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This review appeared in Volume 10 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Modalities in Fiction

by Thomas F. Broden

Semiotics and the Modern Quebec Novel: A Greimassian Analysis of Thériault's "Agaguk", by Paul Perron, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996, xii, 170 pp., ISBN 0-8020-0926-3.

Paul Perron, the indefatigable semiotic woodsman associated with the project initiated by A. J. Greimas, has authored articles on topics ranging from Malory's Le Morte d'Artur, to Jesuits' reports on (North American) New France and to twentieth-century French poetry, and has co-authored such books as A. J. Greimas and Narrative Cognition (with Marcel Danesi) and Balzac: Sémiotique du personnage romanesque (with Roland Le Huenen). Furthermore, if the English-speaking world enjoys access today to almost all of Greimas' work, and to a sampling of related semiotic research from France, it is largely due to Perron's unstinting efforts both as editor or co-editor (see the important Perron (ed.) 1989 and Perron and Collins (eds.) 1989) and as translator. Working alone or in collaboration with Frank Collins, he has translated over half a dozen book-length French publications in semiotics and semantics, including the ground-breaking Semiotics of Passions by Greimas and Jacques Fontanille, and the recent Meaning and Textuality by François Rastier.

Written in French by a white Québec author in 1951 and celebrated as a compelling novel during the Quiet Revolution, Agaguk traces a young couple's rebellion against society and elders, their utopian escape to the wilderness, and their progressive evolution as persons and as a couple, spurred notably by sexuality and by procreation. Set in the far upper regions of North America with Inuits as protagonists, the book depicts interactions between Canadians of European ancestry and First-Nation cultures in Canada and suggests how modernization has affected traditional culture, attentive to its impact on identity as well as on living standards. Agaguk and Semiotics and the Modern Quebec Novel's (SMQN) textual analysis thus tread on issues currently debated throughout North and South America where European and indigenous cultures have collided, clashed, and coexisted (cf. Collin 1994, Condon and Stern 1993, Deloria 1998, Jaimes (ed.) 1992, McLean 1995, Reimer 1996, Sequoya-Magdaleno 1995, Stephenson 1999).

One of the main challenges SMQN sets for itself is to develop a succinct global analysis of a relatively lengthy text such as a novel, whose dimensions prohibit the close analysis traditionally associated with Paris School semiotics, more often calibrated at the paragraph than the chapter. Perron emphasizes the necessity to define a semiotic model specific to the novel as genre, rather than simply applying a general or universal model (19), and finds its key components in the dynamics of the communicative situation (narrator-narratee), and in the ways that an elementary actionlogic linked to a handful of key modal values interfaces with dialectical processes that underpin the unfolding of events.

As an example of the first, pragmatic component, SMQN shows that the portraits in the novel depend crucially on who is sketching them and to whom they are destined. This rhetorical structure can generate gender contrasts: in the case of Iriook, her desirable body serves as a focal point of the portrait, whereas her mate Agaguk is never eroticized by the text in similar fashion (68). Furthermore, the modalities selected play a key role in the same portraits, as characters are typically evaluated as to the nature and the extent of their knowledge, power, will, and duty. One of the characteristics of the novel as genre is that it constitutes such categories according to two distinct modes, achronic and dialectical, such that the text continuously builds up discursive entities that last and endure throughout the text, such as a natural setting or the genetic determinants of a character, even as it constantly refashions those entities, endowing them with new traits or rendering them obsolete, transforming them and remaking the framework in which they functioned (cf. 139).

After an introductory chapter that situates Agaguk among the principal fictional currents that have appeared in French-speaking Canada over the decades (3-18), Chapter Two surveys various propositions in semiotics relevant to the cultural and literary analysis of a novel (19-32), while Chapter Three provides a synopsis of Agaguk. Chapter Five examines the types of material and moral objects sought by the Inuits and the central couple in the book. Chapters Seven through Nine lay out the system of modal values (will, duty 1-2, knowledge 1-3, and power) that characterizes the subjects (92-112), and carefully charts the central moments in the narrative transformations that mark the novel (113-134).

In its study of the object, SMQN charts the multi-faceted and ambiguous impact of white man's goods on Inuit culture (49-50). On the one hand, implements such as rifles and steel blades not only foster a richer bounty in the hunt, but also introduce greater freedom and flexibility in social roles, including in the gendered division of labor (as Iriook herself demonstrates after the attack of the white wolf). On the other hand, the foreign tools foster a dependency on the industrialized economy and a loss of earlier skills handed down from generation to generation, while the social liberalization they encourage is accompanied by the decline of internal social cohesion and traditional values, and by the creeping invasion of Western consumerism and commercialism. The analysis of objects in Agaguk thus leads directly to tensions, contradictions, and changes in the subjects and in the social space evoked in the text.

