Narrative Theory - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Narrative Theory
The Rise of Literary Theory

Modern Narrative Theory begins with Russian Formalism in the 1920s, specifically with the work of Roman Jakobson, Yuri Tynyanov, and Viktor Shklovsky. Tynyanov combined his skills as a historical novelist with Formalism to produce, with Jakobson, Theses on Language (1928), a treatise on literary structure. Like Shklovsky and other formalists at this time, Tynyanov and Jakobson employed a systematic and holistic theory of language, drawing on Saussure and the idea of language as a binary structural system. Shklovsky was interested in what distinguished the language of prose fiction from “ordinary” language and sought to demonstrate the AUTONOMY of prose on the same lines that Jakobson established the autonomy of poetry. His earliest work, his essay “Art as Technique” (1917), introduced the concept of ostranenie (“making strange”) or defamiliarization, one of the “devices” that constitutes the work of art, and challenged novelistic realism by drawing the reader's attention to the strangeness of what is most familiar and thus calling into question the referential function of language. (On Shklovsky, see pp. 183-4.) A few years later, in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929), M. M. Bakhtin proffered a similar theory of novelistic form based on what Caryl Emerson calls “aesthetic distance”: “the observing self must be distanced from what it perceives if art is to happen” (640). While for Shklovsky, distance is a function of the reader's “estrangement” from a thing, for Bakhtin it is largely a function of a relationship “between one person and another person, between two distinct living centers of consciousness” (656), a relationship that he describes in terms of DIALOGISM. Bakhtin argues that novelistic narrative is multi-voiced or polyphonic; it is characterized by a condition of HETEROGLOSSIA, Bakhtin's term for the stratification of discourses in novelist narrative - from the monologic “voice” that we associate with traditional omniscient narrators, to the interpolated dialogue of characters, to the various ideolects and jargons available to those characters. His notion of the “carnivalesque,” a mode of discourse or ritual in which traditional hierarchies are turned upside down, suggests that the destabilization of social and discursive stratifications can liberate both author and reader from the restrictions of social and literary orthodoxies. (On Bakhtin, see pp. 115, 157, 184-6.)

The other major figure of the 1920s was Vladimir Propp, whose Morphology of the Folktale (1928) influenced in its turn French Structuralists. According to Propp, folktales are made up of specific narrative functions (leaving home, confronting danger at the hands of a villain, the realization of a lack, combat between hero and villain, marriage of the hero, and so on). “Function is understood as an act of a character,” writes Propp, “defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action” (21). There are thirty-one possible functions, all or some of which may appear in a given tale, but in any case, they invariably appear in the same order. These functions are stable and independent of the particular character who fulfills them. The “dramatis personae” of the folktale consists of seven different character types: villain, donor (provider), helper, princess (“a sought-for person”), dispatcher, hero, false hero (Propp 79-80). This limited number of characters and narrative situations nevertheless permits an almost infinite number of story possibilities. In the 1960s, A. J. Greimas modified Propp's structuralist model, refining the typology of functions, which he called actants, and the articulation of actors (Propp’s “characters”). “The result is that if the actors can be established within a tale-occurrence, the actants, which are classifications of actors, can be established only from the corpus of all the tales: an articulation of actors constitutes a particular tale; an articulation of actants constitutes a genre’’ (200). In his restructuring of Propp, Greimas employed the science of semantics (concerned with the meaning of signs) to posit a structure of actantial relations that stresses binary pairs: subject v. object, sender v. receiver, and helper v. opponent. Each of these pairs makes a number of “thematic investments.” Greimas's structural semantics is driven by desire. Actantial relationships do not operate on the primary level of action (“to be able to do,” “to do”) but rather express a “specialized relationship of’desire’ … which transforms itself at the level of the manifested functions into ’quest’ ” (207). Greimas gives the example, greatly simplified, of a “learned philosopher of the classical age” who desires knowledge; his story would be a “drama of knowledge” in which the subject is “philosopher” and the object “world”; the sender “God” and the receiver “mankind”; the opponent “matter” and the helper “mind” (209-10). Any number of actors might be employed, depending on the genre, to fulfill these actantial functions.

