Forms and characteristics of the unreliable narrator in reading La Madre

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Naji Al Omleh @najialomleh

:classical_building: Affiliation: University Of Genova

Title: Forms and characteristics of the unreliable narrator in reading La Madre

Abstract (long version below): The proposal discusses the objectives and methods of a reading experiment based on Ágota Kristóf’s La Madre. The mixed-method experimental procedure aims to identify the inferential reactions of readers, who are not familiar with practices of literary interpretation, to the proposals of an unreliable narrator. Identifying the reaction to a particular feature of narrative discourse will allow investigating and reasoning about the role of inferential processes in the construction of the mental model of reading.


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:newspaper: Long abstract


Reading response theory and discourse comprehension models (Iser 1994; Rosenblatt 1993; Snow 2002) have allowed scholars to focus more and more on the role played by the inferential processes in the actual practice of reading literary texts. The construction-integration model (Kintsch 1988; Wharton e Kintsch 1991) is one of the leading theoretical paradigms for modelling the reading information processes. Such a model splits the text reception activity in three levels: surface code, textbase and situation model. The three representation levels simultaneously contribute to a coherent mental model of the information collected and processed during any reading activity. Inferential processes operate along the three different levels but provide significant input into the construction and evolution of situational models. There are numerous typological descriptions of inferential processes that work during reading; relevant to the case at hand is the difference between narrative and interpretive inferences (Jacobs 2021; McCarthy e Goldman 2019a; «Interpretative Inferences in Literature» 2015).


This study aims to analyse the specific trends of inferential processes at work during the reception of literary texts. It has been argued that the distinctiveness of literary reading acts lies in their particular ability to activate particular interpretive inferences (Lee et al. 2016). Interpretive inferences are generated by both expert and non-expert readers when properly stimulated (McCarthy e Goldman 2019b). An investigation of the reaction by non-expert of a particular interpretive instance will be developed. The interpretive instance of the unreliable narrator will be investigated through an experimental reading of the short story La Madre by Ágota Kristóf (2010), in a Italian reading group of undergraduate students (about 100 people). The aim is to identify the moment(s) when a given narrative text breaks the narrativepact (Booth 2008; Phelan 2005; Shen 2014). Breaking such agreement may occur because some omissive, and/or unnecessary information is offered that is not functional to a text coherence. The non-functional information may be discarded, and, in this case, it would not affect the coherence of the mental model. On the contrary, the non-functional information may be considered and, in this case, confront the reader with a lack of trust in the narrated facts. A lack of trust can lead to intense inferential reactions that transform not functional information into functional information by changing the mental model of the information.

The individual reading experience will be examined through a protocol involving two annotation activities and the response to an open-ended question. The experimental purposes are:

:black_small_square: Determine whether patterns exist in the configurations of mental reading models.

:black_small_square: Determine whether interpretive inferences exist.

Before reading, biographical information and information on reading habits will be collected.

The reader will be asked to:

(I) Annotate information that during the reading triggers suspicion for a lack of trust in the narrated facts.

(II) Annotate information that during the reading provide the reason(s) why such lack of trust emerges.

The annotations will be made, through the CATMA («CATMA», s.d.) software in two different colours. The annotation activity (I) identifies information that is non-functional for coherence determination. The annotation activity (II) identifies the information that allows the non-functional information to be transformed into functional information.

Following the annotation phase, open-ended question (III) will ask the reader to explain what the story tells from beginning to end taking into consideration the lack of trust and reason(s) he or she identified during the reading. The open-ended response will be analysed through these categories into(McCarthy e Goldman 2015; McCarthy 2015):

:black_small_square: Verbatim: Sentences copied directly from the text.

:black_small_square: Paraphrase: Rewording of the sentences from the text; Summary or combining of multiple sentences from the text.

:black_small_square: Text-based inference: Reasoning-based on information presented in the story, with some use of prior knowledge; connecting information from two parts of the text.

:black_small_square: Interpretative inferences: Inferences that reflect nonliteral, thematic interpretations of the text.


The readers’ annotations will be analysed by considering quantity and position. The number of annotations (I) is indicative of the amount of not functional information recognized by the reader. The number of explanations (II) is indicative of the amount of not functional information transformed into functional information through explanation. The position of annotations (I) and (II), together with the quantity, will identify the existence of intersubjective patterns in the configuration of the mental model of reading. Agreement among participants will be assessed through a Krippendorff’s alpha coefficient (Hayes e Krippendorff 2007). The open-ended response (III) will be broken down into propositions. Each proposition will be classified in one of the four categories defined. The categories identify information representation features in mental models. This classification produced in previous studies a Cohen’s Kappa (Warrens 2015) of .98. The analysis of the position and quantity of annotations will respond to the first purpose. The analysis of responses (III) will be considered to respond the second purpose.


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