The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Ryan Kernan

The concepts of histoire (story) and discours (discourse) constitute the fundamental elements of the formalist (see FORMALISM) theory of narrative. Story resides in the content, the chain of events (the actions or happenings), and what is often labeled the “existents”: the characters, settings, and the objects or persons that serve as a background for these events. Discourse refers to the means by which the content is communicated. In short, the story is that which is depicted, and the discourse is the actual narrative statements, the form of expression. While the distinction between story and discourse is most often associated with practitioners of narratology (the study of narrative) who can be classified as formalist, to a lesser extent it has also been incorporated into the arguments of structuralist and poststructuralist theorists of narrative (see STRUCTURALISM). Indeed, as Jonathan Culler emphasizes, most strands of narratology are united by the recognition that any theory of narrative requires a distinction between story and discourse.

Conventional theorizing about the story/discourse dichotomy is said to begin with the Russian formalists, and in particular with Boris Tomashevskii's Theory of Literature (1925) and Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (1928). The Russian formalist employed the concepts of fabula (story) and siuzhet (discourse) to distinguish between the raw material of literature and its aesthetic rearrangement in narrative fiction. The basic difference between the two stems from their contrasting treatment of chronology (see TIME) and causality (see PLOT). Usually, the story is constituted of what is narrated as a chronological sequence of logically and causally related themes, motives, and plot lines that explain why its events occur. Discourse, in turn, describes the stylistic choices that determine how the text appears before the reader.

The Russian formalist articulation of this dualistic distinction has certain antecedents in Aristotle's Poetics as well as in the third book of Plato's Republic (ca. 380 BCE), but it came to the fore in continental narrative theory during the late 1960s in the work of Tzvetan Todorov and via the structural linguistics of Émile Benveniste. Nevertheless, it is most commonly associated with the work of the French literary theorist Gérard Genette and with the arguments contained in his 1976 essay “Frontières du récit” (“Boundaries of Narrative”). In the case of Genette, however, the double-tiered base structure of narrative levels becomes tripartite. In addition to the division between story and discourse, Genette employs the term “narration” to forefront the transaction between narrator and narratee. The récit (narrative discourse) is the actual text produced by the act of narration, and it conveys the story of the narrative. His categories of temps (tense) and mode (mood), in turn, describe the relationship between the levels of story and discourse on the surface level of the text. Here, past-tense verbs delivered by a third- or first-person narrator constitute story, while discourse is marked by the present tense of dialogue or reported speech.

Given Genette's tripartite structure and the fact that story disappears—in his (markedly Hegelian) vision of the novel's future—leaving a fully emancipated discourse, it is somewhat curious that he is the theorist most commonly associated with the binary of story/discourse as it is rigidly employed elsewhere. This curiosity, though, is a testament to the enormous influence that his thought exerted over theorists writing both alongside him and in his wake. Several other influential narratologists, most notably Seymour Chatman, extrapolate the phenomenon of voice from the textual level and adhere to the aforementioned bipartite schema. These different uses of the terms story and discourse in narratology—the first where story and discourse correspond respectively to what the text is about and to how it is told—and the second, Genette's, has caused a considerable amount of confusion within the field itself.

The enduring importance of Genette's “Frontiers of Narrative” with respect to this dualistic binary is, in part, a function of the fact that his essay excavates Classical arguments concerning epic poetry, dramatic poetry, mimesis (imitation), and diegesis (narrative) not only to provide illustrative case examples of the differences between story and discourse, but also to qualify both as aspects of narrative. To support this bold assertion about the domain of narrative and to draw his readers' attention to the fact that, from time immemorial, the distinction between story and discourse has been of the utmost concern for theorists of literature, Genette points to two contradictory theorizations about the relationship between narrative and imitation that find their origin in Antiquity. The first frames narrative as the antithesis of imitation, and is exemplified by Aristotle's contention that narrative poetry (the poetry of diegesis) and dramatic poetry (the poetry of mimesis or the direct representation of events by actors speaking before the public) should be considered separate and distinct modes. The second frames imitation as one of the modes of narrative, and originates in Plato's Republic wherein Plato makes the distinction between logos (that which is said) and lexis (the manner of speaking), which can be further divided into mimesis (imitation) and diegesis (instances where the narrator speaks in his own name).