Alongside these material objects, SMQN identifies three steps in the couple's progressive acquisition of higher "mythical" (moral, spiritual) objects and its break with ambient amoral society, be it Inuit or white: a) a minimal, quasi animal level of awareness (base instincts); b) a generous human existence (sexuality and procreation add soul and heart); c) a relationship of love based on equality and reciprocity. Changes in the characters delineate stages in an overall narrative progression, writing variation into ultimate transformation: "Each completed totality, subsequently detotalized, forms a provisional phase to be negated within the framework of an ongoing process ... this dialectical process is eventually suspended when the ultimate values of the narrative are revealed" (65). According to SMQN, the values disclosed at the end of the text concern the ethical superiority of recognizing the (subaltern) other as unique and equal to ego, and specifically, of accepting both the masculine (power-seeking) and the feminine (generous) sides of the person. Making difficult choices and coming to such a novel understanding free the individual from the numbing conventional prison of the non-subject (actant as "they" or "it") and let it accede to the status of the subject (actant as "I" and "I and you"). Agaguk thus forefronts "the axiological structures that ultimately distinguish the chosen, individual, cognizant, moral subject, capable of love, from the ignorant and anonymous, amoral, collective non-subject" (134).

Elements of recent Paris semiotic theory (sensitization, cf. Greimas and Fontanille 1993; tensivity and aspect, cf. Fontanille and Zilberberg 1998) aid in showing that accession to a higher stage is marked in the novel by changes in the sensate body, providing light (cf. enlightenment) in the first transition, then warmth in the second, and joy and intense sexual ecstasy in both (66-67, cf. 140). The narrative unfolding of the sexual scenes, including and especially the crucial transformational sequences, follows a different "aspectualized tensivity" from that of the daily norm:

The modal system of SMQN distinguishes between external duty (duty 1) that a transcendent sender imposes on a non-subject, and internal duty (duty 2) that a subject imposes on itself. Four domains of knowledge are identified:

A. Practical knowledge, closely related to power, and stemming from oral tradition, accumulated experience, and collective understanding; among the Inuits, it includes such techniques as hunting game, then skinning, smoking, and guarding it.

B. Other forms of knowledge:

    Instinctive (e.g., premonitions, innate awareness; masculine);
      Social (e.g., a leader's strategies, or a sense of what a community wants,how it reacts to situations);
        Mythical (cf. spiritual; feminine).

Corresponding to the successive stages of the subject as it evolves toward personal maturation and growth, the types of knowledge entail contrasts between practical techniques and more abstract understanding and insight, between collective doxa and individual invention and discovery, between masculine wisdom and feminine intuition. The nuanced approach to the modalities, including insights as to how the social dimension impinges on what can sometimes be considered a purely individualistic problematic, remains one of the hallmarks of the essay (see already the treatment of power and knowledge in the introductory chapter, 6).

For its narrative syntax, SMQN elaborates a basic utterance frame in three steps (109-110; cf. Greimas 1987, 84-105 and Greimas and Courtés 1982, "Actant" and "Syntax, Surface Narrative").

1) S -- O
[S = subject, O = object]

Instead of looking first to a typology or an inventory of existents, SMQN (and Paris semiotics in general) defines subject and object in the relation that constitutes both. This syntactic approach founds subject and object together in the concept of value, and typically results in constructing them in time and in process.

2) S1 --> O <-- S2
[S1 = subject, S2 = anti-subject]

This second, ternary utterance points to the key role polemics plays in the semiotic analysis of narrative discourse.

3) [S3 (S1 --> O <-- S2)]
[S3 = sender]

The quaternary formula introduces a hierarchically superior actant, the sender, which exercises power over the subject, and to which the latter is then related in the mode of duty. The insertion of the sender instance introduces interaction alongside the existing action on the world (S -- O), so that analysis attends not just to events such as fashioning tools and other goods, but also to strategies of leadership, manipulation, and seduction that subjects deploy vis-à-vis each other. This last formula raises a number of issues, of which we can briefly examine three.

Firstly, both logically and traditionally, the "sender" implies a "receiver" not included in the utterance. Elsewhere, in an alternate actantial schema, SMQN formally incorporates the receiver as an autonomous instance (83, cf. 59); the category offers an economical and clear way to differentiate self- from other-directed transformations, a distinction crucial to Agaguk.

Secondly, the parenthesis that surrounds the formula (S --> O <-- S2) and separates it from the sender constructs the latter as an additional agent acting on the ternary proposition as a whole. This move appears promising, attracting attention to the dynamic between the sender and the nexus of value and polemics constituted globally as a situation. On the other hand, the disposition should not let one forget that the anti-subject S2 can be accompanied in a text by an anti-sender S4, such that S2 entertains a complex semiotic existence outside its tensions with S1 vis-à-vis the common object. Nor can the formulation let one neglect the extensive direct interaction between sender and subject, and potentially between sender and object.

