Study Guide

Narrative Theory Critics

  • Aristotle

    But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.

    Aristotle emphasizes that narrative is about movement: by its very nature, narrative involves some sort of progression in time from point A to B to C. Aristotle recognizes that there are other parts of the text that we should also consider, like character and spectacle, but there's no doubting that his number one priority is the narrative.

    Aristotle may be talking about Greek tragedy, but we could apply this same outlook to other, modern texts, too. Take movies, for instance: glitzy FX, costumes, and camerawork may add to the experience, but if there isn't a basic script to provide the foundation for all this extra stuff, then the movie's probably gonna seem kind of hollow. Aristotle uses character as another example: folks may be happy or sad, but it's the narrative that clues us in on why they're happy or sad.

    According to Aristotle, narratives are about life, and life involves action. This means that we can turn our attention to character—but always in relation to the narrative itself. Aristotle sees this as the hallmark of tragedy, arguing that the most successful works are those that put narrative first. In works of this type, the narrative is made up of a sequence of events, and it's this particular sequence that shapes our verdict as to whether the tragedy lives up to its name.

  • Mikhail Bakhtin

    It is precisely the chronotope that provides the ground essential for the showing forth, the representability of events. […] It serves as the primary point from which 'scenes' in the novel unfold, while at the same time other 'binding' events, located far from the chronoscope, appear as mere dry information and communicated facts […] Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel. All the novel's abstract elements—philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect—gravitate toward the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work.

    The chronotope is kind of like a compass that guides us through a narrative. It has to do with time but also with space, and it's this association with space that makes it more concrete. The chronotope of the Iliad would be Troy during the time of the Trojan War.

    Whether it progresses in a straightforward way or jumps back and forward, a narrative always involves some sort of movement when it comes to time. What Bakhtin is saying, though, is that time is linked with space: together, time and space give shape to the narrative. If they weren't part of the equation, then we'd just have a series of facts or events that don't have anything to do with each other.

    Like Bakhtin says, there are lots of things about a novel that aren't concrete, like ideas and philosophical stuff. The chronotope, however, gives us something that we can get a handle on. With the Iliad, for example, we know exactly where and when we are: we're not in Troy in 1917, or in Persia during the Trojan War. We're in a specific time and space.

  • Roland Barthes

    This whole "volume" is drawn forward (in the direction of the end of the narrative), thus provoking the reader's impatience, under the influence of two structural procedures: a) distortion or twisting out of shape: the terms of one sequence or of one code are separated, braided with heterogeneous elements; a sequence seems to be abandoned (for example the deterioration of Valdemar's health), but it is taken up again later, often very much later; an expectation is created; now we can even define sequence: this floating micro-structure which constructs not a logical object, but an expectation and its resolution; b) irreversibility: despite the floating character of structuration, in the classic readable narrative (such as a tale by Poe), there are two codes which maintain a vectored order, the actional code (founded on a logico-temporal order) and the code of the Enigma (the question crowned with its solution); thus the narrative is made irreversible.

    Barthes is known for breaking texts up into segments and analyzing the narrative step by step. In this case, Barthes is analyzing a short story by Edgar Allan Poe called "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." As is usually the case in narrative theory, Barthes's focus is on structure and on taking a scientific approach to the study of literature.

    There isn't space here to go into all the narrative threads that Barthes uncovers, but this quote gives you a flavor. One thing worth remembering is that all narratives involve some sort of movement and progression. When we're analyzing a text, then, Barthes says we need to think about how the narrative moves forward.

    Here, Barthes points to a couple of specific devices that Poe uses. The first is "distortion," and this happens when narrative sequence that we've been following seems to get messed up, leading us to believe that it has been abandoned. However, it turns out that this thread rears its head again later (often much later) in the narrative.

    The other device that Barthes mentions in this passage is "irreversibility." This, Barthes explains, is made up of two codes: the actional code and the code of the Enigma. Um, yeah? It's actually not too hard: "actional" refers to the sequences of actions that take place throughout the course of the narrative—plus how they relate to one another. The "Enigma" code, meanwhile, is made up of a question that is ultimately solved.

