Study Guide

Narrative Theory Basics

  • Beginnings

    Lit theorists just love to quote them some classics, and this time, they've actually got a point, because big bad Aristotle himself was one of the first people to describe narrative theory. Sure, he didn't call it that, but if you dig on into his Poetics (especially the stuff on tragedy), it's clear that he was a pioneer in narratology.

    Interest in this kind of thing came and went over the centuries. Henry James, for one, wrote an 1884 essay titled "The Art of Fiction" that focused on the topic—but still, it wasn't until the twentieth century that narratology started to be fully recognized and taken seriously.

    As far as its origin story goes, narrative theory owes a lot to structuralism. Structuralism lives up to its name in that it looks at a text in and of itself—it's more interested in the internal laws of the text itself than in things like author, reader, or the social environment in which the text was produced.

    Structuralists get their kicks out of digging beyond a surface reading to find the main narrative devices and character types that give the text its driving force. They also look for common threads. Think of it this way: if you analyze a bunch of texts, you'll probably be able to pinpoint some specific characteristics (or patterns) that you can expect to find in them. This can help you define, say, what makes a fairytale a fairytale, or what makes a detective story a detective story. You can also look for ways in which texts depart from these templates—often for deliberate effect.

    So how did narratology get started? Well, to get our answers, we need to look to the Russian formalists, an influential set of literary critics who were on the scene from the 1910s to about 1930. Formalism hones in on the form rather than the content of texts, and, like structuralism, it isn't too bothered about all that outside stuff. In fact, you could say that that formalism tries to approach literature with more of a scientific outlook.

    One of the earliest and most influential theorists to approach narrative in this light was Vladimir Propp, whose massively influential work, Morphology of the Folktale, was published in 1928 and made an even bigger splash when translated into English in 1958.

    By the 1960s, narratology was flourishing in France—another place where structuralism was a big deal. Bridging the geographical gap was Tzvetan Todorov, who coined the term narratology (or, as the Frenchies insist, narratologie) in 1969. Todorov was Bulgarian but did his doctorate in France under the supervision of Roland Barthes.

    Todorov and Barthes, along with Gérard Genette, talked about the need for a science of narrative. Yeah, sure: literature is often seen as an arts or humanities subject, but structuralists tried to bring a scientific angle to the whole thing.

    We can't talk about the early years of narratology without mentioning one more theorist: Claude Lévi-Strauss. This guy was an anthropologist and so didn't just limit himself to literary criticism, but his focus was always the same: he was all about uncovering structures. Travelling around the world and getting familiar with the stories that people told in places as far-flung as the Amazonian jungle, Lévi-Strauss came to the conclusion that, despite some surface differences, these stories often shared a common structure and used the same sorts of narrative devices.

  • Big Players

    There's a handful of dudes who usually get name-checked in discussions of narrative theory. We're here to tell you all about 'em.

    First on the roster is Vladimir Propp, whose study of Russian folktales ("wonder tales," specifically) was all about getting to the core of these narratives. For Propp, it was important not to get distracted by the seeming variety of these tales but to focus instead on what they've got in common. In the end, Propp found that these tales usually contained 31 narrative functions: they'd start with a family member leaving home and would end with the hero getting married and being rewarded or promoted. Propp also found that there were seven character types, including familiar faces such as the hero, villain, and princess.

    Then there's Tzvetan Todorov, who came up with a model of narrative theory based on what he called equilibrium. Todorov noticed that most narratives start out in a state of equilibrium, or harmony: everything is A-Okay to begin with, but something then happens to throw things out of whack. Once folks realize that something's amiss, they try put things right again. So for Todorov, the driving force of the narrative is the quest to restore equilibrium.

