“Once upon a time….:” Horizons of Expectation and two Japanese Short Stories

A remarkably useful tool for a reader is the phrase “horizon of expectation.” (Every so often I insert one of these “tools” into a blog such as my brief discussion of  “semiotics” [ https://pulpteacher.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/detective-stories-narrative-theory-semiotics-reading-a-further-case-for-popular-literature/] or the one about “ekphrasis” [ https://pulpteacher.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/spoiler-part-2-taboos-shutter-island-and-shadow-of-the-wind/].) Hans Jauss, an influential reception-theory critic invented the term in his book Toward an Aesthetic of Reception.  Greatly simplified, but still amazingly handy, the “horizon of expectation” forces us to discuss WHERE meaning happens when one reads a text (is meaning INSIDE the text–like coal in mine or money in a bank? is it in the reader who then “places” the meaning in the text?–DON’T FALL FOR THIS FALSE BINARY!).

All readers bring expectations to texts: if I tell my students we are going to read a Stephen King story they will expect horror (but King doesn’t ONLY write horror); if I tell them we are going to watch a Jim Carey movie they will expect a comedy (though not ALL Jim Carey movies are comedies). But this only happens if my students KNOW who Stephen King or Jim Carey is.  So expectations are the product of an interaction between the reader’s prior knowledge (and then during the reading, her ongoing adjustments) AND the conventions and directions of the text.  And, EVERYTHING is a text.

Consider: when a quarterback reads a defense he brings certain expectations to groupings, personnel, and positioning–the better the “reader” the more likely he will be successful.  A point guard brings all sorts of expectations to her defensive positioning–knowing that your opponent can only go right or that her favorite target is not in the game or is trailing the play or that time is running out on a shot clock–all of these expectations (predictions) need to be checked and adjusted. The “meaning” exists not only in the defense or offense being read nor does it exist solely in the quarterback or point guard doing the reading.

If I begin a story by saying “Once upon a time…” you will expect a fairy tale and be open to the possibility of evil witches, magic dwarves, speaking animals and the like.  In fact, if I begin a story with “Once upon a time” and then proceed to tell you about my breakfast (oatmeal) and trip to school (uneventful) and walk to my office (I said “Hi” to several students, The End), you will feel somewhat cheated–I will not have delivered on the promise implied in “Once upon a time.” We call this the “denial of the horizon of expectation” it can often be used for humor or to make a point. Here’s a humorous example: “I took my three-year old to the pharmacy with me today and when we got home I found  a Chapstick that we DID NOT purchase in his pocket.  Well, I marched him right back to the car and drove him to the mall where I took him to a jewelry store.”  The humor comes from our denied expectation–that the parent is going to make the kid return the Chapstick and apologize. Science fiction often uses the pedestrian”realistic” opening  and then introduces the fantastic (imagine beginning the story “Dateline Washington, DC: 5 December 2011. This morning at breakfast my toaster came alive and led a revolt of the machines wherein I was chased by my refrigerator and microwave and barely escaped with my life….”) thereby engaging us with a denial of the horizon of expectation.

Genres have their own conventions.  If I tell you we will read a mystery you will “expect” (depending on your knowledge of the conventions) at least some of the following: a crime, a detective, the solution to the puzzle, justice to be restored, etc. If you only know “hard-boiled” detective fiction you may expect a certain level of violence or a femme fatale; if you know only British cozies you will expect something different.  Some great things happen when “horizons of expectation” are fulfilled but equally fascinating things can happen when they are denied. Too often readers (viewers) complaints about texts are really a cry that their expectations have not been met. (Most bad reviewers of books and movies are critical of a text because it didn’t get done the way the reviewer would have done it; I have always been careful to try to understand what the contexts are for any text I review and judge the text in that domain.)

I recently taught two Japanese “mystery” stories: Shiga Naoya’s “Han’s Crime” and Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s “In a Grove” (the source story of Kurosawa’s Rashomon). Naoya’s story opens by SOLVING the crime! “Much to everyone’s astonishment, the young Chinese juggler, Han, severed his wife’s carotid artery with one of his heavy knives in the course of a performance.”  Wow, we already know whodunit and who it got done to and where.  Still, there is a mystery to be solved.  What this done intentionally or accidentally?  A judge comes to investigate and, this is, I think, the remarkably cool part of the story, begins his investigation by interviewing the Theater Owner and Han’s assistant.  He then interviews Han.  Much of our delight in the story–if we are delighted by it (and my students always are)–comes from watching the judge–who stands in for us, the readers–try to uncover whether the crime is intentional or not.  I trust the judge (I am enamored of his questioning strategy–he lets Han know he has interviewed other people to force Han to tell the truth, he tries to throw Han off by telling him he “believes him”) but, finally, there is no way to KNOW whether Han beat the system or made a horrible mistake.  The story denies, to wonderful effect, our expectation of the mystery story.

Akutagawa’s “In a Grove” similarly presents itself as a mystery.  The opening scene is the “Testimony of a Woodcutter before a High Police Commissioner.” Several other speakers follow, each speaking in his or her own voice and THREE OF THEM CONFESS TO THE CRIME.  (The multiple first-person narration is also quite nice.) The physical evidence will support all of the readings but no two readings can be made to work together (let alone all three).  Akutagawa thwarts the reader’s desire to make sense of the story and thereby achieves an interesting effect.  Since Akutagawa wrote the story in the very early 20th century this has been much imitated (Robert  Browning’s Ring and the Book actually predates “In a Grove” and similarly tells a story from multiple points of view; and the short-lived television show “Boomtown” presented a variation of this method of story telling). Some times my students are frustrated that there is not an answer to the puzzle; but many appreciate the balancing act of Akutagawa and the insight that often we see the world not as it is, but as we are.

Next week, more Japanese! Either a discussion of Mishima Yukio or perhaps a review of two movies by the superb director, Kobayashi Masaki (Hara-kiri and Samurai Rebellion). In a fascinating turn of events I have just discovered that The 47 Ronin (which I wrote about last week!) is being made into a movie to be released on November 21, 2012. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1335975/


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Filed under 47 Ronin, books and learning, Han's Crime, Horizon of Expectation, inferential skills, japanese literature, Japanese Short Stories, pedagogy, Rashomon or In a Grove, Uncategorized

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