Study Guide

Narrative Theory Texts

  • The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (1835-1872)

    Hans Christian Andersen was responsible for some of the best-known fairy tales of all time: who hasn't heard the phrases "ugly duckling" or "the emperor's new clothes"? These tales are a good match with narrative theory, as they often use the sort of binary oppositions described by Lévi-Strauss (like good/evil, beautiful/ugly, friend/foe) and the overall narrative structure outlined by Vladimir Propp.

    Many of these tales conform to the traditional "happily ever after" scenario, but some end on a sad note. Ariel's dreams may have come true in Disney's The Little Mermaid, for example, but her counterpart in Andersen's original has no such luck.

    Fairy tales are usually seen as having happy endings. Why, then, does Andersen choose unhappy endings for some of these tales?

    Are these tales works of pure fantasy, or do they have any deeper meanings or teachings?

  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817)

    Austen's novel is all about a teenager, Catherine Morland, who is invited to stay with some friends at their home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine is a big fan of Gothic tales and imagines that Northanger Abbey will be the sort of spooky, mysterious place that has grabbed her imagination. When it turns out to be kind of dull, Catherine is determined to find some sort of intrigue and becomes convinced that murder has been committed within the family. Yeah, well, she ultimately realizes that her imagination has gone into overdrive—and that there's a big difference between real life and Gothic novels.

    Think about the sort of narration does Austen uses in this novel. Does the narrator stay behind the scenes and or do they have a more obvious presence? And does this remain the case throughout the whole novel?

    Gothic novels may be Catherine's thing, but there are plenty of other kinds of narrative texts. Imagine that you're reading a book in which the main character is interested in a particular sort of novel (a "whodunit", a spy thriller, swashbuckling adventure, etc.). What sorts of events and plot devices would you expect to find?

  • "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce (1890)

    Set during the American Civil War, this story centers on a man named Peyton Farquhar, who has been captured by soldiers yet "miraculously" escapes being hanged after the rope breaks. The story follows Farquhar during his escape from his captors, focusing on both his physical and emotional state as he tries to make his way home to his wife and child. However, it turns out that some miracles are too good to be true…

    Looking back on the story, does the twist at the end come out of the blue, or are there any clues that something is up before we get to the ending?

    The narrative begins with Farquhar waiting to be hanged, but does this mark the start of the story? If not, when do we go back to the start and find out what's going on?

  • "The Garden of Forking Paths" by Jorge Luis Borges (1941)

    This short story is made up of a statement written by a former professor, Dr. Yu Tsun, who has been working for the German army as a spy. In this statement, Yu Tsun describes his experience of being pursued by a British officer and finding a way to communicate vital info to his German colleagues before he is caught.

    From a narrative perspective, things get extra interesting when Yu Tsun is introduced to a maze-like book that was written by one of his ancestors… and that gets him thinking about the nature of time and fate.

    The story starts off by letting us readers know that what we're about to read is a statement written by Yu Tsun—in other words, we're reading a story within a story. Why might Borges have chosen this angle, and how does it affect our reading?

    What is the relationship between time and literature, as presented in this story? Do they have a similar structure?

  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

    Dickens wrote some of the best-loved stories of all time, and this one is definitely up there. Part of its appeal is its simple but effective narrative arc. Even if you haven't read the story, you probably know Ebenezer Scrooge, an irritable old guy who hasn't got a kind word for anyone and who responds to Christmas cheer with his trademark "bah humbug!"

    One night, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, who lived a selfish life and is paying the price. He tells Scrooge to expect a visit from three more ghosts showing him his past, present, and future. Sure enough, these ghosts arrive and give Scrooge a few home truths. This reality check is just what Scrooge needs, and by the end of the story, he has learned the value of kindness and is on the road to redemption.

    Why may Dickens have chosen to use a third-person narrator rather than have Scrooge narrate his experiences firsthand?

    What role do binary oppositions play in this text?

  • "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson (1948)

    This story is set in a small American town that, for as long as anyone can remember, has held a lottery in which all the town's families take part. For most of the story, we don't know the purpose of the lottery, and so we become more and more curious to find out what it's all about. Everyone in the town seems to get it, but we're left scratching our heads.

    Well, as the story draws to a close, and the lottery finds a "winner," we find out the shocking truth. Let's just say that, as far as prizes go, we're not talking about a stuffed animal and a box of candy here.

    How does the opening paragraph shape our expectations regarding this story? And to what extent does the narrative meet or challenge these expectations?

    The characters in this story all know the true nature of the lottery, but the reader is kept mostly in the dark until the end. Why has Jackson chosen this approach, and how does it affect your reading? What would the story be like if we were equally clued in?

  • "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" by Rudyard Kipling (1894)

    Taken from Kipling's Jungle Books, this is the story of a lively mongoose who, during a flood, is washed out from his burrow and ends up in a ditch. He's then rescued by a human family and settles into his new home.

