The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Edward Maloney

The term narration is most commonly understood as the act of telling a story. But there are other relatively common understandings: a synonym for an entire narrative; a description of the verbal medium of narrative fiction; a rhetorical device different from argument, exposition, or description; and as the binary opposite of dialogue. For the purposes of this entry, I will limit myself to a discussion of narration as the production of a narrative, including how a narrator tells a story, the context and situation in which this recounting takes place, and the complex dynamics involved in any telling. This definition follows Gérard Genette's tripartite division of narrative into discourse, STORY, and narration. Genette separates narrative discourse (récit), from the events the discourse purports to recount (histoire), and at the same time separates the discursive text from the act of telling (narration) that produces the narrative. Despite the usefulness of Genette's distinction, later narratologists often combine the concepts of discourse and narration under the heading “narrative discourse,” highlighting the presentation of a story from the story itself. Because of its central role in the presentation of any story, narration involves a number of narrative techniques employed in narrative fiction (e.g., perspective, voice, etc.) and their related concerns and distinctions. Of course, the novel is not a homogeneous category, and novelists have often pushed the limits of narrative convention in order to produce desired effects. Consequently, our understanding of narration should follow novelistic practice rather than legislate it.

Showing vs. Telling

In The Rhetoric of Fiction Wayne Booth argues against the modernist dogma that showing is superior to telling, contending instead that both showing and telling need to be assessed in relation to the needs of individual novels. Nevertheless, Booth's argument underscores the classical distinction between mimesis and diegesis, i.e., the speech of characters as represented by the poet (mimesis) and the speech of the poet (diegesis). In mimesis, the poet seems to record speech as it happens, creating the illusion of showing the actions as they unfold. In diegesis, the poet mediates the events and actions through paraphrase and (re)telling. In the novel, quoted text (meant to indicate the direct representation of speech) and interior monologue (meant to represent the unmediated thoughts of a character) are sometimes seen as mimetic and outside of narration. Booth, Genette, Bal, and others have suggested, however, that pure mimesis in narratives is always an illusion, and that any representation of speech by characters is a narrative act mediated by a narrator. In Jane Austen's Emma (1815), for example, the extensive quoted dialogue is always framed by the narrator's diegetic commentary. Novels that eliminate or efface the narrator and rely on dialogue both to show and to tell can be understood as efforts to escape to eliminate diegesis in favor of mimesis.

Who Speaks?

The first step in understanding the narration in any novel is to address the question, “Who speaks?” In order to identify the complex dynamic involved in answering this question, many narrative theorists have proposed to distinguish among the real author, implied author, and narrator(s). Following the work of Booth, Genette and others, Seymour Chatman identifies the following components of narrative communication:


The implied author is one of the more controversial concepts in narrative theory. Booth develops the implied author as a way of distinguishing between the real author and the persona “he” constructs when writing a narrative, a persona that is visible to the reader in the narrative text as the agent who establishes the cultural and ethical norms of the text. While the debate about the implied author and his or her various relations to the real author and the narrator are outside the scope of this entry, the very distinctions among the three agents of telling indicate that narration is not the direct transmittal of a story from author to reader. Despite the debate about the value of the concept of the implied author, narrative theorists generally agree that authorial communication in the novel is mediated through the narrator. The author—narrator relation can vary across a wide spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, the narrator may be virtually indistinguishable from the (implied) author, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the narrator may be a fully developed character who has almost nothing in common with the (implied) author. Regardless of where the narrator exists on the spectrum, the answer to the question who speaks, begins with a discussion of the narrator.

One of the initial distinctions we commonly make about a narrator is whether she is a character in the story. In common usage, we often talk about the point of view of a narrator as a way of describing this relationship, and narrators have been referred to as first, third, and occasionally second person, depending on their role in the story. As Genette points out, the problem with this taxonomy is that it conflates voice (who is speaking) with vision or perception (who is seeing or perceiving), which Genette calls focalization. Genette goes on to develop more precise taxonomies of each phenomenon. With voice he separates the question of the narrator's participation in the story from the question of the narrative level at which the telling occurs. With participation, he distinguishes between homodiegetic (participating) and heterodiegetic (nonparticipating) narrators. With level he distinguishes among extradiegetic (one level above the main action), intradiegetic (within the main action), and hypodiegetic (one level below the main action). Thus we might have a narrator, such as Conrad's Marlow in Heart of Darkness (1899) who participates in the story he recounts (homodiegetic), but whose retrospective telling to his audience on the Nellie is extradiegetic.