Greimas's modifications of Propp's Formalism coincide with the rise of Structuralism in anthropology and literary studies. As the early Struc-

turalists demonstrated, the form of a given narrative does not necessarily follow the sequence of events that constitute the story it tells. in fact, literature and film often depend on the tensions created between the expected temporal ordering of the story and the actual structure of narrative. These different levels of narration have been theorized in a number of different ways - as story/discourse, histoire/recit, fabula/sjuzet - but in each case, the same fundamental distinction is maintained. Propp and Greimas, with their emphasis on the meaning of functions and character, are both interested in what is narrated, the level of story. In the work of Tzvetan Todorov, Meike Bal, Gerard Genette, and Roland Barthes, the level of narrative discourse is preeminent, with the result that character and event are subordinated to processes and problems of narration.

In his “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” (1966), Barthes takes linguistics as the starting point for a structuralist theory of narrative as a functional syntax. Narratives function like sentences, but they operate on different levels of description. There are two primary relations: “distributional (if the relations are situated on the same level) and integrational (if they are grasped from one level to the next)” (86). Narrative elements can be arranged in a variety of predictable and stable ways within the acceptable limits of a narrative syntax or grammar. The arrangement of elements operates according to a “hierarchy of instances”: units, action, narration. At the “atomic” level, units perform distributional functions, ordering elements around “hinge-points” of the narrative while at the integrational level they connect and order the levels of character and narration. These units are often fairly minor elements of the story (Barthes's offers the example of a cigarette lighter in a James Bond film); however, they can serve important functions by linking or “distributing” narrative elements in a causal chain or by integrating different aspects of the narrative across temporal and spatial contexts. The level of action is dominated by character, which is not a “being” in the psychological sense, but a “participant” enacting a function within a specific sequence: “every character (even secondary) is the hero of his own sequence” (106). Finally, the level of narration (often called “point of view”) concerns the specific structure of linguistic presentation and the site of reading. At this level, we see a shift from the story being told to the structure of narrative itself. The mechanisms of conventional realism - a straightforward and transparent means of referring to the external world - do not apply at this level: “The function of narrative is not to ’represent'; it is to constitute a spectacle still very enigmatic for us but in any case not of a MIMETIC order” (124).

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Genette and Bal further extended the possibilities of narrative by devising tripartite models of narrative structure. in Bal's arrangement, narrative text denotes the level of narration and the narrator, story denotes the sequencing of events, and fabula denotes “a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors” (5). The central problem is the relationship between story and fabula, between “the sequence of events and the way in which these events are presented” (6). Fabula refers both to the signifying level of narrative and the deep structure of the narrative text, that which “causes the narrative to be recognizable as narrative” (175). Bal follows Barthes and other structuralist narratologists in arguing for a deep structural aspect of narrative, though she recognizes the problematic nature of such structures. in a similar manner, Genette's tripartite theory of narrative distinguishes between story (the level of the signified or narrative content, which he also called diegesis), narrative (the level of the signifier, discourse or narrative text), and narrating (the level of the “narrative situation or its instance” [31], including narration and narrators). Genette stresses the temporality of narrating: “it is almost impossible for me not to locate the story in time with respect to my narrating act, since i must necessarily tell the story in a present, past, or future tense” (215). Another important category is point of view (or mood), especially the concept offocalization. Genette is especially forceful in drawing the distinction between mood, which refers to “the character whose point of view orients the narrative perspective,” and voice, which refers to the question, “who is the narrator?” (Genette 186). Finally, he posits three narratorial functions: narrative function (where the emphasis is on telling a story); directing function (where the emphasis is on the narrative text; a metanarrative function); and function ofcommunication (where the emphasis is on the relation between narrator and reader). The third function underscores the differences between a fictive narratee within the text and the reader or implied reader outside of it. Tzvetan Todorov offers another way of explaining how the structural analysis of narrative emphasizes the structure of a discourse. Thus, the object of structural analysis “is the literary discourse rather than works of literature, literature that is virtual rather than real.” It is not to offer a paraphrase or “a

rational resume of the concrete work,” but “to present a spectrum of literary possibilities, in such a manner that the existing works of literature appear as particular instances that have been realized” (436-37).