    As Barthes points out, these two codes combine to make the narrative irreversible. This brings us to the idea of the classical narrative, which has that standard structure of beginning, middle, and end. Barthes notes that Poe's story is a classical narrative and therefore works along these lines: its events pan out in a conventional way over a period of time, and the mystery is solved. In contrast to some other types of narratives, then, the passage of time and the course of events can't be reversed.

  • Umberto Eco

    We might compare a novel by Fleming to a game of football in which we know beforehand the place, the numbers and personalities of the players, the rules of the game, and the fact that everything will take place within the area of the great pitch—except that in a game of football we do not know until the very end who will win. It would be more accurate to compare a novel by Fleming to a game of basketball played by the Harlem Globetrotters against a local team. We know with absolute confidence that the Globetrotters will win: the pleasure lies in watching the trained virtuosity with which they defer the final moment, with what ingenious deviations they reconfirm the foregone conclusion, with what trickeries they make rings round their opponents. The novels of Fleming exploit in exemplary measure that element of foregone play which is typical of the escape machine geared for the entertainment of the masses.

    Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know your fair share about James Bond novels and movies. It's not like they're a new trend, either—their success spans a pretty big time period, and they're as popular as ever today. So what's the secret of their success? Well, according to Eco, one of the main reasons is that they work based on a formula: when we watch a James Bond movie, we know what to expect.

    People often throw around the word "formulaic" as an insult, but Eco says that predictability can actually be pretty appealing. That's not to say that we like to know every detail about what's going to happen: it's annoying when movie trailers give everything away, or when someone fills you in on everything that's going to happen, right? What Eco is saying is that, when we read a James Bond novel, it's more about the journey than the destination.

    While his focus is on the Bond stories, Eco suggests that this sort of predictability applies to pop culture in general. For example, Eco compares the popularity of James Bond to that of basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters. People may know that the Globetrotters are a shoo-in to win, but they still enjoy watching them do their thing. After all, the Globetrotters are known for their epic skills on the court and for the whole razzmatazz of their performance.

    And that's the whole point—people want to see a performance that provides plenty of excitement and thrills before the (inevitable) victory.

    If we think about pop culture texts, then we can see that there's something to be said for Eco's theory. Things that defy our expections can be popular, too, but the whole "happily ever after" scenario will always be a crowd pleaser.

  • Gérard Genette

    This perhaps authorizes us to organize, or at any rate to formulate, the problems of analyzing narrative discourse according to categories borrowed from the grammar of verbs, categories that I will reduce here to three basic classes of determinations: those dealing with temporal relations between narrative and story, which I will arrange under the heading of tense; those dealing with modalities (forms and degrees) of narrative 'representation,' and thus with the mood of the narrative; and finally, those dealing with the way in which the narrating itself is implicated in the narrative, narrating in the sense in which I have defined it, that is, the narrative situation or its instance, and along with that its two protagonists: the narrator and his audience, real or implied. […] this term is voice.

    Narrative theory is often focused on structure and on defining the various parts that make up a structure. In this passage, Genette outlines his own take on the subject by drawing on terms that we often use when discussing grammar: tense, mood, and voice.

    The first category, "tense," has to do with the relationship between narrative and story. If story is the raw material and narrative the finished product, with the writer ordering the events of the story in whatever way he or she sees fit, then "tense" refers to the importance of time in this arrangement: it's all about asking how and why events are ordered in a certain way. It's also about asking how often events are portrayed in the narrative (their frequency) and how long they go on (their duration). In all cases, the point is to look not just at time in the factual sense but also at how it's treated (or twisted) in the narrative.

    The second category is "mood," which refers to the position that the narrator takes within the text. Here, we need to think about the narrator's standpoint and how close or distant they are from the events going on in the world within the narrative. Remember the term "focalization"? The perspective of the narrator in relation to the stuff that's being depicted? Well, this is what Genette is talking about here when he refers to mood.

    The third category that Genette mentions in this passage is "voice." It's similar to mood, but it shifts emphasis to the question of who narrates and from what position. Is the narration coming from inside or outside the text? And is the narrator a character within the story? According to Genette, these are the sorts of things that we need to ask when dealing with narrative voice.