Genette subscribes to neither of these traditions, but nevertheless turns to Plato's reading of bk. 1 of the Iliad to delineate story (or simple narrative) from discourse (or imitation). With respect to this distinction, Genette's example is canonical and worthy of full citation:

By simple narrative Plato means all that the poet relates “in speaking in his own name, without trying to make us believe that it is another who speaks.” Thus in Book I of the Iliad Homer tells us of Chryses: “He came to the Achaeans' great boats to buy back his daughter, bringing a tremendous ransom and bearing the bands of Apollo the archer on the golden staff in his hand. He entreated all the Achaeans, but especially Atreus' sons, two fine military leaders.” In contrast, the next verses consist in imitation, because Homer makes Chryses himself speak, or rather Homer speaks, pretending to have become Chryses, and “strives to give us the illusion that it is not Homer speaking, but really the old man, Apollo's priest.” Here is the text of the discourse of Chryses: “Descendents of Atreus, and you also, well-armed Achaeans, may the gods, dwellers on Olympus, allow you to destroy Priam's city and then to return without injury to your homes! But for me, may you also give me back my daughter! And for that, accept this ransom, out of respect to the son of Zeus, to Apollo the archer.” But Plato adds that Homer could as well have continued his narrative in a purely narrative form by recounting the words of Chryses instead of quoting them. This would have made the same passage, in indirect style and in prose: “Having arrived, the priest implored the gods to allow the Achaeans to take Troy and to keep them from destruction, and he asked the Greeks to give him back his daughter in exchange for a ransom and out of respect for the gods.” (2)

For many critics who distinguish story from discourse at the surface level of the text, this citation from “Frontiers of Narrative” describes sufficiently the difference between them. What “Homer tells us of Chryses,” or what the poet speaks “in his own name,” comprises a structural level of the surface text that can be labeled the story or the narrative. The portion of the text where dialogue intrudes, or where “Homer makes Chryses himself speak,” constitutes the elements of the text that can be identified as discourse. Indeed, Genette himself would concur with these designations.

What Genette finds troublesome about Plato's reading of the Iliad is Plato's assertion that what we have just labeled “story” and “discourse” (or, in Plato's lexicon, diegesis and mimesis, the elements of lexis) can be adequately distinguished from logos (“what is said”). This is the case because to assume a distinction between “that which is said” and “the manner of speaking” in a work of fiction is to conceive of “poetic fiction as a simulacrum of reality.” Unlike a history or a landscape painting, a work of fiction does not necessarily have an event or landscape which is exterior to the artifact that represents it. The distinction between lexis and logos therefore posits a distinction between fiction and representation that is untenable, or—in Genette's words—the distinction reduces “the object of the fiction” to “a sham reality awaiting its representation.” Hence, the very notion of imitation with regard to lexis is ephemeral at best—language can only perfectly imitate language. This, in turn, leads Genette to a startling, yet logical, conclusion that troubles both contradictory Classical theorizations of the relationship between narrative and imitation at their very core: in the literary realm, mimesis is diegesis.

