Contemporary Weird Fiction and the Allegorical Intuition

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Presentation Date


Conference Name

International Conference on Narrative

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Lexington, KY


I call the key cognitive move in processing allegory “gist projection”: the reader extracts a “gist” from the literal level of the text and projects that meaning to an outside target domain. Because the text includes no language directly referring to that target, a reader’s ability to recognize the presence of allegory occurs through an intuitive flash of understanding. In typical allegorical texts, authors spark this allegorical intuition in readers by including disruptive details—for example, references that allude to a situation outside the text, that undermine the reader’s expectations, or that create noticeable discontinuities within the text. Once the allegorical intuition has been activated, the reader begins problem-solving, summarizing the gist of the text and testing its application to hypothesized target domains.

But to the extent that authors grasp how allegory works cognitively, they can play with these readerly expectations, as we see in two recent novels that undermine the traditional literary uses of allegorical intuition. In Life of Pi, Yann Martel avoids activating the allegorical intuition by providing naturalistic explanations for details such as the presence of animals on the boat with Pi. Therefore, the reader, who ordinarily might interpret animal characters with reference to allegorical beast fable, instead reads this as a non-allegorical narrative, until the end of the book, when Pi provides an allegorical reading in which the animal characters represent humans. In contrast, in The City and the City, China Mieville plays with the reader’s allegorical intuition by activating it with strange details and then offering no clear target domain for projection. The strangeness of the story, of two cities inhabiting the same space, suggests political allegory, but the novel resists allegorical interpretation. The “weird” experience of reading these books derives in part from the unusual ways the authors manipulate their readers’ allegorical intuitions.


Allegory, cognitive approach, Yann Martel, Life of Pi, China Mieville, The City and the City


English Language and Literature

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