Consider the Relation Between Text and Paratext Essay

In this essay the different relations which exist between the text written by an author and the paratext will be analyzed. Special attention will be paid to the paratext belonging to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Secondary sources will be consulted in order to obtain important information about paratext, its definition and gain an insight into the uses of this paratext. First of all, we need a clear definition of this term in order to know what we are talking about. In Genette words, it can be said that: A literary work consists, entirely or essentially, of a text […].

But this text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations. And although we do not always know whether these productions are to be regarded as belonging to the text, in any case they surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it […]. These accompanying productions, which vary in extent and appearance, constitute what I have called elsewhere the work’s paratext (1997:1).

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Rarely a book can be found just with the main text written by the author. It is usually complemented and accompanied by the paratext, which is what allows the writer’s text to become a real book, one which can be presented to the public. Thanks to the paratext, the reader who faces a text does not start from nothing, but from a first hypothesis offered by the paratext which will go changing during the lecture. As we have seen in Genette’s description, the paratext can be composed of many elements. All these elements work together to produce an effect on the reader.

Sometimes, the purpose of the paratext can be to reinforce a sense of verisimilitude or credibility of the text. It must be remembered that the novel had to open its way through other genres when it appeared in the 18th century. At first it came approaching or pretending to be other kind of text. In the case of Defoe’s Crusoe, the story tries to appear as a real text, an autobiography written by Robinson Crusoe himself. In order to increase this effect of realism, there are certain elements of the paratext which work in that way.

First we can see a preface where the supposed Editor explains the real origin of the text, as can be seen when he explains that “the Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any appearance of Fiction in it” (2007:3). Second, a map can be seen showing the situation of Crusoe’s Island, an island which is not real, but which is inserted in a real map of the world. This again reinforces this sense of realism; although this map was not inserted in the book until the fourth edition, and this is because not all the paratext of a book is included since the first moment.

Third, attention should be paid to the original title page which was included in the book and which is maintained in the Oxford’s 2007 edition. The title page or cover goes as follows: The life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast of Shore by Shipwreck, where in all the Men perished but himself.

With An account how he was at last as strangely delive’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself. (2007:1). When this page is read, it can be noticed that the name of the author is absent; it seems that the text has been written by Crusoe in an attempt to reinforce this realism which has been already mentioned. Perhaps, in an attempt to sell more copies, they tried to make it appear as an autobiography, but there might be other reasons for this kind of efforts.

In the case of other texts like Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, the effort seems more plausible to have been made looking to intensify the ability and the effect of this book to teach a moral lesson. But this is not always like this; paratext does not always go this way. On the other hand, we can find novels where the paratext does not try to hide the fact that the novel is a fictional work; this is the case of Johnson’s Rasselas, where the original title page goes as follow: “The Prince of Abissinia.

A Tale. In Two Volumes” (2009:1). As it can be seen, the word ‘tale’ appears clearly, showing that the work is not a real story. There may be many reasons for this. The book might not be trying to give a moral lesson and then not looking for the reinforcement of appearing as a real story; or it might be that this novel, having been published for the first time in 1759, belongs to a now well-established genre which does not need to hide anymore, or pretend to be other genre.

But not only new works suffer changes in the paratext when they are published for the first time because of the situation of the genre in the moment of the publication. Books can change their paratext when they are reissued in new editions. The edition of Robinson Crusoe published by Oxford in 2007 contains different paratext than the one published in the 18th century. We have to bear in mind that different publications of a book can be directed to different ‘intended readers’. For example, the version we have used in this module contains one third of its length in paratext.

It has the cover and title page, the contents page, acknowledgements page, a long introduction with the selected bibliography, a chronology of Daniel Defoe, the map which was included in the fourth edition of the book, the original cover page, the preface, appendix 1, an appendix 2 with the chronology of Robinson Crusoe, textual notes, explanatory notes, a glossary and other elements of paratext. A book with such a big quantity of paratextual elements perhaps is directed to people who are studying the book in detail.

If we look for other version intended for people who just want to read the book for pleasure, it wouldn’t contain this quantity of paratext. If we read a version for children, we can see that it contains more illustrations and not much information added as paratext. If we read a translated version into other languages and intended for people from other countries, we will see that certain explanatory elements like foot notes might be added to explain certain customs of describe certain regions of a foreign country to people who know nothing about them.

The glossary and explanatory notes are also abundant in this edition of Defoe’s novel. A lot of expressions and words need to be explained to the readers in order to avoid confusion, because the meaning might has change and certain senses of the words can be obsolete or unfamiliar. A clear example of this misunderstanding which can happen and need special attention is the difference between the two nouns which compose the title of the novel by Jane Austen which has been studied in this module, this is, Sense and Sensibility, a novel written openly as a fictional work in a time when the novel was well known and settled as a genre.

These explanatory elements are especially useful when we read classics. These books which were written long time ago and intended for another reader wouldn’t be completely understood by us if it wasn’t for these elements which make the process of reading much easier, pleasant, and complete. Not without reason Genette says that the paratext is a place situated between the main text and the outside, a place where we are offered the possibility o go on to the text or leave it, a tool which guides us through the process of reading. As a conclusion, it can be said that paratext is a very important element in a book; a text can barely be understood as a book without paratext. Paratext comprehend a group of elements which attract our attention in a first moment, and which guide us in the process of reading if we decide to do so. They can tell us what we are going to read and how we are going to do it, whether it is as a real or as a fictional work.

Paratext can contain valuable information which allows us to understand the main text completely and in the proper way. They may vary in different editions of the same work, attending to the needs of the intended reader. Paratext can make the task of reading a book affordable for children, people with not much knowledge of the place and customs of the topic he is going to read about, and contribute with enriching advanced information for students interested in going more deeply into the subject.

Certain books, like the classics, would be hard to understand completely if we did not have paratextual elements like glossaries and foot notes. We would lose certain senses of words and phrases. Some functions of novels, like teaching moral lessons to the reader, would be harder to achieve; and other novels, like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, would lose part of its realism, which was an important element for the novel in its beginnings.


* Defoe, D. (2007). Robinson Crusoe. (Oxford World Classics) Oxford: Oxford University Press * Genette, G., Lewin, [Translator] Jane E. (1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. * Johnson, S. (2009). The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. (Oxford World Classics) Oxford: Oxford University Press. * Prévost, A. (2004) Manon Lescaut, (Oxford World Classics). Oxford: Oxford University Press