Entry for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative
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Though interest in the phenomenon that forms the topic of this Encyclopedia dates back to a couple of millennia, in both Western and non-Western cultures, it is only in the past fifty years that the concept of narrative has emerged as an autonomous object of inquiry. From Aristotle to Vladimir Propp and from Percy Lubbock to Wayne Booth, the critics and philosophers who are regarded today as the pioneers of narrative theory were not concerned with narrative proper but with particular literary *genres, such as *epic poetry, *drama, the *folktale, the *novel, or more generally *fiction, short for ‘narrative literary fiction’. It was the legacy of French structuralism, more particularly of Roland Barthes and Claude Bremond, to have emancipated narrative from literature and from fiction, and to have recognised it as a *semiotic phenomenon that transcends disciplines and media (see interdisciplinary approaches to narrative; structuralist narratology).
Contemporary uses of the term narrative
No sooner had narrative come of age as a theoretical concept than it began to invade fields as diverse as *historiography, *medicine, *law, *psychoanalysis, and *ethnography (see narrative turn in the humanities). This territorial expansion was accompanied by a semantic broadening that liberated narrative not only from literary forms, but from any kind of textual support. A decisive influence on the current uses of narrative was Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of ‘Grand Narrative’ (see master narrative), as outlined in The Postmodern Condition. Lyotard contrasts a ‘narrative’ type of knowledge, typical of ancient societies, where truth is guaranteed by the special status of the storyteller within the community, with a *scientific type in which *authors are supposed to provide proof of their claims. But scientific discourse is unable to guarantee its own validity, since it rejects authority. During the nineteenth century, science sought legitimation in what Lyotard calls ‘Grand Narratives’: sweeping explanations that present scientific knowledge as the instrument of the historical self-realisation of an *allegorical *hero variously named Reason, Freedom, the State, or the Human Spirit. Three features distinguish ‘Grand Narratives’ from the little stories that we exchange in daily life: they concern abstract entities rather than concrete individuals (see character; existent); they may exist as collective beliefs rather than as the message of particular texts; and they inherit the foundational role of *myth with respect to society rather than being told for their *anecdotal or entertainment value. Little stories and Grand Narratives share a temporal dimension, but while the former simply recount historical (or pseudo-historical) *events, the latter deal directly with a capitalised History. The tacit existence of the Grand Narratives, as well as their explanatory and abstract nature, paved the way for the ‘Narratives of Race, Class, and *Gender’ or the ‘Narratives of *Identity’ of contemporary cultural studies (see cultural-studies approaches to narrative).
The increasing popularity of the term narrative also reflects the
epistemological crisis of contemporary culture. ‘Narrative’ is what is
left when belief in the possibility of knowledge is eroded. The frequently
heard phrase ‘the narratives of science’, popular in the new field of
science studies, carries the implication that scientific discourse does
not reflect but covertly constructs reality, does not discover *truths but
fabricates them according to the rules of its own game in a process
disturbingly comparable to the overt working of narrative fiction. Calling
a discourse ‘a narrative’ or ‘a story’ in order to question its claim to
truth thus amounts to equating narrative with fiction (see
What is narrative theory to do about this *metaphorical or *metonymic merging of the concept of narrative with ideas which would have been labeled ‘belief’, ‘interpretation’, ‘attitude’, ‘rationalisation’, ‘value’, *‘ideology’, ‘behaviour’, ‘memory’ or simply ‘content’ a generation ago? Should we design a definition that acts like a semantic police, excluding all ‘illegitimate’ uses of the term narrative, but also endangering its theoretical vitality, or should we bow to current fashion, and work out a definition that accepts all current interpretations, at the price of losing some crucial distinction between narrative and other forms or products of mental activity? A compromise between these two possibilities is to regard narrative as a fuzzy set defined at the centre by a solid core of properties, but accepting various degrees of membership, depending on which properties a candidate displays (see mode). The fuzzy-set hypothesis will account for the fact that certain texts will be unanimously recognised as narratives, such as *fairy tales or *conversational stories about personal experience, while others will encounter limited acceptance: *postmodern novels, *computer games, or historical studies of cultural issues, such as Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality.
