Emotions and Words. Representing Emotions in Narrative

The classic view of the relation of words to emotion holds that emotions are preverbal, while the contemporary “psychological constructionist” view argues that labels create emotions out of inchoate affect. Literature reflects the classic view, yet the pervasive use of labels in narrative underscores the power of naming the “psychological constructionist” view implies. But literature aims to be vivid, and mere naming can seem dull or trite. A spectrum of techniques has arisen that allow writers to represent emotions without naming them. Emotions for which no names exist, however, present a challenge to representation. T.S. Eliot proposed the “objective correlative,” but found that not even an objective correlative is able to capture some emotions. This essay summarizes recent theories of emotion in neuroscience and psychology; it considers how this debate is applicable to an understanding of the representation of emotion in narrative; and it gives an overview of various ways in which emotion has been represented in narrative fiction. Finally, the article looks at some examples of autobiographers’ more or less successful efforts to represent unnamable emotions. Their efforts reveal a pressure to fall back on naming for the sake of communication and control. Moreover, the conciseness of naming is consistent with narrative telling.


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