  • Susan S. Lanser

    The units of anticipation and fulfillment or problem and solution that structure plot according to narrative theorists of plot assume that textual actions are based on the (intentional) deeds of protagonists; they assume a power, a possibility, that may be inconsistent with what women have experienced by historically and textually, and perhaps inconsistent even with women's desires. […] If again and again scholars of women's writing must speak in terms of the "plotless" (usually in quotation marks, suggesting their dissatisfaction with the term), then perhaps something is wrong with the notions of plot that have followed from Propp's morphology. Perhaps narratology has been mistaken in trying to arrive at a single definition and description of plot. We will learn more about women's narratives—and about scores of twentieth century texts—if we make ourselves find language for describing their plots in positive rather than negative terms.

    Because of its focus on structure, narrative theory has often been all about the text itself rather than issues to do with history and society. So, what about context? After all, narratives are produced within some kind of social setting, and as readers, we're part of a social setting, too. Some narrative theorists have started to realize the importance of these issues but, according to Lanser, there's more that needs to be done.

    Lanser's focus in this passage is on the relevance of gender to narrative theory. By gender, she's not just referring to whether someone is a guy or a girl—she's also talking about the roles that males and females play within society. Lanser's main point is that narratives don't just exist in a vacuum: they reflect society.

    The standard idea of narrative (the hero solving problems and fulfilling his aims) isn't necessarily something to which women can relate, says Lanser. Of course, it's not like all women's lives are the same, but Lanser points out that men and women have been treated differently in society, with men being associated with strength, power, courage and action, and because of this, Lanser suggests that theorists have been wrong to focus on a single type of narrative dealing with heroes.

    Lanser's final point is that, because theorists have typically kept to narrow definitions, women's narratives have often been called "plotless." To put this right, Lanser argues that we need to recognize and explore different types of plots rather than just dismissing anything that doesn't fit in one particular box.

  • Claude Lévi-Strauss

    A careful analysis of the text of this myth, which in one version alone takes up thirteen pages of Dorsey's work, discloses that it is built on a long series of oppositions: (1) initiated shaman versus non-initiated shaman, that is, the opposition between acquired power and innate power; (2) child versus old man, since the myth insists on the youth of one protagonist and the old age of the other; (3) confusion of sexes versus differentiation of sexes; all of Pawnee metaphysical thought is actually based on the idea that at the time of the creation of the world antagonistic elements were intermingled and that the first work of the gods consisted in sorting them out. […] (7) magic which proceeds by introduction versus magic which proceeds by extraction.

    Lévi-Strauss is talking about a work by G. A. Dorsey exploring the mythology of the Pawnee Indians of the North American Plains. Dorsey's study discusses a series of myths that give an account of how shamanistic powers came about. Most relevant here, though, are Lévi-Strauss's comments on binary oppositions.

    Analyzing Dorsey's study, Lévi-Strauss zones in on its discovery of lots of either/or contrasts within shaman lore. Lévi-Strauss thinks that these either/or contrasts, which he calls binary oppositions, are at the heart of all narrative, most obviously in myth. For him, narrative analysis is about going through a text to find and demonstrate the oppositions that run through it—oppositions that can vary from one text to the next but, by their very presence, show just how common binary thinking is.

  • Vladimir Propp

    Just as the characteristics and functions of deities are transferred from one to another, and, finally, are even carried over to Christian saints, the functions of certain tale personages are likewise transferred to other personages. Running ahead, one may say that the number of functions is extremely small, whereas the number of personages is extremely large. This explains the two-fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and on the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition.

    Here, Propp flags up a contrast between "personages" and "functions." In simple terms, this is a contrast between the characters in a narrative and the roles that these characters play. Why does a character act in certain way? And what impact does this have on the narrative? Propp says that this second question is totally important: we need, he says, to focus not just on how an author or folktale has depicted a character but also on how this feeds into the narrative.

    According to Propp, myths and literature may be chock full of different characters, but if you go beneath the surface, you'll find that these characters aren't as diverse as they may seem, because they're all performing similar function. Think about Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Lady Tremaine in Cinderella. Sure, they're sort of different on the surface, but they fill the same role in each story, and in that sense, they're functionally interchangeable.

