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Book Reviews / Recensions

Alice Bell and Marie-Laure Ryan (eds.), Possible Worlds Theory and Contemporary Narratology

Baharak Darougari
p. 171-173
Bibliographical reference

Alice Bell and Marie-Laure Ryan (eds.), Possible Worlds Theory and Contemporary Narratology, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2019, 343 p. ISBN 978-0803294998.

Full text

1The compatibility of the theory of possible worlds (PW), originally developed in 1960s by analytic philosophers (Kripke, Lewis, Hintikka, Plantinga, and Rescher) with the studies devoted to the nature of fictionality has fascinated literary scholars ever since its introduction to the field of formal semantics. After Lewis had adapted the theory to suit fictional worlds in 1970s, theoreticians and critics such as Eco, Pavel, Dolezel and Ryan developed the PW theory to be applied to miscellaneous narrative forms. Edited by Alice Bell and Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds Theory and Contemporary Narratology studies the history of PW theory in both philosophy and literature, delineates recent developments, and underlines the significance of PW in postclassical narratology, particularly in interdisciplinary and digital studies.

2The introduction promises a book that will appeal to both language philosophers and literary scholars. Tracing the concept of PW in the works of Hintikka, Kripke, Martin and Lewis, Bell and Ryan explain the core concepts of PW philosophy and demonstrate how the paradigm shift from language as “a universal medium” to language as “calculus” led to the development of the theory and its transference to literary studies. The introduction then surveys the contributions made by Pavel, Lewis, Dolezel, Eco and Ryan to adapt PW from semantics to literature, and outlines possible applications which will be expanded in four sections entitled “Theoretical Perspectives and Possible Worlds,” “Possible Worlds and Cognition,” “Possible Worlds and Literary Genres” and “Possible Worlds and Digital Media,” each containing three chapters penned by reputable international scholars.

3The first section studies the theoretical complexities of PW theory. The late Dolezel in “Porfry’s Tree for the Concept of Fictional worlds” creates a branching tree of binary oppositions and maps out the readers' journey toward fictional worlds. At each “node,” he justifies his choices, explains his theory of fictionality, and educates the readers on the debates concerning the theory and its literary applications. Marie-Laure Ryan follows him with her “From Possible Worlds to Storyworlds: on the Worldness of Narrative Representation” which revisits the concepts of storyworlds from the standpoint of PW theory. She distinguishes three types of storyworlds based on their “distance” from the actual world according to the magnitude (“size”) of the data they offer, and their ontological “completeness” on which she elaborated by showing how Racine’s Phèdre and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot provide “worldness.” Marina Grishakova in “Interface Ontologies: On the Possible, Virtual and Hypothetical in Fiction” studies the alternative voices found in a text by introducing the concept of “virtual voice” in narrative where the narrative voice is affected by one or several narrative agents. Studying Nabokov’s Lolita and Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Grishakova demonstrates how the fusion of virtual and actual voices creates ontological ambiguity which affects the narrative dynamic.

4The second part centers on the role of the reader in the cognitive process. Employing enactivist theory of cognition as complementary to PW theory, Marco Caracciolo in “Ungrounding Fictional Worlds: An Enactivist Perspective on the ‘Worldlikeness’ of Fiction” argues “worldlikeness” of fictional texts is directly affected by the readers’ experience of the real world, and constructed through “rhythmic transactions” between the reader and the text (128). Caracciolo’s analysis of world-building strategies in Lethem’s A Girl in Landscape illustrates the significance of readers’ experience and imagination in the construction of worldlike fictional worlds. “Postmodern Play with World: The Case of At Swim-Two-Birds” by W. Michelle Wang explains how the readers overcome the “cognitive disorientation” created by complicated postmodern narratives (133). Employing Ryan’s “principal of minimal departure” (imagining the fictional world similar to the actual unless told otherwise) and Pavel’s “principal of maximal departure” in an analysis of O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, Wang illustrates how the position, frequency, and nature of the departures from the real world guide the readers in their journey between the mentioned extremities. Jan Alber explains how readers strive for coherence when confronting inconsistencies in “Logical Contradictions, Possible Worlds Theory, and the Embodied Mind.” Drawing on the enactivist theory, Alber suggests that reading challenging texts triggers an emotional response which readers later formulate into a comprehensive interpretation according to their previous experiences. Analyzing three demanding texts, Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Johnson’s “Broad Thoughts from A Home” and Heinlein’s “All You Zombies,” Alber demonstrates how logical contradictions, when processed through an emotional and an intellectual phase, result in miscellaneous interpretations.

