“The marquise went out at 5 o’clock”: Novel beginnings and realistic expectations

  • 1 University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
Kai Mikkonen


This paper poses the question of how the beginning of a narrative may (or may not) imply a generic frame. More precisely, the objective is to examine the way in which the given narrative mood (perspective, type of discourse) and the initial narrating instance (or narrative situation) relate to generic expectations. Specific attention is given to cues of realism in the openings of nineteenth-century European novels. The discussion critically assesses F. K. Stanzel’s (A Theory of Narrative) and Philippe Hamon’s (“Un discours contraint”) assumptions about the way in which initial narrative choices might identify the genre of the text. Both Stanzel and Hamon, in their differing ways, over-emphasise the generic implications of the narrative mode. The crucial point of distinction for Stanzel in this regard is the reflector mode. More specifically, he argues that an initial figural narrative situation could be considered conspicuously fictional. Hamon, in turn, highlights the question of novelistic conventions in realistic discourse, one generic marker of which is what he calls the “narrative concretization (alibi) of the performance of the discourse,” such as the strategy of delegating the narration to a narrator-character at the beginning of the novel. It is maintained in this paper that although novelistic beginnings cannot determine the text’s fictionality or genre by their narrative mode alone, the narrative perspective and situation in the opening can evoke, in connection with other potential markers, such as perspective, personal pronouns, verb tense, peritexts, and their combined rhetorical function, generic expectations that shape the reader’s understanding of the text. Paul Valéry’s famous mock-novelistic beginning “The marquise went out at 5 o’clock” is used as a point of reference in the discussion, and representative examples of “realistic” beginnings are drawn from Charles Dickens, Émile Zola and contemporary literature.

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A peer-reviewed journal of international scope, Frontiers of Narrative Studies features articles reporting results of research in all branches of narrative studies, in-depth reviews of selected current literature in the field, and occasional guest editorials and reports. Its broad range of scholarship includes narratives across a variety of media, including literary writing, film and television, journalism, and graphic narratives.