    Propp's whole aim in Morphology of the Folktale is to narrow wonder tales down to their key parts and to find out what they've got in common. By taking this approach, Propp finds that these tales are surprisingly similar and repetitive. It doesn't end there, either: Propp says that this kind of repetition is also common in myths, religions, and in narrative in general.

  • F.K. Stanzel

    Whenever a piece of news is conveyed, whenever something is reported, there is a mediator—the voice of a narrator is audible. I term this phenomenon "mediacy" (Mittelbarkeit). Mediacy is the generic characteristic which distinguishes narration from other forms of literary art. […] It is characteristic of the first-person narrative situation that the mediacy of the narration belongs totally to the fictional realm of the characters of the novel […] It is characteristic of the authorial narrative situation that the narrator is outside the world of the characters. […] Finally, in the figural narrative situation the mediating narrator is replaced by a reflector: a character in the novel who thinks, feels and perceives, but does not speak to the reader like a narrator. […] The mediacy of narration thus forms the basis for the distinction among the three narrative situations in such a way that in each narrative situation a different element (person, perspective, mode) of the mediacy complex is dominant.

    One of the main questions that we need to ask when analyzing a narrative is whose perspective we're getting. Stanzel calls this the "narrative situation" and summarizes three different types of narrative situation that are available.

    The first-person narrative situation is when you've got a narrator who is part of the world presented within the text (the "narrating I"). The authorial narrative situation is when you've got a narrator who is outside the story world. The figural narrative situation, finally, is when you don't have a narrator but rather a "reflector": a character who doesn't talk to you directly but whose perpective filters everything (you know how that specific character thinks and feels).

    For Stanzel, it's "mediacy" that's at the core of these narrative situations, giving each one its own flavor. Stanzel argues that it's mediacy that sets narration apart from other sorts of texts, its role being to shape our relationship with whatever narrative we're reading. Mediacy has to do how close or detached the narrator is from what's going on in the fictional world—is the narraotor right there in the thick of it, or is the narrator commenting as an outsider? And is the narrator speaking directly to you, or are you given a window into the narrator's thoughts?

    As Stanzel mentions at the end of this passage, mediacy is made up of three elements: person, perspective, and mode. Person refers to who is narrating: is the narrator first or third person? Perspective is all about whether the narration comes from within or outside the world of the text. Finally, mode refers to the question of whether the narrative uses a narrator ("teller mode") or a reflector ("reflector mode").

    Using these three elements, then, you can think about where the emphasis lies in whatever narrative you're analyzing. In other words, you can pinpoint the type and level of mediacy in a text and then figure out which of the narrative situations you've got on your hands.

  • Tzvetan Todorov

    The object of our study must be narrative mood, or point of view, or sequence, and not this or that story in and for itself. […] The minimal complete plot can be seen as the shift from one equilibrium to another. This term "equilibrium," which I am borrowing from genetic psychology, means the existence of a stable but not static relation between the members of a society; it is a social law, a rule of the game, a particular system of exchange. The two moments of equilibrium, similar and different, are separated by a period of imbalance, which is composed of a process of degeneration and a process of improvement.

    Here we've got Todorov's model of narrative theory. Todorov thinks that narrative is all about a shift from equilibrium→disorder→equilibrium. By equilibrium, he just means a state where everything's all good: people are going about their business and are in a good place but then—dun dun dun—something (or someone) upsets the balance. The bulk of the narrative is therefore about restoring harmony.

    Okay, so there are plenty of narratives that don't work to this template (just think of all those books that have unhappy endings, or others that hurl the reader straight into the drama), but what Todorov is describing is the traditional model.

    Todorov also emphasizes that narrative is a process: between the two states of equilibrium there is a period of imbalance, and it's during this time that changes or developments happen. These can be good or bad, but they help drive the narrative, bring about character development, and keep readers hooked.

    Another point that Todorov makes is that narrative theory shouldn't focus so much on the story as a whole but more on the elements that are woven together to create the narrative. His own essay gives us a case in point: he may examine the stories in Boccaccio's Decameron, but his interest is less in these stories themselves than in how their narratives work, and how they can be defined.