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Review of  Rethinking Narrative Identity

Reviewer: Damian J. Rivers
Book Title: Rethinking Narrative Identity
Book Author: Claudia Holler Martin Klepper
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 24.2740

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As Volume 17 of the Studies in Narrative (SiN) series (edited by Michael Bamberg), this book offers a multi-dimensional approach to the exploration and understanding of narrative and the plethora of channels through which conceptualizations of narrative and identity are intertwined. The ten chapters within the volume originate from a diverse array of academic fields such as literary theory, philosophy, gender studies, and history, thus tending to a broad spectrum of potential reader interest. Within their own individual area of specialization, the contributing authors each highlight the importance of perspective and persona in the perception of and the possibilities existent in the creation and interpretation of narrative identities.

The Introduction [Rethinking narrative identity: Persona and perspective], by Martin Klepper, serves to announce the direction of the volume and the multi-disciplinary parameters of the ten proceeding individual chapters by providing “initial impulses” intended to “open up a dialogue with the explorations that follow” (p. 4). The author draws upon an impressive body of literature concerning, amongst other issues, the narrative understanding of personal identities, with particular attention given to the work of the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur (a significant presence throughout the volume). Klepper describes the volume as a collection of ''essays by scholars from various disciplines exploring to which extent and with which modifications the notion of narrative identity is productive in their field of expertise'' (p. 4). These ten chapters are positioned as being situated within the rapidly transforming lifeworlds of the twenty-first century and this analogy accurately captures the sense of dynamism present throughout the volume. Important in focusing the expectations of the reader is the author’s acknowledgement that ''the resulting mosaic is not a neat, homogenous one'' (p. 4). On the whole, the Introduction offers an exciting variety of insightful perspectives on narrative identity and primes the reader for what follows.

Chapter 1 [Identity and empathy: On the correlation of narrativity and morality], by Norbert Meuter (translated by B. Greenhill, C Himmelreich, C. Holler and M. Klepper), converges specifically upon the question of ethics in narrative from a philosophical perspective. The author's main thesis is that ''[m]oral experience and acting are fundamentally based on processes of identity and empathy formation, and narratives enable, create, stabilize and energize both identity and empathy'' (p. 33). The chapter is divided into three thematic sections, each featuring numerous sub-sections dealing with narrativity, morality, and the correlation between these two terms. In making reference to the “double structure that represents the central touchstone of narrative ethics”, the author surmises that ''[e]mpathy and identity are two sides of one (moral) cause. Self and Other are two values that cannot be pitted against one another'' (p. 46).

Chapter 2 [Axes of identity: Persona, perspective, and the meaning of (Keith Richards's) life], by Mark Freeman, takes the self-identity work of William James as a foundation and looks at two interrelated axes of identity, identified in the author’s previous work as time and relatedness to the Other. Through the use of Keith Richards's memoir ‘Life’, the author illustrates and explores the processes involved in negotiating one's own and others' perspectives on the self. Underscored by questions of ''[w]hy should we care so much about Keith Richards? Why should we care so much that we are willing to read through nearly 600 pages of his life?'' (p. 55), the author presents a number of interesting extracts from the memoir and analyzes them in relation to various threads of narrative identity such as persona, the duality of human nature, and authenticity.

Chapter 3 [The quest for a third space: Heterotopic self-positioning and narrative identity], by Wolfgang Kraus, concerns issues of belonging and the question of ''Who am I part of?'' found within narrative approaches to identity construction as well as the more commonly asked question of ''Who am I in time'' (p. 69). Related to issues of (intentional) self-positioning and other-positioning, the author ponders on how it is possible for individuals to ''maintain the dynamics of self-positioning in self-stories, which are largely shaped by the experience of social exclusion'' (p. 69). Interview excerpts are shared and serve as a platform for an in-depth discussion in which the author asks ''[h]ow do people deal with the experience of stereotyping, which keeps them fixed in a position of being 'othered'…?'' (p. 75). The idea of a third space is then analyzed, along with the issue of heterotopias and self-positioning, heterotopias as choice and construction, the narration of heterotopic experiences, and heterotopic positioning as 'work on the impossible'. The author concludes by noting that a primary challenge for future research is to ''look for the hardly sayable, the small blades of grass between the rigidity of dominant, superficially well-defined and seemingly unchangeable binary tales'' (p. 82).

Chapter 4 [Constructing perspectives as positioning resources in stories of the self], by Gabriele Lucius-Hoene, examines the role of perspectivation in personal storytelling and the negotiation of moral claims through which the ''almighty author'' is able ''to gain authentication and persuasive power while refraining from explicit evaluations'' (p. 85). With a ''twist [which] namely complicates the stories they tell about their lives and their problems in interview setting'' (p. 87), the author cites two stories taken from narrative interviews with sufferers of severe chronic illness. The author shares the two conversation transcriptions and gives a thorough analysis of each, highlighting the rhetorical devices used, in addition to providing a broad sociolinguistic interpretation. The author concludes that both narrators ''show a strong tendency for interactive orientation; also, they exploit their stories for the purpose of entertaining the listener by using a variety of stylistic means'' (p. 99).