    We can't talk about Todorov without giving a shout-out to his mentor, Roland Barthes, whose many achievements include coming up with a model of narrative analysis. Barthes decided that narratives were made up of five "codes": the hermeneutic or "enigma" code (something that's not explained in the narrative and becomes a mystery); the proairetic or "action" code (an action or event that suggests something is going to happen and gets us wondering about what that something will be); the semantic code (which includes implied meanings or associations we may draw from any part of the text); the symbolic code (meaning at the deeper, structural level of the text); and the cultural code (made up of our shared knowledge of cultural norms).

    According to Barthes, texts may weave theses codes together in different ways, but any text will always have one or more of these codes.

    Claude Lévi-Strauss, on the other hand, was all about those binary oppositions. Er, those what? Well, basically, "binary opposition" is just a fancy-shmancy way to say a pair opposites or contrasts, like black/white or hot/cold. (Lévi-Strauss himself was totally into raw/cooked.)

    During his many travels, Lévi-Strauss realized that these sorts of contrasts play a major role in shaping human thought and culture—including literature. We're not gonna argue, either: who doesn't instantly recognize binaries such as good/bad, male/female, young/old, and hero/villain? These contrasts are super obvious in fairytales but, as Lévi-Strauss argues, they're a major force in cultural thinking and in narrative structures in general.

    And finally, these dudes may not be household names, but F. K. Stanzel and Gérard Genette are a couple of guys whose work took narratology to a new level. Stanzel highlighted the importance of narration in its various forms, outlining three "narrative situations": authorial (when the narrator is outside the characters' world); first person (when the narrator is part of the characters' world); and figural (when there's no obvious narrator—it's as though we're seeing through the eyes of one of the characters).

    Genette, meanwhile, though narrative was made up of five key ingredients: order, frequency, duration, voice, and mood. By giving examples from the writings of Marcel Proust, in particular, Genette helped show that narratology doesn't just apply to basic stories like fairy tales but can also be applied to some of the most sophisticated texts in the world, like Proust's.

  • Key Debates

    Though lit crit peeps use the term "narrative theory" like it ain't no thang, not everyone has approached narratives in the same way. Some narratologists have taken on a cognitive approach that explores links between narrative structure and the mind. This includes the role that narratives play in making sense of both our own and other people's actions—as well as the world in which we live.

    Other theorists have taken a rhetorical angle. For them, narrative is an act of communication—its purpose is to tell a person (or group of people) something. While this approach may explore the individual parts of a narrative, it's more interested in the bigger picture. These kinds of critics are into thinking about how texts are created to affect readers in certain ways, (whether the author is conscious of this or not.

    Some other narratologists get their nerd on by studying forms of narrative they feel have been given raw deal. Feminist theorists, for example, have pointed out that narrative theory has often focused on a single kind of narrative—basically, the kind studied by Propp and Todorov. That's led to the idea that this particular form of the narrative is the only form that narrative can take, and so it gets all the glory.

    Feminists, on the other hand, argue that women may write different types of narratives—narratives that we should take seriously rather than ignore or run down. Feminist theorists also think that structuralism in general can be way too narrow in its focus on the text alone; these theorists say that we need to think about historical and social factors too.

    Women's writing isn't the only area that some people feel has been left out in the cold: academics working with children's literature have made similar complaints, and the same goes for "unnatural" narratives. By "unnatural," we're talking about experimental texts that don't follow the usual template and mess around with time and space.

    This isn't a new thing, and it doesn't just apply to "artsy" texts like Lewis Carroll's Alice stories and Jonathan Swift's satires, which have intentionally screwy narrative structures. Even when a narrative seems to be realistic, there's no reason why it can't become unrealistic at certain points—in fact, this can be a pretty effective device. Theorists have therefore been annoyed that, despite all this, narratology has often been all about realism.

    In addition to these debates, theorists have sometimes had different ideas when it comes to definitions. We've already seen that Genette and Stanzel put together two of the most detailed models of narrative theory, with Stanzel using familiar terms such as "first-person" but Genette, however preferring "voice" to "person" for a couple of reasons. First, he sees "person" as having a psychological vibe that he's trying to stay away from— he's a structuralist, remember?

