 4, it is possible to argue that a reader may be more involved with the question why so many people failed to prevent this murder rather than with finding the identity of Angela’s mysterious lover. Hence, the entangled structure of the novella can reflect the confusion, desperation, panic, and guilt of the narrator who was incapable of saving his friend’s live. Such an interpretation would be also consistent with an enactivist model though this and other alternative interpretations have been left behind in the book.

On a critical note, it can be asked whether the suggested framework would contain the same categories and analytical procedures if multimodal narratives were to be considered among the case studies. It is interesting to note that scholars discussing the sense-making process in multimodal and visual narratives often treat visual/multimodal metaphors and metonymies as indicators of causal links in the story (cf. Ying-Yu Lin and Chiang, 2015, El Rafaie, 2014, Bounegru and Forceville, 2011 and others). For instance, Stone, 1988, p.118 and Popa, 2013, p.307 argue that metaphors, on the surface, draw a comparison between one thing and another, but in a more subtle way, they imply an entire narrative and a prescription for action. If metaphors on their own can embody a narrative and forge causal links between events then we can question the assumption that metaphor becomes subordinate to the narrative structure (p.96, 110 etc.). Perhaps, the categories of literary narratives analysis such as the narrator, protagonist, coherence, and others should be adapted more carefully for the research of multimodal and visual narratives? It would be interesting to see how the model developed in the book can be applied to studies of narratives other than literary texts, e.g. narratives from therapeutic discourse, anecdotes and the like (cf. Wodak, 1986). Re-contextualisation of claims made in the book becomes a thought-provoking activity.

In sum, the book “Stories, Meaning and Narratives” is stimulating reading for anyone who is interested in sense-making processes and in the role of metaphors in respect to various narrative functions, such as structuring, making the story coherent etc. The book suggests intriguing case studies. It provides empirical guidance for the analysis of allegorical narrative and complements the existing theoretical insights in this field. The book can also familiarise readers with contemporary scholarly debates in cognitive linguistics and text analysis.


A’Beckett, L. (2014). Book review. Lynne Cameron & Robert Maslen (Eds.) 2010. “Metaphor Analysis: Research Practice in Applied Linguistics, Social Sciences and The Humanities”, Metaphor and the Social World 4 (1), 127-138.

Bounegru, L. & Forceville, C. (2011) Metaphor in Editorial Cartoons Representing The Global Financial Crisis. Journal of Visual Communication, 10, 209-229.

Cameron, L. (2010a) Metaphors and Discourse Activity. In L. Cameron and R. Maslen (Eds.), Metaphor Analysis, (pp.147-161).

Cameron, L. (2010 b) The Discourse Dynamic Framework for Metaphor. In L. Cameron and R. Maslen (Eds.), Metaphor Analysis, (pp.77-97).

Cameron, L. and Maslen, R. (Eds.) (2010) Metaphor Analysis: Research Practice in Applied Linguistics, Social Sciences and The Humanities. London: Equinox.

El Rafaie, E. (2014) Appearances and dis/dys-appearances: A Dynamic View of Embodiment in Conceptual Metaphor Theory. Metaphor and the Social World 4 (1), 109-127.

El Rafaie, E. (2015) Reconsidering “Image Metaphor” in the Light of Perceptual Simulation Theory. Metaphor and Symbol 30 (1), 63-76.

Gibbs, R.W. (2006) Why Cognitive Linguists Should Care More About Empirical Methods. In M. Gonzales-Marquez, I. Mittleberg, S. Coulson& M.J. Spivey (Eds.), Methods in Cognitive Linguistics. (pp. 2-19). Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Gibbs, R.W. (2011) Advancing the Debate on Deliberate Metaphor. Metaphor and the Social World 1(1), 67-69.

Michotte, A. (1946/63). The Perception of causality. Trans. T.R. Miles and E. Miles. London: Methuen.

Popa, D.E. (2013) Multimodal Metaphors in Political Entertainment. Review of Cognitive Linguistics 11 (2), 303-319.

Ritchie, D.L (2006) Context and Connections in Metaphor. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Ritchie, D.L. (2010) “Between Mind and Language: A Journey worth Taking”. In L. Cameron and R. Maslen (Eds.), Metaphor Analysis, (pp.57-77).

Steen, G. (2011) What does ‘really deliberate’ really mean? Metaphor and the Social World 1 (1), 53-56.

Stone, D.A. (1988) Policy paradox and political reason. Glenview, Il: Scott, Foresman.

Wodak, R. (1986). TALES FROM THE VIENNA WOODS: Sociolinguistic and Psycholinguistic Considerations of Narrative Analysis. Poetics 15, 153-182.

Ying-Yu Lin, T. and Chiang, W. (2015) Multimodal Fusion in Analyzing Political Cartoons: Debates on U.S. Beef Imports Into Taiwan. Metaphor and Symbol 30 (2), 137-161.

Zinken, Z. and Musolff, A. (2009) Introduction: A Discourse-Centred Perspective on Metaphorical Meaning and Understanding. In A. Musolff and J. Zinken (Eds), Metaphor and Discourse. (pp.1-11). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ludmilla A'Beckett, PhD, is a Research Fellow at the Unit for Language Facilitation and Empowerment, University of the Free State, South Africa. Her research interests are discourse analysis, intercultural communication, cognitive stylistics and language ideology.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780415715881
Pages: 200
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