5Part III demonstrates how PW theory may be employed to investigate the complexities of fiction that diverges from mainstream norms. Christoph Bartsch’s “Escape into Alternative Worlds and Time(s) in Jack London’s The Star Rover” uses Lewis’ external (“empirical”) and personal time (“character time”) to explain Darrell Standing and his avatars’ unnatural time travel (184). Putting the fantastic fiction in its historical context, Thomas Martin’s “‘As Many Worlds as Original Artist’: Possible World Theory and the Literature of Fantasy” explains why fantastic fiction has historically been overshadowed by realist fiction and disregarded by critics despite its popularity with readers. Drawing on the works of Dolezel, Pavel, and Ryan, and reviewing Mendlesohn’s taxonomy and Trail’s typology of fantastic literature, Martin recognizes the immense potential of PW to study and redefine fantastic stories as “ontologically other worlds” (218). Mattison Schuknecht’s chapter, “The Best/Worst of All Possible Worlds: Utopia, Dystopia and Possible World Theory,” employs two PW approaches to define utopian and dystopian worlds: Ryan’s concept of the world-external which offers nine categories to determine the accessibility relations of the fictional world from the actual world, and Dolezel’s the world-internal, a modal system for plot analysis. Adding a new category, “a/meliorate,” to Ryan’s accessibility relations and employing Dolezel’s deontic modality, Schuknecht presents the readers with a new understanding of utopian and dystopian fictional worlds, and points to minimal conflict in utopian and maximal conflict in dystopian fiction as the reasons behind the fall of the former and the rise of the latter.

6Part IV explores the reciprocal dialogue between digital media and PW theory. In “Digital Fictionality: Possible Worlds Theory, Ontology, and Hyperlinks,” Bell employs PW theory to suggest three categories of ontological ambiguity caused by external hyperlinks in hypertexts: ontological flickering, ontological refreshment, and ontological merging. Bell’s analysis of Olson and Guthrie’s 10:01, Campbell and Alston’s Clearance, and Prickitt’s We Are Angry illustrates how the self-reflexivity and the reader immersion demonstrated in each case serve thematic purposes, and that such ontologically hesitant texts belong to a post-postmodern culture. Françoise Lavocat’s “Possible Worlds, Virtual Worlds” highlights the compatibility of PW theory with digital studies by examining the ontological status of digital worlds in multiplayer spaces and single player video games. With the help of Dolezel’s modalities, she then compares the virtual worlds of metaverses such as Second Life and MMORGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) such as World of Warcraft in terms of virtuality, modal characteristics, rule specification and ethical dilemmas. Daniel Punday in “Rereading Manovich’s Algorithm: Genre and Use in Possible Worlds Theory” points out the similarities between Manovich’s understanding of “interface” and its separation from data in digital media in comparison to PW’s view of fictional worlds and their dissociation from the text. Punday shows how Manovich’s approach framed in PW theory may be employed to study multimedia and transfictional narratives, and uses the metaphor of algorithm to explain how readers/users understand and analyze such texts. A critical reaction to the rich arguments of this groundbreaking volume in a postface by Thomas Pavel, the celebrated PW scholar, provides the readers with a though-provoking finale.

7To conclude, this well-written and intriguing volume accentuates the potential of PW theory in narratological studies, demonstrates the compatibility of the theory and digital media studies, and encourages further explorations, particularly into interdisciplinary domains. True to its title, this captivating book opens the gates of possible worlds for enthusiastic scholars.

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Bibliographical reference

Baharak Darougari, “Alice Bell and Marie-Laure Ryan (eds.), Possible Worlds Theory and Contemporary NarratologyRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines, 54 | 2021, 171-173.

Electronic reference

Baharak Darougari, “Alice Bell and Marie-Laure Ryan (eds.), Possible Worlds Theory and Contemporary NarratologyRecherches anglaises et nord-américaines [Online], 54 | 2021, Online since 01 February 2024, connection on 20 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Baharak Darougari

Université de Strasbourg/UR SEARCH 2325

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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