An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


Stories are everywhere: in movies, sitcoms, cartoons, commercials, poems, newspaper articles, novels, computer games and websites. We all make use of stories every day and our lives are shaped by stories — stories about what happened in our dreams or at the dentist, stories about how we fell in love or the origins of the universe, stories about war and about peace, stories to commemorate the dead and to confirm a sense of who we are. In this chapter, we propose to circle around the following propositions:

· 1. Stories are everywhere.

· 2. Not only do we tell stories, but stories tell us: if stories are everywhere, we are also in stories.

· 3. The telling of a story is always bound up with power, with questions of authority, property and domination.

· 4. Stories are multiple: there is always more than one story.

· 5. Stories always have something to tell us about stories themselves: they always involve self-reflexive and metafictional dimensions.

Roland Barthes suggests that falling in love involves telling ourselves stories about falling in love: in this sense, he argues, ’mass culture is a machine for showing desire’ (Barthes 1990c, 136). Disagreements, arguments, even wars, are often the result of conflicting stories concerning, for example, the rights to a piece of land: the real reason for both the Gulf War (1990—1) and the Iraq War (2003—11) may have been oil, but the technical justification for going to war turned on the story of who owned or should own a particular piece of Kuwait in the first instance and the existence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction in the second. Academic, ’objective’ or ’scientific’ discourses are constructed as stories. The historian Hayden White has given special emphasis to the fact that history is written in the form of certain kinds of narrative, that the task of the historian is to ’charge … events’ with ’a comprehensible plot structure’ (White 1978, 92). Science is composed of stories: astronomy attempts to narrate the beginnings of the universe; geology seeks to tell the story of the formation of mountains and plains, rivers, valleys and lakes; and like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, evolutionary psychology purports to tell us the story of how we came to be as we are. For many centuries, millions of people have come to understandings about their place in the world, the meaning of their lives and the nature of politics, ethics and justice through stories about the lives of Christ, Buddha or the prophet Muhammad. The narrative of class struggle and emancipation from peasant society to the dictatorship of the proletariat has had a profound influence in the past 150 years. And in the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud produced a new and scandalous story about the nature of childhood. To say that Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Marxism and psychoanalysis involve stories is not to suggest that they are merely fictive. Rather, it is to register the fact that there are few aspects of life which are not bound up with strategies and effects of narrative.

The simplest way to define narrative is as a series of events in a specific order — with a beginning, a middle and an end. We might think about James Joyce’s short story ’The Dead’, from Dubliners (1914), to illustrate the point. Put very simply, the story begins with the arrival of Gabriel and his wife Gretta at a party, tells of the events of the party and the couple’s walk home, and ends as they fall asleep in their hotel. What is important in this description is the temporal ordering of what happens. By contrast, lyric poems, for example, are not typically thought to express or depict a temporally ordered series of events. One of the ways in which lyric poetry is defined, in fact, is by the absence of any such representation of events — lyric poems characteristically use the present tense and exploit a sense of the presence of the speaker in the act of meditating or speaking. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ’To a Sky-Lark’ (1820) recounts no events, but is an effusion of the poet’s sense of the bird’s ’unpremeditated art’ which he attempts both to define and in some ways to reproduce. Similarly, while Seamus Heaney’s ’bog poems’ from North (1975) might dig up buried narratives of victimization, sacrifice and atonement, their lyric tone gives a sense of an individual poet responding, now, to what he sees. Narrative, however, is characterized by its foregrounding of a series of events or actions which are connected in time. What happens at the end of ’The Dead’ is determined by what happened earlier. The events are recounted more or less chronologically in Joyce’s story, in that the order of the telling follows the order of the told: first we learn of Gabriel and Gretta’s arrival, then of the party, and finally of what happens back at the hotel. But narratives also invariably involve what the narratologist Gérard Genette has called anachronisms — flashbacks, jumps forwards (or prolepses), the slowing down and speeding up of events and other distortions of the linear time-sequence (Genette 1986). Texts such as Virginia Woolf’s ’The Mark on the Wall’ (1921) dislodge our sense of temporal sequence. The story begins: ’Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year’ (Woolf 1982, 41). This suggests that the events recounted span a number of months, but by the end we have the sense that the story follows the wanderings of the narrator’s consciousness over only a number of minutes or, at most, hours. Despite this and many other distortions of chronological order, however, Woolf’s text is only readable insofar as it exploits our expectations of narrative sequence. Indeed, these distortions themselves can only be conceived against a background of linear chronological sequence.