    The peril isn't over, though: a bird tells Rikki about a couple of cobras who are out for blood, and sure enough, Rikki gets into a tussle with the deadly duo. Luckily, he manages to escape. When word gets out that the cobras are planning their next attack, Rikki is determined to make sure that it's their last. His bravery and skill win out in the end, and with the enemy defeated, everyone can rest easy once again.

    Think for a moment about the difference between narrative voice and focalization: we know that this story is told by a third-person narrator, but whose perspective are we getting? Do we just see through the narrator's eyes, or does the narrator give us access to the feelings and thoughts of any of the characters?

    Some of the main characters in this story are animals, but do you feel that they are humanized in any way? Can we fit them into the sorts of roles that we usually find in a classic "hero's journey" narrative?

  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

    Moby-Dick is narrated by a guy called Ishmael, who gets himself a post on a whaling vessel. For a while, the ship's captain, Ahab, remains mysteriously absent. However, when he reveals himself, it turns out that he's missing a leg—the result of an encounter with a whale known as Moby Dick.

    While going about their daily business of whaling, Ishmael and the rest of the crew realize that Ahab has a vendetta against Moby Dick—and that he won't stop until he finds his nemesis and has revenge. Because this time it's personal.

    The novel starts out with the following sentence: "Call me Ishmael." What sort of relationship does this establish between narrator and reader?

    Why does Melville include so much background info on whaling? In what ways, if any, does this shape your attitude toward the novel and its narrator?

  • King Lear by William Shakespeare (c. 1606)

    This classic Shakespearean tragedy starts out with King Lear planning to divide his kingdom between his three daughters based on how much they tell him they love him. However, when his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to suck up to him in the same way as his other two daughters just did, he cuts her out of this arrangement.

    This proves to be a major blunder, as Lear's other two daughters and their husbands turn out to be spoiled and violent, and they set about plotting against him. Lear ends up wandering around the countryside, losing his mind and crying out against what has happened. He ultimately realizes that Cordelia is the one who's truly loyal, but, this being a tragedy, it turns out that his realization has come too late.

    How do you feel by the time this tragedy reaches its conclusion? Do you just feel bummed out, or does the narrative have any other effects?

    Do you see King Lear as a character you can relate to? If so, what qualities make him relatable?

  • Poetics by Aristotle (c. 335 BCE)

    The earliest known philosophical work to focus on literary theory as we understand it today, Aristotle's Poetics takes a look at the various ingredients that make up a successful work of literature. Aristotle certainly doesn't see all of these ingredients as equally important—for him, it's narrative that's the benchmark of success.

    The types of works that Aristotle discusses include works of drama (especially tragedy) and lyrical and epic poetry. Okay, so Poetics may have been written way back in the days of ancient Greece, but it's a lot easier to read that you'd imagine, and you'll be surprised how relevant it still is today.

    Aristotle is all about narrative. He sees spectacle as the least important factor in a successful tragedy. What are his reasons for thinking this way? And do you agree?

    What does Aristotle mean by "mimesis," and why does he see this quality as being so important?

  • Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative by Mieke Bal (1985)

    If you're just getting started with narrative theory, this book is a go-to text for the lowdown on some of the key concepts. It breaks narrative down into segments, looking at stuff like events, time, and location. It also outlines different ways of turning a story into a full-fledged narrative. Some of the topics under discussion include frequency, predictability, suspense, and rhythm, with Bal giving plenty of examples of texts that make use of these techniques.

    Discussing the ways in which a narrative can shape the responses of its readers, Bal suggests that focalization is "the most important, most penetrating, and most subtle means of manipulation." Why do you think this might be the case?

    Bal warns against treating characters as though they're real people, arguing that we need to think of them as images that are defined by their function within the narrative. For what reasons might we take this sort of approach? And how easy is it to put into practice?

  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (1949)

    Despite being an academic work, this is one of those books that has crossed over and enjoyed a lot of publicity and fame in the wider world.

    Like many of the other narratologists discussed throughout this module, Campbell found that myths from around the world share an underlying structure—a structure that has remained popular through the centuries. Campbell refers to this type of narrative as the "monomyth": the tale of the hero who must venture into a world beyond his own, undertake a series of tasks, and overcome all manner of obstacles before triumphing in the end.

    Sounds familiar, right? George Lucas even used this book as a template when writing Star Wars, and after the movie's release, reprints of the book featured a pic of Luke Skywalker on the cover. If that doesn't scream "iconic pop culture text" then nothing does.

    The hero's journey may be seen as a guy thing, but can you think of any narratives in which a female goes on a journey of this sort?

    Do narratives of this sort always occur in a fantasy realm ("a galaxy far, far away"), or can the hero's journey take place in a more of a regular, real-life setting?

  • Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film by Seymour Chatman (1978)

    Working as a structuralist and film theorist, Chatman uses this book to study the ins and outs of narrative in a variety of texts. As you'd expect, the act of narration is one of the main topics, with Chatman outlining the many possibilities that are available—for example, the presence or absence of an obvious narrator.