Chapter 5 [Referential frameworks and focalization in a craft artist's life story: A socionarratological perspective on narrative identity], by Jarmila Mildorf, explores “the roles perspective can play in conversational storytelling…and to what extent literary narratology can offer useful terms to describe perspective-taking in such contexts” (p. 103). Utilizing a detailed life interview with a craft artist (Dominic Di Mare), the author emphasizes instances of focalization and how the artist positions himself during the interview and in his narrative, as well as how the artist offers invitation to the interviewer (Signe Mayfield) to partially adopt his position. The mid-sections of the chapter discuss previous narrative studies, present an outline of what David Herman terms as socionarratology, and offer an examination of the term focalization. The author then shares an analysis of the interview before concluding that much can be gained from “combining linguistic narrative analysis with narratological concepts” (p. 113).

Chapter 6 [Strange perspectives = strange (narrative?) identities?], by Rüdiger Heinze, asks ''[i]f our understanding of fictional narratives is based on real-world experiential cognitive parameters, how do we deal with texts that cannot be fully grasped in accordance with these parameters, and what effects do these 'unnatural' texts have on everyday storytelling'' (p. 117). The author uses Galen Strawson's argument against narrative identity as a starting point and gives specific attention to '''strange' and 'unnatural' narrative perspectives'' (p. 119) that extend beyond the common genre of autobiography. The author provides ample background literature and rationalizes the main argument through reference to five clearly stated assumptions. The chapter then draws upon Rick Moody's novel, ‘The Ice Storm’, and his (very) short story, ‘The Grid’, to demonstrate what happens ''to narrative identity and perspective if we take unnatural narratives with impossible perspectives seriously'' (p. 123). The author closes the chapter by highlighting how such examples offer a ''conception of narrative identity and perspective that [does] justice to our often very weird lives'' (p. 126).

Chapter 7 [''Indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated'': Narrative identity in Jeffrey Eugenides's ‘Middlesex’], by Nicole Frey Büchel, analyzes the narrated identity experiences and selfhood construction of the intersexual narrator and protagonist (Calliope Stephanides) within ‘Middlesex’. From a mainly post-structuralist perspective and based on the belief that narratives are forced to communicate with pre-existing texts, the author suggests that consequently ''narratives are revealed to be incapable of providing a definite selfhood'' and that ‘Middlesex’ ''reformulates the concept of narrative identity in terms of constant, ultimately open-ended performance'' (p. 130). Making extensive use of supporting footnotes, the chapter provides a detailed literary analysis of the narrated experiences of the protagonist and the subsequent implications for selfhood and identity. The author concludes by asserting how “the very ruptures in Cal’s narrative identity are the features that ultimately come to define his individual and unique self” (p. 145).

Chapter 8 [Creative confession: Self-writing, forgiveness and ethics in Ian McEwan's ‘Atonement’], by Kim L. Worthington, explores issues surrounding truth and self-forgiveness in the act of the self-authorizing confession, and the ethical considerations raised as a consequence. With emphasis on Ian McEwan's ‘Atonement’, and the protagonist Briony Tallis, the author argues that the novel ''points up the impossibility of attaining either truth or self-forgiveness via acts of (confessional) self-writing'' (p. 148). The first part of the chapter provides a thematic discussion of the parameters of the act of confession and draws upon the work of scholars such as Peter Brooks, Michel Foucault and J.M. Coetzee. The proceeding sections of the chapter provide detailed critical analyses of the novel from a number of comparative perspectives, whilst retaining a clear focus on the act of confession and the implications created for narrative identity.

Chapter 9 [The queer self and the snares of heteronormativity: Quentin Crisp's life story - A successful failure], by Eveline Kilian, investigates the autobiographical life writings of Quentin Crisp in ‘The Naked Civil Servant’. With implications for autobiographical structure and queer conceptualizations of time, Quentin Crisp is cast as one of ''heteronormativity's marginalized others'' (p. 171) who are required to manage a quite paradoxical existence. The significance of ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ and the fascinating autobiographical identities portrayed by Quentin Crisp are situated within the chapter as being demonstrative of ''the self-fashioning of a queer subject who defies hegemonic gender norms and counters society's undisguised hostility and ostracism by squarely inhabiting the position of the abject attributed to him'' (p. 172). Throughout the chapter, a detailed analysis is offered concerning the manner in which Quentin Crisp, through the unconditional acceptance of a lifestyle deemed to be failure by society, is able to ultimately achieve success and ''beat the system at its own game'' (p. 183) without conforming to the norms of heteronormativity.