Time, then, is crucial to narrative. But as the novelist E.M. Forster recognizes in Aspects of the Novel (1927), the temporal ordering of events is not the whole story. Forster makes a memorable distinction between ’The king died and then the queen died’ on the one hand, and ’The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ on the other (Forster 1976, 87). While the first ’narrative’ includes two events related in time, he proposes, the second includes another ’connection’, the crucial element of causality. The first simply lists two events, while the second provides the thread of a narrative by showing how they are related. The logical or causal connections between one event and another constitute fundamental aspects of every narrative. An obvious example would be detective stories. Detective stories rely, above all, on our expectation and desire for connection. They produce quite complex routes to a revelation of whodunnit, routes both determined and detected by the logic of cause and effect.

The beginning—middle—end sequence of a narrative also tends to emphasize what is known as a teleological progression — the end (in Greek, telos) itself as the place to get to. A lyric poem does not seem to rely on its ending to provide coherence: the end is not typically the place where all will be resolved. By contrast, we often think of a good story as one that we just cannot put down, a novel we compulsively read to find out what happens at the end. The narrative theorist Peter Brooks has studied ways in which readers’ desires are directed towards the end, ways in which narratives are structured towards, or as a series of digressions from, an ending:

we are able to read present moments — in literature and, by extension, in life — as endowed with narrative meaning only because we read them in anticipation of the structuring power of those endings that will retrospectively give them the order and significance of plot. (Brooks 1984, 94)

Likewise, Brooks has elaborated the paradoxical ways in which the dénouement or tying up of a story is worked towards through the paradox of digression. Thus, for example, while we may find a novel, film or play frustrating if it contains too many digressions from the main plot, we enjoy the suspense involved in delaying a denouement. ’Suspense’ movies, thrillers and so on, in particular, exploit this strangely masochistic pleasure that we take in delay. One of the paradoxical attractions of a good story, in fact, is often understood to be its balancing of digression, on the one hand, with progression towards an end, on the other.

But what is this end which we so much desire? (We may find out in more detail below, in Chapter 38.) Brooks and others have suggested that narratives move from a state of equilibrium or stasis through a disturbance of this stability, and back to a state of equilibrium at the end. The end of a narrative, the state of equilibrium, occurs when the criminal is discovered, when the lovers get married, or when the tragic hero dies. In addition, this end is characteristically the place of revelation and understanding. A part of the equilibrium that endings apparently offer is the satisfaction of epistemophilia, the reader’s desire to know (from the Greek episteme, knowledge, and philia, love). And because of the conventional emphasis on hermeneutic discovery at the end, endings tend to be particularly over-determined places: we look to the end to provide answers to questions that the text has raised. In modernist narratives such as Woolf’s ’The Mark on the Wall’, however, these answers tend to be withheld or else treated ironically. The ending of Woolf’s story is paradoxical, in fact, in that it resolves the question with which the story starts out — what is the mark on the wall? — by telling us that it is a snail. But this ’answer’ to the question simply parodies those conventional realist endings that seem to clear up our confusions and satisfy our curiosity. So what if it is a snail? To say that the mark is a snail is an example of what is called an aporia — an impassable moment or point in narrative, a hermeneutic abyss. If we ask what Woolf’s story is ’about’, we realize that it is about itself as a story. The ending tells everything, it gives us ’the answer’, and it tells us nothing: it is not for this ’answer’ that we have read the story. Our epistemophilia proves to be perverted.

One of the most fundamental distinctions in narrative theory is that between ’story’ and ’discourse’. As Jonathan Culler has suggested, a fundamental premiss of narratology is that narrative has a double structure: the level of the told (story) and the level of telling (discourse) (Culler 1981). These levels have been given different names by different theorists — the Russian formalists call them fabula and sjuzhet; the French structuralists call them either récit (or histoire) and discours, and so on. ’Story’, in this sense, involves the events or actions which the narrator would like us to believe occurred, the events (explicitly or implicitly) represented. ’Discourse’, on the other hand, involves the way in which these events are recounted, how they get told, the organization of the telling. In fact, of course, these two levels can never be entirely separated, and much narrative theory has been concerned to describe ways in which they interact. Thus Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Joyce’s ’The Dead’, for example, present the events of the narrative more or less in the order that they are alleged to have occurred. By contrast, texts such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Woolf’s ’The Mark on the Wall’ move forward and backward in time and shift from the level of telling to that of the told in complex and unnerving ways. Many modernist and postmodernist texts experiment with the relation between these two levels, to denaturalize or defamiliarize our sense of how narratives function. A text such as Robert Coover’s short story ’The Babysitter’ from Pricksongs and Descants (1969), for instance, presents several slightly different accounts of what appears to be the same evening from a number of different perspectives: the contradictions and dislocations produced within and between these accounts, however, make it impossible, finally, to determine the precise nature or order of the evening’s events. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels, such as The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957), also recount the ’same’ series of events over and over again, but from the ’same’ narratorial perspective: each telling, however, is subtly different, thus dissolving our sense of any one, true, narrative of events. Rather than reading such texts simply as exceptions or aberrations, we might consider ways in which they metafictionally reflect on the multiplicity of any narrative — its susceptibility to different readings, its differing narrative perspectives, its shifting senses of place and time.

