Obituary: Emma Kafalenos, honorary senior lecturer in Arts & Sciences, 80

Emma Kafalenos, honorary senior lecturer in comparative literature, died at her home on Sunday, December 29, 2019. She was 80.

Kafalenos was a beloved teacher in Arts & Sciences as well as a renowned scholar in the field of narratology. In her 2006 book, Narrative Causalities, she made important contributions to narrative theory and posited a method for interpreting the sequences of events in stories with unconventional structures. She was also the president of the International Society for the Study of Narrative in 2013. Her comparative literature courses were popular with students for their Socratic energy and innovative subjects, including classes about postmodern fiction and graphic novels and the literature and art of nineteenth-century Europe.

“Her devotion to the field of comparative literature was absolute, her contribution to the teaching of comparative arts without equal,” recalled Gerhild Williams, vice provost and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor of German. “Emma and I regularly spent time together sharing meals and conversations about our families, our profession, and our plans for the future. I am grateful for having known Emma as a friend.”

Robert Hegel, the Liselotte Dieckmann Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, was a longtime colleague of Kafalenos. He remembers her devotion to her students and the development of the field of narratology. “She was tremendously well-read,” he noted, “and she could always be depended upon to raise interesting questions for every speaker to ponder.”

Other colleagues remember the profound effect that Kafalenos had on the way that her colleagues and students thought about literature.

Erin McGlothlin, chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, was a beginning scholar when Kafalenos took the extra time to respond in great detail to her first submission to the journal Narrative. “I was so surprised that she would spend such time and energy on something that wasn’t an official obligation,” McGlothlin recalled. “But that was Emma; she gave of herself and her mind so freely because she was passionately devoted to her intellectual pursuits and the profession that she had chosen. She was, so to speak, all in.”

Said professor of drama and comparative literature Robert Henke, “Over the years that I knew her, I observed something, corroborated by others close to her, that I came to call the ‘Emma effect:’ the fact that one always felt smarter and more lively after a conversation with her.”

Emma Kafalenos was born in Montgomery City, Missouri, in 1939. She received her doctorate in comparative literature from Washington University in 1974 and taught comparative literature and arts there for over 40 years. She is survived by her sons Paul and Rob and her daughter-in-law, Rob’s wife, Yeonmi Bae.

A memorial service will be held on April 11 at 11 am in the Whittemore House.