Blended or Unblended Prose? The Dilemma Between Narrative and Exposition

Karynn Ikeda, English 118, Brown University, 2007

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In his writings from Rambler, Samuel Johnson expresses his views on the nature of fortune from two different angles:

Leviculus shuddered to see himself so near a precipice, and found that he was indebted for his escape to the resentment of the maid, who having assisted Latronia to gain the conquest, quarrelled with her at last about the plunder" (Johnson, Rambler No. 182).

None can tell whether the good that he pursues is not evil in disguise, or whether the next step will lead him to safety or destruction" (Johnson, Rambler No. 184)

Both examples hit on fortune's nature to turn out unexpectedly: the former example through the narrative of Leviculus and the latter through straight exposition. Although Johnson shows equal command of both styles of writing, he does not mix the styles in a single piece. Johnson, instead, chooses to create two separate essays in which one is dominated by narrative and the other by exposition.

By contrast, Michel de Montaigne easily blends narrative and exposition in "Of Cannibals":

After that, they roast him, eat him amongst them, and send some chops to their absent friends. They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment, as the Scythians anciently did, but as a representation of an extreme revenge; as will appear by this: that having observed the inflict another sort of death upon any of them...they thought those people of the other world...did not exercise this sort of revenge without a meaning, and that it must needs be more painful than theirs, they began to leave their old way, and to follow this. I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own.

In this excerpt, Montaigne briefly breaks away from his narrative on the natives of the New World to reflect upon what he has presented. He cautions the reader against dismissing these natives as simply barbarous while bringing it other historical examples to support his commentary. Thus, Montaigne filters his issue through both narrative and exposition, but in a more integrated form than Johnson.


1. What are the advantages and disadvantages to separating narrative from exposition? Is it better for the reader to infer rather than read the commentary?

2. Does the commentary interrupt the flow of the narrative in "Of Cannibals"? Would Johnson's Rambler No. 182 and Rambler No. 184 be more effective if they were combined into one piece?

3. Could "Of Cannibals" be written only in narrative with a brief expository introduction and conclusion as in Johnson's Adventurer No. 84? Would it be as effective getting across Montaigne's point? Or would the reader read the piece as a spectacle of the native's barbaric nature?

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