Structuralist narrative, or narratology, remains a vital field of scholarly research and advanced teaching, with Gerald Prince dominating the field in the US, but it has been eclipsed by theories of the novel. Modern novel theory begins with Georg Lukacs, who argued, in his seminal Theory of the Novel (1920), that the novel is “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God,” a world “in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become a problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality” (88, 56). The problem of the novel was the problem of a world in which the old notions of religious and social totality no longer provided solace. The representation of social totalities was best achieved, Lukacs believed, not in the experimental Modernist novel, which tended to emphasize fragmentation and alienation, but in the realist novel, which had the potential of capturing the complexity of class relations and class consciousness. Early theorists in the Anglo-American tradition, like Percy Lubbuck and F. R. Leavis, also favored the realist novel, but for very different reasons. For them, novelistic realism was the most effective way to explore human consciousness and the motivations that led to moral action. By the 1960s, Wayne Booth's rhetorical approach had successfully displaced these earlier models. Like Genette, Booth focused on problems of point of view, mood, and narrative voice, but he was less interested in the structure of narrative than in the rhetorical function of narration. Booth and his followers (especially James Phelan) were the successors of a theoretical tradition that originated with Henry James and Joseph conrad. Of special importance for Booth were narrative irony and narrative distance, devices which represented the gap between the narrator and the narrated and between author and narrator. Dorrit cohn in a similar fashion posited a theory of free indirect discourse, a mode of third-person narration in which speech and thought are represented in terms very close to a character's own syntactical and idiomatic usages.

Since the 1980s, the theory of the novel has been concerned primarily with historicist and materialist approaches. One of the most influential studies was Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981), which argues that the Modernist novel harbors a deeply sublimated narrative structure shaped by ideological forces. Jameson is indebted not only to Freud and Lacan, but to Althusser as well who provided a “post-Marxist” theory of IDEOLOGY. A related development can be discerned in Postmodern theory. Fundamental in this context is Jean-Frangois Lyotard's Postmodern Condition (1979), which is interested in how MASTER NARRATIVES reproduce and legitimize dominant ideologies and social and cultural institutions, norms, and values. Lyotard analyzes the status of master narratives and speculates on the viability of alternative models of narrative based on “paralogy,” a mode of narrative legitimation that is not concerned with promulgating “law as a norm,” but rather with making moves within a “pragmatics of knowledge” (8, 60-61). Lyotard’s Postmodernist perspective, like that of Linda Hutcheon, Robert Scholes, and other theorists of METAFICTION and FABULATION, is a response to a crisis in narrative representation and narrative legitimation. (See also pp. 149, 285-6.) The translation of Bakhtin’s work in the early 1980s led to the proliferation of new modes of interpreting the novel that focused on the DIALOGIC structure of narrative and the ideological investments that dialogism both makes possible and lays bare. A promising new direction for Narrative Theory combines the insights of Reader-Response theory with Bakhtinian DIALOGISM and is best described as an ethics of narrative, which is concerned primarily to find out why and to what ends and under whose auspices we read. Inspired by the work of ethical philosophers, especially Emmanuel Levinas, Booth and J. Hillis Miller have emerged as early and influential contributors to this new ethical theory of the novel.

Note: For more information on the reader, see Reader-Response Theories.


Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Barthes, Roland. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” 1966. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 79-124.

Emerson, Caryl. “Shklovsky’s ostranenie, Bakhtin’s vnenakhodimost” (How Distance Serves an Aesthetics of Arousal Differently from an Aesthetics Based on Pain). Poetics Today 26.4 (Winter 2005): 637-64.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse. 1972. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Greimas, A. J. Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method. 1966. Trans. Daniele McDowell, Ronald Schleifer, and Alan Velie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Lukacs, Georg. The Theory of the Novel. 1920. Trans. Anna Bostock Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1971.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Fairy Tale. 1928. Trans. Laurence Scott. 2nd rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “Structural Analysis in Narrative.” in Modern Literary Criticism, 1900-1970. Eds. Lawrence I. Lipking and A. Walton Litz. New York: Atheneum, 1972. 436-41.