Describing versus defining narrative
Inquiry into the nature of narrative can take two forms. The first, aiming at a description, asks: what does narrative do for human beings; the second, aiming at a definition, tries to capture the distinctive features of narrative. Here are some examples of the type of observations produced by the descriptive approach: narrative is a fundamental way of organising human experience and a tool for constructing models of reality (Herman); narrative allows human beings to come to terms with the temporality of their existence (Ricoeur) (see time and narrative); narrative is a particular mode of thinking, the mode that relates to the concrete and particular as opposed to the abstract and general (Bruner, who distinguishes ‘narrative’ and ‘scientific’ thinking); narrative creates and transmits cultural traditions, and builds the values and beliefs that define cultural identities; narrative is a vehicle of dominant ideologies and an instrument of power (Foucault); narrative is an instrument of self-creation; narrative is a repository of practical knowledge, especially in *oral cultures (this view reminds us of the etymology of the word ‘narrative’, the Latin verb gnare, ‘to know’); narrative is a mold in which we shape and preserve memories; narrative, in its fictional form, widens our mental universe beyond the actual and the familiar and provides a playfield for thought experiments (Schaeffer); narrative is an inexhaustible and varied source of education and entertainment; narrative is a mirror in which we discover what it means to be human.
While descriptive observations such as these can live in peace with each other, definitional approaches tend to provide conflicting views of the nature of narrative, since different scholars will single out different features as constitutive of *narrativity. The following dilemmas illustrate some of the more contentious points.
1. The mental representation of story involves the construction of the mental image of a world populated with individuated agents (characters) and objects. (Spatial dimension; see space and narrative)
(2) Does narrative presuppose a verbal act of narration by an anthropomorphic creature called a *narrator, or can a story be told without the mediation of a narratorial consciousness? What is at stake in this question is whether dramatic *media or media that do not use language as their primary mode of representation are capable of narration. Gerald Prince opts for the language- and narrator-based conception when he defines narrative as the recounting of events by one or more narrators to one or more narratees. According to Prince, ‘A dramatic performance representing many fascinating events does not constitute a narrative, since these events, rather than being recounted, occur directly on stage’ (1987:58). The opposite position is represented by the film scholar David Bordwell, who not only regards *film as a narrrative medium, but argues that film narration does not require a narratorial figure (see no-narrator theory). Some scholars have attempted to reconcile the narrator-based definition with the possibility of non-verbal narration by analysing drama and movie as presupposing the utterance of a narratorial figure, even when the film or the play does not make use of *voice-over narration (Chatman 1990).
(3) Can the feature of narrativity be isolated as a layer or dimension of meaning, or is it a global effect toward which every element of the text makes a contribution? The first position makes it legitimate to divide the text into narrative parts that move the *plot forward and non-narrative parts where time stands still, such as digressions, philosophical considerations, or the moral of a fable (see story-discourse distinction). But this analysis runs into difficulties in the case of *descriptions: while extensive descriptions can be skipped without causing the reader to lose track of the plot, characters and settings could not be identified without descriptive statements. If the purpose of narrative is to evoke not just a sequence of events but the worlds in which these events take place (see storyworld), then descriptions cannot be excluded from the narrative layer, and the distinction between narrative and non-narrative elements is blurred. Literary theorists, who generally adhere to the dogma of the inseparability of form and content, tend to favour the second possibility: narrativity as a global effect. Among them is the critic Philip Sturgess, who writes: ‘Narrativity is the enabling force of narrative, a force that is present at every point in the narrative’ (29). The inevitable consequence of this position is that narrativity becomes indistinguishable from aesthetic teleology, or, as Sturgess puts it, from the consistency with which the text uses its devices (36). Since aesthetic teleology is unique to each text, so is narrativity, and it becomes undefinable.
(4) Is narrativity a matter of form or a matter of content ? The proponents of narrativity as form (see realism, theories of) radicalise the ideas of Hayden White, who argues that a given sequence of historical events can be represented either as an unstructured list (*annals), as a *chronicle obeying certain principles of unity but lacking a comprehensive explanatory principle, or as a fully formed plot (=narrative), in which events are organised according to a global teleology. But if historical events can be made into stories as well as into something else (for instance into diplomacy textbooks relying on historical examples), doesn’t narrative require specific types of raw materials? Can one turn Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2, into a story without adding anything to it? One way to resolve the dilemma of form vs. content is to invoke the linguist Louis Hjelmslev’s distinction between form and substance, a distinction that applies to both the content plane and the expression plane of a text, i.e. to signifieds and signifiers. Narrativity in this perspective would reside on the content plane, not on the expression plane, but it would consist of both a certain form (expressed by concepts such as plot, *story arc, or *Freytag’s triangle) and a certain substance (characters, settings, events). Though general laws and abstract concepts can be incorporated into a narrative, for instance as the thoughts of characters, they do not present the proper semantic substance to support a story.
