The Adulterous Woman, Part 2: Suspense, Surprise, Primacy and Recency

About a year ago I was teaching Genesis 4 in a GD class that included the stake RS president. As we worked through the opening verses, she raised her hand and with some consternation reported that it looked like someone didn’t much care for Cain. Mentally, I gave her high marks for reading but when it came to verbalizing a response, I had to disabuse her of the idea that the Bible is “neutral.” The Bible is a great piece of ideological reading. Good readers are aware of its trick and techniques. Here’s a selection with some applicability to the story of the Adulterous Woman.

Suspense and Surprise

On one level, suspense and surprise are simply no-brainers. Everybody has seen a horror flick. A group of young women short on brassieres, brains, and batteries descend into a basement to investigate a noise. This is suspense. What will happen? And when something happens, you’re surprised. Although you now know what happened, it wasn’t what you expected…

But you would be amazed at how many readers of the Bible are either unaware or unresponsive in their study. It’s one of the reasons why folks sometimes think that Biblical narrative is boring. The absence of suspense and surprise pretty much defines boring.

So suspense is a state of uncertainty about what will happen or how something will turn out. It arises from an incomplete knowledge. Surprise, on the other hand, occurs when we find out what happens next. The degree of surprise is proportional to the distance between our expectation and what actually happens (Resseguie, Narrative, 202). The best stories are those that create a chain of suspense and surprise drawing us forward into the world so created. If your reading dissipates or destroys suspense and surprise, there may be something amiss. (Or you may be a h-c nerd, too.)

Closely related to suspense and surprise is the matter of closure. Ending and closure are not necessarily the same thing. Soap operas make it abundantly clear that neither is essential to a successful story. At the most familiar level, closure is a resolution of the narrative’s central conflict. In fact, there are two levels or types of closure. One is closure at the level of action or expectations; the other is closure at the level of questions (Abbott, Narrative, 53-57).

Many biblical stories come to closure on both levels. Consider the story of the man healed on the Sabbath (Mt 12:9-14):

Moving on from there, he went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man there who had a withered hand. They questioned him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable a person is than a sheep. So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him to put him to death.

The expectations raised by the appearance of a man with a withered hand are met as he is healed. The questions raised are also answered – it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. So narrowly considered the story has closure on both levels. But the last sentence, the first notification in Matthew that elements of the Jewish elite seek Jesus’ life, is a “hook” that creates more suspense. This is the next link in the suspense / surprise chain and we must read on to find out how the plotting will turn out.

Although most Gospel stories come to closure on the level of expectation, there are many that do not come to closure on the level of questions. Consider the story of the leper who approaches Jesus at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 8:1-4):

When Jesus came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” His leprosy was cleansed immediately. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”

The expectation created by the approach of a leper is met: the leper is cured and sent away to resume his life in the community. But at the level of questions, something remains. Why did Jesus command the leper to silence? It’s the [in]famous messianic secret, of course, and you are invited to provide your own response. But first you really should read on.

So…do you see how paying formal attention to surprise, suspense, and their resolution in narrative closure can draw you into the story and force you to read more closely? And do you also see that when a story does not close it is not necessary to continue to scratch at it until it does? Stories that fail to close do not necessarily fail.

Primacy and Recency

A group of narrative theorists known in English dork circles as the Russian Formalists opened up a fruitful avenue of inquiry by distinguishing between what they called the fabula and the sjužet. The fabula is the events of the story in the order in which they happened. The sjužet is the events as they appear in the narrative. Suppose the fabula appears as A, B, C, D. The sjužet may also appear as A, B, C, D, but then again it may not. It could go A, C, D, B, or D, A, B, C, or whatever.

To English dorks, this means that plots do not need to follow either a logical or chronological order. An author may withhold or reveal information to create a variety of effects. To Mogget, it means that the author is trying to mess with Mogget’s head and the appropriate attention will yield insight. Here’s a story in which the fabula and sjužet are not quite aligned (Mk 5:25-29):

There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years. She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction.