Everything that we have said about narrative up to this point has concerned the sense of its linearity: narrative involves a linear series of actions connected in time and through causality. In addition to this linearity, we might consider another important aspect of narrative, namely the relation between teller and listener or reader. Indeed, rather than appealing to the idea of a sequence of events, Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued that we need to ground our understanding of narrative in terms of ’someone telling someone else that something happened’ (Smith 1981, 228). The significance of this proposition is that it redirects our focus from the events or actions themselves to the relationship between the author or teller and the reader or listener. As Jonathan Culler has put it, ’To tell a story is to claim a certain authority, which listeners grant’ (Culler 1997, 89). Much of the work in narrative theory has involved attempts to discriminate among different kinds of narrators (first person or third person, objective or subjective, reliable or unreliable, so-called ’omniscient’ or not, together with questions concerning his or her ’point of view’, his or her ’voice’ and so on). Our understanding of a text is pervaded by our sense of the character, trustworthiness and objectivity of the figure who is narrating. Moreover, it is often very important to discriminate between the narratorial point of view and that of the so-called implied author — a particularly important distinction in certain ironic texts, for example. Although Jonathan Swift’s essay ’A Modest Proposal’ (1729) would not usually be considered as a narrative, it does provide one of the classic examples of narratorial irony. In this essay, the narrator proposes that in order to deal with poverty and hunger in Ireland and to prevent children of the poor from being a burden to their parents, such children should be sold to the rich as food — a solution that would be ’innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual’ (509). The narrator appears to make his proposal seriously but we necessarily conceive of an ’implied author’ who has very different views and motives, and who is making a political point about the immorality of the English government in its attitude towards poverty in Ireland. Our understanding of the ironic force of the text relies on our distinguishing between the two voices or personae of the narrator and the implied author.

A consideration of the relationship between teller and listener or reader leads in turn to questions of power and property. One of the most famous storytellers in world literature is Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights (a collection of tales that originated in the Middle East in the ninth—tenth centuries). In these classical Arabic narratives, Scheherazade has been sentenced to death by the king but is able to stave off her execution by telling him stories. By ending her story each night on a cliff-hanger, she is able to delay her death for another day because the king wants to find out what happens next. What makes A Thousand and One Nights so intriguing for narrative theorists has to do with its enactment of forms of power. As Ross Chambers proposes, ’To tell a story is to exercise power’ (Chambers 1984, 50). Chambers argues that storytelling is often used, as in the case of Scheherazade, as an ’oppositional’ practice, a practice of resistance used by the weak against the strong: ’oppositional narrative’, he claims, ’in exploiting the narrative situation, discovers a power, not to change the essential structure of narrative situations, but to change its other (the “narratee” if one will), through the achievement and maintenance of authority, in ways that are potentially radical’ (Chambers 1991, 11). In this respect, we might consider the motives and effects of Gretta’s story of her dead lover in ’The Dead’: perhaps the ending of Joyce’s narrative should be understood in terms of the diffusion of Gabriel’s egoistic, domineering and even rapacious desire for his wife by Gretta’s narration of her love story. Gretta, subject to patriarchal society’s insistence on the husband’s rights to the wife’s body, displaces her husband’s unwanted attention by telling him a story. The violence of Gabriel’s desire is expressed in references to his longing ’to be master of her strange mood … to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against him, to overmaster her’ (248). By the middle of Gretta’s narration, Gabriel sees himself, by contrast with the lover of her story, as a ’ludicrous figure … idealizing his own clownish lusts’ and a ’pitiable fatuous fellow’ (251). And by the end, all lusts and all passions and anger, all mastery and desire, have dissolved: ’Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window’ (253). This conflict of stories — Gabriel’s about himself and Gretta’s about her dead lover — results in a disturbance of power relations. In this sense, just as much as ’The Mark on the Wall’, or the stories of Coover and Robbe-Grillet, ’The Dead’ is self-reflexively about the power of stories. More often, of course, it is the dominant ideology which is able to tell stories about, for example, how it got to be the dominant ideology. In the Soviet Union, it was the Bolsheviks and later the Stalinists who got to write the history books. In present-day China, accounts of the 1989 Tiananmen Square ’massacre’ (as it is called in the West) are censored and literary works that attempt to represent it, such as Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma (2008), are officially banned. Capitalism, on the other hand, has its own (largely unspoken) version of ’victors’ history’, in which increasing levels of wealth, personal freedom, cultural and religious choice and individual autonomy are a direct result of economic liberalism and the inevitable consequence of profound but necessary inequalities in the global distribution of wealth.