(5) Should a definition of narrative give equal status to all works of literary fiction, or should it regard certain types of postmodern novels (and films) as marginal? In other words, does an avant-garde text that refers to characters, settings, and events, but refuses to organise these contents into a determinate story expand the meaning of narrative, making it historically variable, or does it simply demonstrate the separability of the concepts of ‘literature’, ‘narrative’, and ‘fiction’ ?
(6) Does narrative require both discourse and story, signifier and signified, or can it exist as free-floating representation, independently of any of any textual realisation? Is the phrase ‘untold story’, so dear to tabloids, an oxymoron or can the mind hold a narrative without words, as when we memorise the plot of a novel, or when we tell our friends: I have a great story to tell you?
Story as cognitive construct
The answer to this last question -- the most crucial to a definition of
narrative, since it asks what it is made of -- lies in a technical
distinction between ‘narrative’ and ‘story’, even though English
dictionaries present these terms as synonymous. (This is why up to now
this entry has used them interchangeably.) Representing a common view
among narratologists, H. Porter Abbott reserves the term narrative for the
combination of story and discourse and defines its two components as
follows: ‘story is an event or sequence of events (the action), and
narrative discourse is those events as represented’ (2002: 16). Narrative,
in this view, is the textual actualisation of story, while story is
narrative in a virtual form. If we conceive representation as medium-free,
this definition does not limit narrativity to verbal texts nor to
narratorial *speech acts. But the two components of narrative play
asymmetrical roles, since discourse is defined in terms of its ability to
represent that which constitutes story. This means that only story can be
defined in autonomous terms. Ever since the Russian formalist made a
distinction between ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’ (i.e. story and discourse), the
standard narratological position has regarded stories as ‘sequences of
events’, but this characterization ignores the fact that events are not in
themselves stories but rather the raw material out of which stories are
made. So what is story, if, as Hayden White has convincingly argued, it is
not a type of thing found in the world (as existents and events are) nor a
textual representation of this type of thing (as discourse is) ?
Story, like narrative discourse, is a representation, but unlike
discourse it is not a representation encoded in material signs. Story is a
mental image, a cognitive construct that concerns certain types of
entities and relations between these entities (see cognitive narratology;
psychological approaches to narrative). Narrative may be a combination of
story and discourse, but it is its ability to evoke stories to the mind
that distinguishes narrative discourse from other *text types. Here is
tentative definition of the cognitive construct that narratologists call
1. The mental representation of story involves the construction of the
mental image of a world populated with individuated agents (characters)
and objects. (Spatial dimension; see space and narrative)
2. This world must undergo not fully predictable changes of state that
are caused by non-habitual physical events: either accidents
(‘happenings’) or deliberate actions by intelligent agents. (Temporal
3. In addition to being linked to physical states by *causal relations,
the physical events must be associated with mental states and events
(goals, plans, *emotions). This network of connections gives events
coherence, motivation, *closure, and intelligibility and turns them into a
plot. (Logical, mental and formal dimension.)
This definition presents narrative as a type of text able to evoke a
certain type of image in the mind of the recipient. But, as mentioned
above, it does not take a text to inspire the construction of such an
image: we may form stories in our mind as a response to life itself. For
instance, if I observe a fight on the subway, I will construct in my mind
the story of the fight, in order to tell it to my family when I get home.
The narrative potential of life can be accounted for by making a
distinction between ‘being a narrative’, and ‘possessing narrativity’. The
property of ‘being’ a narrative can be predicated of any semiotic object,
whatever the medium, produced with the intent to create a response
involving the construction of a story. More precisely, it is the
receiver’s recognition of this intent that leads to the judgment that a
given semiotic object is a narrative, even though we can never be sure if
sender and receiver have the same story in mind. ‘Possessing narrativity’,
on the other hand, means being able to inspire a narrative response,
whether or not the text, if there is one, was intended to be processed
that way, and whether or not the stimuli are designed by an author.