The fabula looks like this:

A: The woman began to hemorrhage twelve years ago
B: She saw a bazillion doctors, suffered under their treatments, and got worse
C: She heard of Jesus
D: She decided that if she touched him, she would be healed
E: She touched him
F: She was healed

But the sjužet, the report of the story, is ordered slightly differently:

A: The woman began to hemorrhage twelve years ago
B: She saw a bazillion doctors, suffered under their treatments, and got worse
C: She heard of Jesus
E: She touched him
D: She decided that if she touched him, she would be healed
F: She was healed

In the sjužet the content of her faith is narrated after the touch and just before the report of her healing. This strategy tightens the correspondence between her faith and her healing. Jesus will make this link explicit in Mk 5:34 when he says “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”

The ordering of the narrative is important because what comes first will affect the reader’s appreciation of the rest of the story. This is called the primacy effect. What comes last provides the recency effect and may or may not alter the primacy effect. In the NT, the primacy and recency effects tend to interact in three ways:

1) The primacy effect is reinforced by the recency effect.

2) The primacy effect is altered by the recency effect.

3) The primacy effect is shattered by the recency effect.

I’ll let you guess which of the three provides the most memorable stories…

The opening verses of the triumphal entry in Mark provide an example in which the primacy effect is reinforced by the recency effect. (Mk 11:1-6):

When they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately on entering it, you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone should say to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ reply, ‘The Master has need of it and will send it back here at once.'” So they went off and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They answered them just as Jesus had told them to, and they permitted them to do it.

In the first sentences you get the impression that Jesus is totally in control of the entire process. When it plays out according to his instructions, your impression is confirmed. The recency effect has reinforced the primacy effect.

This particular interaction between primacy and recency plays out in many smaller stories, but it is central to the larger story of the Fourth Gospel. In the first four chapters the report of the Word, the wine miracle at Cana, the cleansing of the temple, the interview with Nicodemus, and the whole business of the Samaritan woman create a strong primacy effect. Jesus is a powerful, omniscient figure sent by God with full authority to speak for him. This effect is not overcome when opponents crop up beginning in chapter 5. And in the end, being lifted up on the cross is but the first step in Jesus’ return to Father who originally sent him down.

The difference between a recency effect that merely alters a primacy effect and one that shatters the latter is not hard and fast. Here’s an example of one in which the recency effect alters (or maybe shatters) the primacy effect (Mk 10:28-30):

Peter began to say to him, “We have given up everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.

The primacy effect is created by the listing of good things the disciples will have in this life. The impression of uninterrupted bliss, however, is marred by the notice of persecution in this life before a return to “good things” occurs in the notice about eternal life. Life as a disciple is not quite all good things.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, like the Gospel of John, also create a strong primacy effect with their opening chapters. The infancy narratives and the baptism and temptation narratives establish Jesus as something more than others. But this effect, I think, is altered by the crucifixion and resurrection. In these stories, the reader learns what it means to be Son of God and king of the Jews and it’s not quite what you’d have expected from the infancy narratives.

Finally, we come to the stories in which the recency effect totally obliterates the primacy effect. Surely the most famous of these is the sealed book scene from my beloved Apocalypse. In chapter 5, John reports a sealed book in the right hand of God and a mighty angel who searches from someone to open it. When his search is fruitless, John begins to cry. He is comforted by one of the elders, saying (5:5):

Do not weep. The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed, enabling him to open the scroll with its seven seals.

Now what you expect is some mighty figure from the OT who has a “root of David” feel and gives you that “lion of the tribe of Judah” vibe. But what you get is something far different (5:6):

Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders a lamb, which stood as it had been slain.

Now that’ll give you something to think about! Revelation is a great book for overturning expectations. It creates the expectation of a final, great, battle between Good and Evil and then subverts the expectation by making it clear that the only battle that really matters has already been won.

By a Lamb.

Next time: text-critical issues and narrative theory.

4 Replies to “The Adulterous Woman, Part 2: Suspense, Surprise, Primacy and Recency”

  1. So what? Am I supposed to now go and apply all this stuff to the text at hand myself? You really aren’t going to do all the work for me? For shame Mogget! How dare you make this into some kind of lesson for me to apply! Bad kitty! Bad!

  2. Yes, I am going to do the work for you. But not until I’ve developed the theory and shown it’s relevance in passages outside the one I’m intending to work with. It’s much more suasive like this.

  3. Also easier to digest. I think if I had to read it all at one go, I’d overload. It’s great and interesting, just very deep and fraught with new words.

    Words I haven’t seen before… that’s something of a rarity. 🙂

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