The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Narratology: A text-centered, theoretical approach to the study of narrative, particularly in literature and film, that focuses on analysis of the structural components of narrative and how these components interrelate. Narratologists treat narratives as explicitly constructed systems, as representations that create and shape meaning. They take a neutral, nonvaluative approach, seeking to identify and describe the structuring mechanics that underlie all narratives as well as particular narrative forms, whether comic strips, movies, novels, plays, or video games.

Major influences on narratology include Russian formalism, whose proponents focused on the form of literary works, and structuralism, whose proponents sought to show that all elements of human culture could be understood as parts of a system of signs. Russian formalists drew an important distinction between fabula (story) and syuzhet (plot), associating fabula with how events in a narrative would be recounted chronologically and syuzhet with how they are actually presented. Also influential was twentieth-century Russian theorist Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928; translated into English 1958), an analysis of common elements in Russian folk tales identifying thirty-one sequential functions (e.g., hero leaves home, false hero exposed) and seven character types (e.g., villain, princess, helper). French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss likewise took a systematic approach to the analysis of myths in his Anthropologie structurale (Structural Anthropology) (1958), identifying fundamental elements he called “mythemes.”

Narratology emerged in France in the 1960s, particularly with the publication in 1966 of a special issue in the French journal Communications on the structural analysis of narrative. In an essay entitled “Introduction à l’analyse structurale des récits” (“Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”) (1966), French structuralist critic Roland Barthes identified three levels of narrative — functions, actions, and narration — and expanded analysis of narration to include elements such as point of view and the role of the narrator. Subsequently, in Grammaire du Décaméron (1969), Bulgarian-French theorist Tzvetan Todorov coined the term narratologie, arguing that “our first task is the elaboration of a descriptive apparatus; before being able to explain the facts, we must learn to identify them.” As narratology developed in the 1970s and 1980s in Europe and the United States, practitioners incorporated concepts and techniques used by formalist and structuralist precursors as well as traditional methods of analyzing narrative fiction, such as those outlined in the “Showing as Telling” chapter of American reader-oriented critic Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). Dutch theorist Mieke Bal’s Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (1985, 3rd ed. 2009), first published as De theorie van vertellen en verhalen (1978), is a standard introduction to the approach. Other noted “classical” narratologists include American film and literary critic Seymour Chatman, French literary theorist Gérard Genette, and American literary theorist Gerald Prince.

Narratologists distinguish among story, plot, and discourse (how a story is narrated), studying the conventions and devices that govern the transformation of stories into plots and the stylistic choices that shape narrative form. Typical narratological concerns include characterization, focalization (point of view, or who sees), narration (narrative voice, or who speaks), narrative tenses (use of past or present), narrative modes (e.g., showing a scene or providing a summary), and the range of entities involved in the mediation and interpretation of narratives (the real author, real reader, implied author, implied reader, narrator, and narratee). Many narratologists are also concerned with time; in “Discours du récit” (Narrative Discourse) (1972), Genette, for instance, discussed analepsis and prolepsis, forms of anachrony, and drew a distinction between “discourse time” (the time needed to read the narrative or a portion thereof) and “story time” (time within the world of the narrative).

Narratology has become increasingly interdisciplinary, with contemporary narratologists developing cognitive, cultural, gender studies, legal, and postmodernist branches, among others. For discussion of such “postclassical” offshoots, see, e.g., Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck’s Handbook of Narrative Analysis (2005).