The principles that make up the present definition are hard and fast
rules that specify minimal conditions. One of the conditions appears
however more controversial that the others: does a story have to involve
non-habitual events, or can it concern fully routine actions? Should this
condition be replaced with a preference rule? This dilemma points to an
area where *narrativity (the product of minimal conditions) is
particularly difficult to disentangle from *tellability (an issue better
described by preference rules), but if the border between narrativity and
tellability is sometimes fuzzy, there are nevertheless principles that
fall clearly on one side or the other.
By loosening some of the conditions of the above definition, we can account for narrative forms of lesser cohesion than canonical stories, such as *diaries, annals and chronicles, as well as for the extensions of the term narrative mentioned at the beginning of this entry. The flouting of condition 3 explains for instance the narrative deficiency of some postmodern novels: while they create a world, populate it with characters, and make something happen (though they often take liberties with condition 2), these novels do not allow the reader to reconstruct the network that motivates the actions of characters and binds the events into an intelligible and determinate sequence (see indeterminacy). But they compensate the subversion of story with an extraordinary inventiveness on the level of discourse. The lifting of condition 1 describes the ‘Grand Narratives’ and their relatives. These constructs are not about individuated beings but about collective entities, and they display general laws rather than a concrete world to the imagination. But they retain a temporal dimension, and they provide global explanations of history. Condition 2 is the hardest to ignore, but its lifting occurs when we speak of ‘the narrative of white superiority’, or of ‘the narrative of the vitality of the Soviet system’. What happens here is that the label narrative has been metonymically transferred from the stories propagated by colonialist literature or party-controlled media to the a-temporal propositions that form their (preferably objectionable) ideological message. The label remains attached to the ideological statement even after its emancipation from particular stories.
References and Further Reading
Abbott, H. Porter (2002) The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Barthes, Roland (1977 ) ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’, in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang.
Bordwell, David (1985) Narration in the Fiction Film, Madison: U of Wisconsin P.
Bruner, Jerome (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Bremond, Claude (1973) Logique du récit, Paris: Seuil.
Chatman, Seymour (1990) Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Fiction and Film, Ithaca: Cornell UP.
Dautenbahn, Kerstin, and Steven J. Coles (2001) ‘Narrative Intelligence
from the Bottom Up: Computational Framework for the Study of Story-Telling
in Autonomous Agents’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social
Simulation 4.1. Foucault, Michel (1978) The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley,
New York: Random House.
Hjelmslev, Louis (1961) Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, trans.
Francis J. Whitfield, Madison: U of Wisconsin P.
Herman, David (2002) Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of
Narrative, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P.
Lyotard, Jean-François (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report
on Knowledge, trans. Geoff bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: U of
Prince, Gerald (1987) A Dictionary of Narratology, Lincoln: U of
Ricoeur, Paul (1984-88) Time and Narrative, 3 vols., trans. Kathleen
McLaughlin and Paul Pellauer, Chicago: U of Chicago P.
Ryan, Marie-Laure (2004) ‘Introduction’, in Marie-Laure Ryan (ed.)
Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, Lincoln: U of
Schaeffer, Jean-Marie (1999) Pourquoi la fiction, Paris: Seuil.
Sturgess, Philip (1992) Narrativity: Theory and Practice, Oxford:
White, Hayden (1981) ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of
History’, in W.J.T. Mitchell (ed.) On Narrative, Chicago: The U of Chicago
Foucault, Michel (1978) The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Random House.
Hjelmslev, Louis (1961) Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, trans. Francis J. Whitfield, Madison: U of Wisconsin P.
Herman, David (2002) Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P.
Lyotard, Jean-François (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.
Prince, Gerald (1987) A Dictionary of Narratology, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P.
Ricoeur, Paul (1984-88) Time and Narrative, 3 vols., trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and Paul Pellauer, Chicago: U of Chicago P.
Ryan, Marie-Laure (2004) ‘Introduction’, in Marie-Laure Ryan (ed.) Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P.
Schaeffer, Jean-Marie (1999) Pourquoi la fiction, Paris: Seuil.
Sturgess, Philip (1992) Narrativity: Theory and Practice, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
White, Hayden (1981) ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of History’, in W.J.T. Mitchell (ed.) On Narrative, Chicago: The U of Chicago P.