    Chatman also discusses the factors that we need to consider when analyzing how a narrative plays out, including the order of events, causality (how one event brings about another), and time and space. In addition to the structural stuff, Chatman also addresses the question of the reader's (or viewer's) role in interpreting texts, and he goes ahead and analyzes some texts himself to show us how it can be done. For a useful example, check out the section in which he looks at a comic strip through a narratological lens.

    What's the difference between reading and what Chatman calls "reading out"?

    Chatman refers to the "naturalizing" of a narrative. What does this mean and how can it be achieved?

  • The Role of the Reader by Umberto Eco (1979)

    Academic theory is usually seen as pretty stuffy, but Eco helps lighten things up by analyzing stuff like Superman and James Bond. This book is made up of eight essays, but it's Eco's analysis of pop-culture narratives that's most useful for getting a handle on how narratology works.

    This also goes to show that narrative plays a big role in all types of texts—not just myths and fairy tales, but also the stuff that we read or watch in our everyday lives. James Bond and Superman have been seriously popular for years and are still big news today, so it makes sense to ask what makes their narratives work.

    When discussing James Bond and Superman, Eco talks about the predictability of these narratives and characters. Why would the authors choose to put together narratives in this way? And what's the appeal from a reader's perspective?

    As for the Superman comic strip, Eco notes that although each week sees the start of a new story rather than carrying on from the week before, there still has to be some sense of connection between these stories. How, then, do writers create a successful balance?

  • Narrative Discourse by Gérard Genette (1980)

    Genette splits this book into five sections: "Order," "Duration," "Frequency," "Mood," and "Voice." As you can see from these titles, the first half is focused on issues having to do with time, while the later sections are more about how the tone and viewpoint of a narrative are created.

    Here, Genette takes the term "diegetic" as the basis for a load of related terms ("heterodiegetic", "homodiegetic," and yeah, it keeps going) that help define the particular type of narrative that you've got on our hands. Also, Genette's distinction between "focalization" (the question of who perceives) and "voice" (who speaks) has come to be seen as a key addition to narrative theory.

    According to Genette, what factors go toward creating the "mood" of a narrative?

    How can we tell whether narration is homodiegetic or heterodiegetic?

  • Structural Anthropology by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963)

    Lévi-Strauss spent his academic career studying tribal cultures and myths, and Structural Anthropology became one of his key works. As is typical of narratologists, he went beyond the surface of myths to discover and describe their structures: for him, it was all about finding the underlying patterns that organize language and society.

    Lévi-Strauss believed that social structures are based on binary oppositions, or pairs of opposites like male/female, old/young, strong/weak—you get the drift. Lévi-Strauss has since become a key name in narrative theory, his model of narrative emphasizing the role that binaries play in structuring texts.

    Think about some of the books you've read or movies you've watched: can you recognize any binary oppositions that factor into their narratives?

    Are these oppositions always portrayed as equal, or is there an imbalance? Is one side shown as better or worse than the other?

  • Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp (1958)

    Loads of theorists have come up with narratological models and have coined lots of jazzy terms; Propp, however, is remembered for turning theory into practice with this analysis of Russian wonder tales. In this text, Propp identifies 31 functions that make up these tales, starting with "absentation" (the hero or another family member leaves homes) and ending with "wedding" (the hero gets married and is rewarded). He also divides characters into 7 main types (hero, villain, princess, etc.). Basically, his whole point is that these tales usually work to the same template.

    Propp's analysis may be of Russian wonder tales, but can we extend it to any other sorts of texts? Think about whether you recognize any similarities between these tales and narratives that you've watched or read.

    Propp's analysis is structural—that is, it's focused on the structure of the texts themselves rather than on the culture in which they were produced, the lives of the authors, or anything like that. Structuralism often gets a bum rap for ignoring this stuff, but are there any plus points about shifting focus from content to structure?

  • A Theory of Narrative by F.K. Stanzel (1984)

    This book is all about "mediacy"—basically, the voice of a narrator standing between the reader and the events described. Stanzel defines various types and levels of mediacy, and concludes that there are three main narrative situations: first person (when the narrator's world is the same as that of the characters'), authorial (when the narrator comments from the outside), and figural (when it seems as if there's no narrator and we're given direct access to the thoughts and impressions of a character within the text).

    What, in Stanzel's view, is the main characteristic that separates narration from other types of literary art?

    What is the difference between "dynamization" and "schematization"?

  • The Poetics of Prose by Tzvetan Todorov (1977)

    This is one of the texts in which Todorov outlines his theory of narrative structure. Basically, Todorov's idea is that a standard narrative starts off with a state of equilibrium that's then interrupted, causing a state of disequilibrium, before it's finally restored. Todorov also discusses particular authors, such as Henry James, and varieties of texts such as whodunits and thrillers, focusing specifically on the way in which their narratives play out and how they stir up the reader's curiosity.

    Why does Todorov see the restoration of equilibrium as the hallmark of the "ideal" narrative? What if a narrative doesn't end in this way?

    Todorov distinguishes between narrative succession and narrative transformation, but how can transformation be brought about? What possible narrative devices might do the job?