Thirdly, a crucial criterion given for the sender is that it be irreversibly superior to the subject; otherwise, one is dealing not with a sender at all, but simply with another subject considered as an equal. SMQN precludes exceptions to or reversals of the hierarchy: the sender-subject axis "does not admit involution," for such reversibility always implies a subject-other subject relation, which is "egalitarian by nature, since even if there exists a hierarchical relation between actants an inversion of the terms by definition is always possible" (110).

This categorical provision may seem to raise the bar too high, resulting in exclusions of many relations that might appear better characterized as sender-subject than as subject-other subject. For example, the discussion explicitly denies sender status to the powerful Inuit chief Ramook on the basis that he falls from power at the end of the novel, just as it argues that Agaguk as husband doesn't function as sender in his interactions with Iriook as wife at the outset of the story, since even though at that point he has power over her and she is related to him by duty, toward the close of the book he comes to treat her more as an equal. A similar logic prevails in the case of the constable sent to investigate the disappearance of a white trader in the area: "Henderson, who represents all-powerful white man's justice, arrives in the village but is eliminated by the chief and the sorcerer" (110). Since he is later killed, Henderson cannot be considered a sender, even though he be an emissary of "all-powerful white man's justice." Inversely, other representatives of the same white justice are deemed to function as senders, since they do not meet an untimely demise in the novel. Incidental outcomes govern the categorization of economic agents in similar fashion: a white trader (Brown) killed by Agaguk is defined as an egalitarian subject on a par with the Inuits, while one who survives (McTavish) thereby accedes to the rank of sender (110).

The salutary rationale behind restricting the attribution of sender status can be appreciated simply by inverting the process and bestowing the role of sender on every subject S who transmits something to a second subject S', or even to every subject S who momentarily holds sway over a second subject S'. The textual and/or cultural role of sender entails an enduring and consistent pattern of power and obligation, and not just an isolated incident. Yet SMQN risks falling into the same trap of disproportionality, only with theinverse distribution: an isolated incident such as a death, rather than the global pattern of behavior and attitudes, determines the textual actantial role.

The differend raises the potentially tricky question: where does one draw the line between incident and pattern? at what point does event become structure? First, the tension invites a distinction between the sender as a collective or abstract entity, such as white man's justice, or fate, or History, on the one hand, and individual representatives (incarnations, manifestations, images, etc.) of the sender, on the other, such as a given constable, trader, building, flag, etc. At the socio-semiotic and textual level, Agaguk lashes out against the sender 'white man's justice,' while in a given incident, he kills its representative, trader Brown.

Secondly, a graduated scale would perhaps be of service, of which a bare-bones portion could look something like:

The first two categories describe relations between subject and other subject as peers. In task-prioritized relations, S leads S' on a particular occasion, but does not enjoy overall superiority -- S' could lead S in another situation without fundamentally altering the relationship. The last two categories define the hierarchical axis of sender and subject, whether the modal differentiation between the two agents be relative or categorical. Importantly, for us, any sender remains subject to change, including to the loss of its sender status. The modification may take the form of revolt against the sender and/or its representative(s) (Agaguk, cf. Job) but also of the overthrow of a sender and its possible replacement by another -- in the French cultural imaginary, the Third Estate deposed the ancien régime in 1789. The first two relations can be termed "balanced" and the last two "hierarchical."

Throughout the study, SMQN stays close to the novel, and rewards a reader attentive to distinctions of methodological significance that can be more amply developed in another forum. Perron wisely observes that the goal of this, as of any descriptive endeavor, is not just to apply a preexisting theoretical framework, but to interrogate, test, and develop the approach itself (30). An inductive strategy thus complements the deductive stance. SMQN revises for example the framework of modal analysis inherited from Coquet (1984) that serves as the heart of its narrative study, identifying four rather than three principal modalities in the text, and finding themconcatenated in pairs of pairs rather than in triadic sequences (92-112). The distinction between unidirectional and bidirectional transmissions among subjects takes on key structural importance in the novel, often drawing a contrast between hegemonic relations and egalitarian, reciprocal dynamics (52, 54, 56-57, 62-63, 66, etc.), much as the difference between transitive and "intransitive" (cf. reflexive) transmissions delineates a fundamental opposition between generous and selfish impetuses among the actants.

SMQN represents a lucid study of a significant fictional work, and exemplifies some of the capabilities the Paris School method offers for cultural and literary analysis (cf. also Greimas 1988 and Budnakiewicz 1992). The essay offers a new methodology for analyzing the key modal component of texts, as well.


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Tom Broden is Associate Professor of French at Purdue University. He has published on Marguerite Duras and on the semiotic project initiated by A.J. Greimas in France (articles out or forthcoming in RSSI, Semiotica, The American Journal of Semiotics, Journal of Comparative and General Literature, etc) and is now working on a book that examines the developmnet of Greimassian semiotics in France. He founded the Newsletter for Paris-Greimassian Semiotics and edited it for several years, and is the editor of a project to publish juvenalia by Greimas, including his Sorbonne dissertation on the vocabulary of fashion in 1830 France. Broden is interested in French cultural studies, especially of the Twentieth Century.

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