Chapter 10 [Confessional poetry: A poetic perspective on narrative identity], by Eva Brunner, shares a broad literary exploration of identity construction within lyrical texts (three Anne Sexton poems) and deals with issues such as different self-concepts, the possibility of multiple selves, permanent self-actualization through narrative, conventional narratological frames, and the relationship between identity and emotion. The author offers a detailed introduction of narrative identity and narratological frames, citing scholars from philosophy, literature, and psychology in order to highlight different conceptualizations of narrative. The focus of the chapter then turns toward confessional poetry that is ''situated in a transitional space between modernism and postmodernism'' (p. 191) and an analysis of three of Anne Sexton's poems. In concluding, the author draws attention to how the ''self-presentations in these poems are concerned with emotional states rather than with sequences of events, although these aspects often overlap'' (p. 200). This position underpins the author’s call for greater attention to be given to ''the emotional aspects of identity'' (p. 201).


In casting the narration of the self as a process never fully achieving a “final configuration”, co-editor of the volume Martin Klepper asserts how “the need for coherence and unity must be seen in a paradoxical relation to the tendency towards contingency and diffusion”, and this is suggested as the “homology that ultimately brings narrative and identity together” (p. 28). This observation can be positioned as a metaphor for the volume as a whole. Indeed, one of the most attractive features of the volume is the richness and diversity of the perspectives expressed throughout each chapter, in addition to the variety of approaches taken by each of the respective authors. In producing a volume that demonstrates collective freedom from the potential confines of one particular discipline, the notions of narrative and identity are comprehensively brought together through a refreshing collage of expression and vitality. Each chapter presents the reader with a substantive exploration of narrative identity without undue repetition. The specific characteristics of each chapter and the different academic fields from which the authors originate ensure that this volume offers the reader an invitation and access to information that might well inspire new directions of exploration.

In situating this rather sophisticated volume alongside other books, it is liberating to see that the most general topic of investigation (narrative identity) is given clear precedence over the academic field through which it is observed and, much in the same manner as the paradox noted in the paragraph above, this structure has the somewhat unexpected effect of producing a coherent and cohesive collection of chapters. The editors have clearly achieved the stated goal of “present[ing] essays by scholars from various disciplines exploring to which extent and with which modification the notion of narrative identity is productive in their field of expertise” (p. 4). The approach taken by the editors should be commended, as all too often the individual chapters within such edited volumes are unified as much by the field from which they originate as they are by the general theme of the volume. In this respect, and through the pleasurable experience of reading the book, it would seem productive to have more volumes published that embrace a multi-disciplinary approach toward a particular notion as a means of providing the reader with a more comprehensive account. The multi-disciplinary nature of this volume also serves to broaden the potential target audience. In offering numerous pathways to the study and understanding of narrative identity, one could expect that readers of this book will be primarily brought together via a shared interest in narrative identity, as opposed to a primary interest in linguistics, psychology or any of the other academic fields presented within this volume. For example, having read numerous other volumes on narrative identity from a sociological background (e.g. Holstein and Gubrium, 2000), this volume has stimulated a desire to further explore the psychological work of Wolfgang Kraus (author of Chapter Three) and the identity literature of Quentin Crisp (featured in Chapter Nine).

Whilst certainly appealing to a wide audience, one might suggest that this volume is not entirely suitable for students (particularly undergraduates) or casual readers in narrative identity, unless the reader is willing to invest a significant amount of time into the volume. Many of the chapters are complex and make extended reference to rather heavy philosophical works. As a result, the material can at times seem quite demanding. Despite this rather minor observation, as a teacher-researcher with an interest in narrative identity, this volume will certainly serve as a frequent source of direct and indirect reference for a number of related projects. The diversity shown within the study and the understanding of narrative identity throughout the volume are undeniably impressive. Other readers across multiple fields of study will also find the volume to be a rewarding experience; one that, if given sufficient investment, will lead to a rethinking of narrative identity.


Holstein, J.A. and Gubrium, J.F. (2000). The self we live by: Narrative identity in a postmodern world. New York: Oxford University Press.
Damian J. Rivers is an Associate Professor at Osaka University in the English Department, Graduate School of Language and Culture and holds a Ph.D in Applied Linguistics from the University of Leicester, England. His main research interests concern the management of multiple identities in relation to otherness, the impact of national identities upon a variety of foreign language education processes, critical issues in intercultural communication, and social processes underpinning intergroup stereotypes. He is co-editor of ‘Native-Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education’ (2013, Multilingual Matters) and ‘Social Identities and Multiple Selves in Foreign Language Education’ (2013, Bloomsbury) (