Genette's dismantling of the Classical theorization between “what is said” and the “manner of speaking” neither leads him to cast aside the distinction between the content of expression (story) and the “mode of expression” (discourse), nor does it prompt him to deny the representational function of narrative altogether. Rather, it leads him to propose a new understanding of diegesis (narrative) that subsumes story and discourse and that locates both on the surface level of the text. The fundamental difference between “story” (narrative) and “discourse” is, for Genette, that the former is objective and the latter subjective, but only in strictly linguistic terms. Récit (story) makes use of the third person and discours (discourse) the first. Where the former in its most “pure” incarnation is marked—ever since the advent of realism in the novels of Honoré de Balzac—by a desire to efface all reference to a narrator and to arrange events in some type of chronological order, the latter—in the presentation of reported speech or dialogue—forefronts its speaker and defines the present as the instant in which the discourse is held. Hence, for Genette, story and discourse are distinguishable by temps (tense) and mode (mood), and constitute the “semiological existence” of the literary narration which—insofar as literary representation is concerned—has no concrete referent outside the text.

For Genette, both story and discourse are always present (to varying degrees) in narration. Story may be conceived without discourse, but any such conception does not exist in the real word of texts. The same can be said of an independently conceived narrative of pure discourse. This, however, is where the symmetry ends. Story is a very particular, restrictive mode marked by a number of exclusions and conditions, and any intrusion of discourse into story—in Genette's words—“forms a sort of cyst, easily recognized and localized.” The slightest general observation, the slightest comparison, or even the tiniest adjective introduces an element of subjective discourse into story. In contrast, discourse does not have to answer to a concomitant demand of purity because it is, for Genette, “the natural mode of language” (12). Hence, although no novel of pure discourse yet exists, Genette sees it as a possibility for the novel's future.

For both Genette and for theorists like Seymour Chatman who adhere to the bipartite schema of story and discourse, time plays a key role in distinguishing one entity from the other. This is the case for Genette not only because he distinguishes discourse from story by making recourse to tense and mood, but also because of his understanding of diegesis (narrative) that posits the existence of two types of literary representation that use time in different manners, narrative and descriptive. These two types do not have what Genette labels a “semiological existence” (description is not its own mode but rather an aspect of narration), but they do bring to light how temporality differs in different modes of literary representation. Narration, insofar as it is tied to actions and events, puts an emphasis on what Genette labels “the temporal and dramatic aspects of narrative.” Conversely, description suspends the flow of time because it “lingers over objects and beings considered in their simultaneity” (8). For theorists like Chatman, the analysis of narrative must also observe two time scales not because of the difference between description and narrative, but rather because the narratologist must distinguish between the inner time of the content (story time) and the outer time (discourse time), the time that it takes the audience to peruse the story. Chatman's theorization of temporality in story and discourse differs markedly from Genette's distinction between the temporality of narrative and description. Nevertheless, it is worth noticing that here and elsewhere, the distinction between story and discourse consistently engenders questions about the different functions of time in the fundamental layers of narrative.

For many structuralists like Claude Bremond, story is distinguished from discourse as a layer of autonomous significance that can be isolated from the whole of the narrative message. This autonomous layer manifests in the same way regardless of the means of narrative conveyance, independent of the techniques that bear it along. Hence, story—in this formulation—may be transposed from medium to medium without losing its essential properties. For example, the subject of a novel may serve as the argument for a ballet. Whether it manifests in a novel, in a stage performance, in a piece of cinema, or even in a summary, it is the story that we follow. Raconte (that which is narrated) has its own racontants (story elements), and these elements do not correspond to words, images, or gestures but rather to the events, situations, and behaviors signified by them.

SEE ALSO: Metafiction, Narrative, Narrative Perspective, Narrative Technique.


1. Bal, M. (1985), Narratology.

2. Benveniste, É. (1996), Problèmes de linguistique générale.

3. Bremond, C. (1973), Logique du récit.

4. Chatman, S. (1978), Story and Discourse.

5. Culler, J. (1981), Pursuit of Signs, Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction.

6. Genette, G. (1976), “ Boundaries of Narrative,” trans. A. Levonas, New Literary History (1): 1—13.

7. Genette, G. (1980), Narrative Discourse.

8. Miller, J.H., ed. (1970), Aspects of Narrative.

9. Prince, G. (2003), Dictionary of Narratology.

10. Todorov, T. (1965), Théorie de la littérature.