The power exerted by Scheherazade and by Gretta is a specifically narrative power. The only way that these storytellers can avoid death on the one hand and violent passion on the other is by making their stories good, by making them compelling to the point of distraction. By contrast, as far as the Soviet Union was concerned, for example, the Stalinist version of history did not even have to be plausible, because its lessons would be enforced in other ways. Narrative power, then, may be the only strategy left for the weak and dispossessed: without narrative power, they may not be heard. The social and political importance of stories is eloquently expressed by the old man in Chinua Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah (1987): ’The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards — each is important in its own way’ (123—4). But, the man continues, the story is ’chief among his fellows’:

The story is our escort; without it we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbours. (124)

Stories own us, and tell us, Achebe suggests, as much as we own or tell stories.

There are many questions of narrative, then, that may be considered in relation to literature: temporality, linearity and causality, so-called omniscience, point of view, desire and power. But most of all, perhaps, it is the relation between narrative and ’non-’ or ’anti-narrative’ elements that fascinate and disturb. Aspects such as description, digression, suspense, aporia and self-reflection, temporal and causal disorders are often what are most compelling in narrative. A text such as Woolf’s ’The Mark on the Wall’, for example, has no narrative outside of description and aporetic reflections on the nature of narrative. Correspondingly, Joyce’s ’The Dead’ depends to a large extent on moments of what Joyce refers to elsewhere as ’epiphany’, moments of revelation or understanding, moments that appear to stand outside time, outside of narrative. As Gabriel watches his wife listening to a piece of music as they prepare to leave the party, there is just such a moment — a moment of revelation which is also a moment of mystery. Gretta, standing listening to a song is, for Gabriel, full of ’grace and mystery … as if she were a symbol of something’ (240). Like Scheherazade’s, Joyce’s storytelling holds off, and hangs on, to death. And as the snow falls on the world outside the hotel window at the end of the story, as Gabriel falls into unconsciousness and the narrative slips away, there is another moment of epiphany, a dissolution of time, of space, of life, of identity, desire and narrative.

Further reading

Wallace Martin, Recent Theories of Narrative (1986), Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction (2002) and H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2008) all provide good, clear introductions to narrative theory, while David Herman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Narrative (2007) is a useful collection of clear and helpful accounts of various dimensions of the topic. Herman, Manfred Jahn and Marie-Laure Ryan, eds, The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Narrative Theory (2005), and the online Living Handbook of Ideology ( offer comprehensive surveys of the field; Gerald Prince, A Dictionary of Narratology (2004) presents concise accounts of its principal concepts; and Herman et al., Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012) offers an account of recent debates in narratology. J. Hillis Miller’s essay ’Narrative’ (1990) is a concise and accessible summary of a number of paradoxes in narrative. Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse (1986) is an influential systematic account of the structure of narrative. Another modern classic which takes as its focus questions of narrative perspective is Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds (1978). Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot (1984) explores ways in which narrative may be thought about in relation to readers’ desires; on the ’epistemophilic urge’ in narrative, see his Body Work (1993). A good short summary of feminist perspectives on narrative theory is Margaret Homans’s ’Feminist Fictions and Feminist Theories of Narrative’ (1994); see also Lidia Curti, Female Stories, Female Bodies (1998). James Phelan has collected some useful and provocative essays on narrative and its relationship to issues of reading in Reading Narrative (1989) and in his more recent co-edited collection (with Peter Rabinowitz), A Companion to Narrative Theory (2005). Seymour Chatman’s Coming to Terms (1990) is an incisive summary of narrative theory in relation to literary texts and film, and is especially useful in its discussion of ideas of narrative perspective and point of view. For a critique of traditional narratology from a poststructuralist perspective, see Andrew Gibson, Towards a Postmodern Theory of Narrative (1996). Richardson (2006) offers a helpful account of narrators and narrative techniques in modern and contemporary fiction. For a valuable and wide-ranging collection of essays on narrative theory, from Plato to Trin Minh-Ha, focusing in particular on ’classic’ structuralist approaches and poststructuralist provocations, see Martin McQuillan, ed., The Narrative Reader (2000).