    Second, Genette believes that "voice" can include what we'd usually call "person" but isn't limited to it: he's looking for a broader term, and "voice" fits the bill. We're not saying that these guys are at loggerheads; it's just that theorists have their own ideas about how to sum up these different types of narration.

  • State of the Theory

    The Russian formalist movement may have only been around for a couple of decades, but narrative theory has kept on growing. Since the late 80s, especially, it has widened its focus to the extent that you can now talk about "postclassical narratology" if you really want to. Given that narratives play a role in so many kinds of texts (written, spoken, and visual), it's no wonder that this is the case. In fact, narratology has become popular across so many fields that people speak of a "narrative turn"—that is, a move towards a widespread interest in the concept of narrative—in critical theory.

    Even within the field of literature, narratology has branched out. This has been deliberate on the part of folks studying areas of literature that don't always get much cred in academia; after all, not everyone had been thrilled with the sometimes narrow focus of narrative theory. People working with children's literature, for example, were fed up with narratologists ignoring the value of this sort of writing, so they set about a) highlighting its value and b) analyzing such texts from a narratological perspective.

    In the same way that these theorists have drawn attention to children's literature, feminist academics have dedicated themselves to exploring different types of narrative and bringing cultural and social issues into the mix. If you think about binary oppositions, for example, you'll find that even though they play a big role in human society, they're not always balanced: people and characteristics often get lumped into either/or categories, with one side being seen as superior.

    So for that reason, feminist theorists often look for these binaries in narratives and then think about how they relate to social roles and inequalities. Male/female, anyone? Gender is a big focus here, but studies have now started to consider issues like race, sexuality, and class, too.

    Unnatural narratives are likewise receiving a lot more attention these days, and it's no surprise. Once earlier theorists had established the conventions of various types of literature, it makes sense that later theorists would start looking at the texts that don't conform to the model.

    One of the more recent varieties of unnatural text is the "hypertext." You know what a hypertext is: it's like when you click on hyperlinks, going from one webpage to another. From a narrative standpoint, it's hardly a straightforward A→B→C experience. Non-linear texts existed long before the internet, but the internet took this to the next level, with some writers testing out its possibilities for bringing unnatural narratives to life. Check out Shelley Jackson's Frankenstein-inspired Patchwork Girl, for example.

    So, yeah, narratology's formalist and structuralist origins have been challenged in recent years, but it's not like we can talk about narrative without paying some attention to structure. What theorists have argued isn't that we should ignore structure but that we should think about it in relation to other factors and take a more flexible approach.

    It's also important to recognize that modern narratology comes in at least 39 flavors (give or take a few) and is always changing and growing. Cognitive narratology, for instance, is influenced by research on human intelligence, and who knows what's next? Finally, while narratology has become a global obsession (do we exaggerate?), some theorists suggest that this will probably become offset by studies that have a narrower, more local focus. So watch this space…

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Literature is a written text that is founded on its narrative structure. There are different types of texts, and the author can make all kinds of artistic choices, but it's the narrative that provides the building blocks. Within this school of criticism, a text is of interest first and foremost for its narrative structure: How does it depicts the passage of time? What are its plot points, and in what order to they occur? Whose perspective are we getting?

    What is an author?

    The author is the person who creates a narrative, taking the basic story and then deciding how to present it to the reader. This involves making choices about how to structure the text (like whether it's going to follow a conventional structure or play around with time and space), as well as about stuff like language, tone, and characterization.

    What is a reader?

    The reader is the real-life person who reads and makes sense of a narrative. Academic types often used to see readers as receivers of texts: it was all about the text and the author, but rarely about any readers. Narrative theorists were no exception at first, but many have come to see the reader as playing an active role in the process, too. Sure, some texts are more "open" than others, but it's ultimately the reader who interprets a text.