In addition to issues of the relationship of a character narrator to the story she is telling, character narration also raises the issue of reliability. Reliability is an especially complicated issue since in most cases of character narration the only direct voice we have in the story is of that character/narrator. How can we determine whether the person telling us the story is to be trusted and in what ways? Perhaps the most important use of Booth's concept of the implied author is in helping us determine the reliability of narration in such cases. If we assume that the implied author establishes the ethical and cultural norms of the narrative, the reliability of the narrator then can be judged in relationship to those norms. This is not always easy, as debates about the reliability of the governess in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898) and about the sincerity of Humbert Humbert's condemnation of himself in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1965), among many other examples, suggest. It is also possible for narrator to be reliable about some things and unreliable about others. James Phelan has developed a useful taxonomy of reliability, arguing that narrators can be reliable or unreliable reporters of events, interpreters of knowledge or perceptions, or evaluators of ethical or moral issues. In this respect, a narrator may be unreliable because she misreports events. Or, as in the case of Lolita, a narrator may report the events accurately, but misregard the ethical values that the implied author has established.

Who Sees?

Genette identifies different types of focalization, depending on the focalizer's relationship to the story (internal, external), whether the focalization is fixed, variable, or multiple, and how the focalizer's intellectual, ethical, and psychological beliefs affect what the focalizer is able to see (Rimmon-Kenan). Consider the opening lines to Jane Austen's Emma (1815), where the narrator's particular focalization allows her to comment on Emma Woodhouse's character and qualities: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Novelists often indicate that the perspective of the focalizing agent is not the same as that of the perspective of the narrator. For example, in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), the narrator is external (heterodiegetic) and above story level (extradiegetic), but the focalization is through the eyes of Stephen Dedalus: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo” (chap. 1). Here we see (i.e., hear) primarily through the perspective of Stephen, even as the voice appears to be a blend of Stephen's and that of someone telling him this story. As the novel progresses, the narrator's focalization grows and changes with Stephen. By the end of the novel Stephen's voice ultimately takes over that of the narrator's in the form of Stephen's journal. The meeting of voice and vision at this moment of the novel highlights Stephen's artistic hopes as he goes off to “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In this way, the trajectory of the narration is crucial to Joyce's conveying Stephen's movement toward becoming an artist.

Order and Time

Novels often imitate nonfiction forms such as the history or biography (Rabinowitz). In this respect, novels are generally understood to recount events that have already taken place. Following Genette, Rimmon-Kenan identifies four classifications of narrative tense representative of different ways that narratives relate to the time of the story. The first, “ulterior” or “prior” narration, is the recounting of events that have already happened. This is the most common form of narration, and we find it in novels such as Austen's Emma. The second, anterior narration, is “predictive” or “subsequent,” and suggests future happenings, such as those in prophecies. In some narratives, the actions and narrative occur “simultaneously,” and in a fourth type of narration, “intercalated” or “interpolated,” the telling and action are not simultaneous but impact each other throughout the narrative. An epistolary novel such as Richardson's Clarissa (1747—48) employs intercalated narration. These types of temporal narrations are often associated with the verb tenses used in the narration. Ulterior and intercalated narrations are most often told in the past tense, though sometimes the historical present is used. Anterior narration is most often told in the future tense, but may involve some form of the present or past tense as well, while simultaneous narration is told in the present tense.

The time of narration is also related to the order in which events are recounted. Genette's story plane assumes that outside of narration there exists a story that happened in chronological order. How this reconstruction takes place is often affected by the order in which events are told, and can have a significant impact on issues such as suspense and narrative expectations. Narration can reconstruct the story in chronological order or it can employ anachronisms such as flashback (analepsis) and foreshadowing (prolepsis), and the more complex narratives often play with a combination of narrative order and time. For example, in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Quentin Compson's narration does not order events chronologically. Rather, Quentin unfolds the narrative in sequences that require his narratee (Shreve) and the reader, to piece together details about the Sutpen family and the true story of their history.


Finally, it is worth noting that the many of the issues of narration so far discussed have become central concerns of the novel in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This type of self-reflexive or metaficational work highlights that act of telling as part of the story (see METAFICTION). In John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), for example, the narrator acting as an author not only interrupts the flow of the narration to explain his as plight as the writer of the novel we are reading, but by the end of the book becomes a character in the novel, watching the events unfold much like the reader. This metafictional attention to narration is not new, of course, and we need simply go back to Cervantes or Sterne to see that narration is not only a complex subject but one that has long occupied writers' imagination and attention.


1. Austen, J. (1815) Emma.

2. Bal, M. (1997), Narratology, 2nd ed.

3. Booth, W. C. (1983), Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed.

4. Chatman, S. (1980), Story and Discourse.

5. Genette, G. (1980), Narrative Discourse, trans. J. Lewin.

6. Joyce, J. (1916), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

7. Phelan, J. (2005), Living to Tell About It.

8. Rabinowitz, P. (1998), Before Reading.

9. Rimmon-Kenan, S. (1983), Narrative Fiction.