Narratology and its Place in Literary Theory. By Jason Andrews


Narratology and its Place in Literary Theory

Literary Theory, a field of study concerned with inquiry into the evaluation, analysis and understanding of literary works, stands to bring out unforeseen or unapparent aspects of literature at casual perusal (OED). Many branches exist within literary theory, all adding to an understanding of what a work means to the reader and their society; now or perhaps even at the time it was written.

Literary Theory can consist of viewing a work from different perspectives such as Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist, postmodernist and many more. These focuses involve reading the work and interpreting it through a lens, looking to see how its meaning can change to us through that lens. For instance, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Author as a Young Man can be viewed through the feminist perspective, interpreting the erotic themes of the main character Stephen during a period of his emerging manhood in a stifling Jesuit school for boys. The reader focuses on his sexual self-realization and what role women play in his life as either pure administrators of safety and comfort or as objects of sexuality and sin; one can also deconstruct the themes of Religion in Marxist Theory which provides an analytical and direct criticism of religious themes and their potential harm on the psyche of emerging youth.
One field of Literary Theory, that of Narratology (or Narrative Theory), is a refined application of those perspectives that provides “The study of the structure and function of narrative, esp. (in structuralism and post-structuralism theory) as analogous to linguistic structure; the examination and classification of the traditional themes, conventions, and symbols of the narrated story” (OED). This branch gives us perspectives into how the narration of a literary work, particularly in fiction, enhances or even creates important meaning in how it is presented.
Narratology differs slightly from other forms of Literary Theory, investigating how the story is told instead of through the lens of a philosophy, it examines the forms that narration takes and how those forms enhance our understanding of a work. As Barry states in his essay “Narratology, then, is not the reading and interpretation of individual stories, but the attempt to study the nature of the ‘story’ itself, as a concept and a cultural practice” (222). How the story is told and its meaning to the reader both personally and culturally becomes the focus of what Narratology as a form of Literary Theory is working to achieve.
How then can the way in which a story is told enrich the story or the reader’s cultural perspective? To understand this question, one can look at elements of why people tell stories to begin with. Stories work to spark the imagination to be sure, but to what effect? It can be argued that stories reinforce concepts of right or wrong, a theme inherent in many fairy tales such as “Beauty and the Beast”. Beauty’s father steals a white rose from the garden of the Beast and though his intention is pure, his crime led to fearful consequences. Other examples such as “Hansel and Gretel” further exemplify the moral implications of theft; even if it seems warranted under circumstances such as starvation, undeniable temptation and being children abandoned and lost in a vast wood. So stories can fulfill the function of reinforcing social mores, even into adulthood where some works allow the reader to question the very definition of morality itself. This introspective look afforded to us through Narratology isn’t limited to the fairy tale. Greek tragedy is rife with examples of how this form captures moral teachings, such as in Oedipus Rex where the protagonist did not act in an immoral manner, yet pays the price anyway. The reader can draw links between these dramatically different genres through Narratology in understanding that they serve the similar function of teaching lessons of life and morality.

Another aspect of Narratology focuses on how the tale is told. Barry explores six areas of Narration put forth by Gèrard Genette. The first of two of these six areas Barry discusses focuses on defining the text as “mimetic” or “diegetic”, as well as understanding who is telling the story.  The reader looks at basic elements of the story itself and how it is told or what aspects of its telling enrich their understanding of it.

Mimetic or dialogic narrative changes the reader’s view into the story significantly. Mimesis in a literary sense is “imitation of another person’s words, mannerisms, actions, etc.” (OED) In other words is a literal telling of the action and hearing what is spoken directly as if one were there. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the conversation with Polonius and Hamlet:

How does my good Lord Hamlet?
Well, God-a-mercy.
Do you know me, my lord?
Excellent well. You are a fishmonger.
Not I, my lord.
Then I would you were so honest a man.
(II.ii. 187-192)


Hamlet mocks Polonius by seeming to assume a style of logical disputation yet does so through nonsensical dialogue.

Diegesis, on the other hand, talks about what one does and says in description, “the parts of a narrative which are presented in this way are given a more ‘rapid’ or ‘panoramic’ or ‘summarizing’ way” (Barry 231). The opening of To Kill a Mockingbird “When he was thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury” is a prime example of diegetic narrative (Lee 3). It offers a story of what has happened, instead of the action of it happening.

These perspectives can and often are used interchangeably, but offer different insights into the story. A movie is a cinematic perspective that typically does not allow us to hear what characters are thinking, though they can often demonstrate quite dramatically the action and dialogue that occurs; movies are thusly mimetic from a Narratological perspective.

The second area of focus is that of who is telling the story. The narrator can speak through a disembodied intelligence, an unidentified, yet omniscient non-persona through which the narrative takes place. One can argue that this allows the story to be allowed to play out without interference of opinion and therefore allow the narrative to stand on its own, unimpeded. Many of these stories exist and are quite popular among pop-fiction novels of diverse genres such as science fiction, fantasy and adventure. Examples of such works would include Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Wizards First Rule by Terry Goodkind and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Other narrators include an actual persona, which come in two types. The first is a character that tells what is going on, but is not involved in the actual story or events taking place. This type is referred to as an heterodiegetic narrator and can be found in The Great Gatsby wherein Nick Carraway works in the background observing the characters and events, often giving his perspective on them, but is ultimately a bystander. One can only imagine how the story would appeal to us were it to be written in a third person narrative. Would it have had the same impact and appeal to the story many know and love?

The second type of narrator participates in the story as an actual character and is referred to an homodiagetic narrator, of which Jane Eyre is a wonderful example, taking part in the story as she tells it. This perspective can be thrilling since we are only privy to that one character’s perceptions of others in the story; their interpretations of the environment and the mystery of not knowing can heighten the reader’s interest in the plot and lead them to anticipate discovering what is really going on.

Narratological Theory allow one to understand how the story is told and what it can teach them; give them a cultural perspective, even if that view is rooted in the time period that piece was written. Who tells the story impacts our understand of the story as well, allowing the reader to only imagine what the story might be like and how it would change if a different narrator took over its telling. These aspects of Narratology stand out as necessarily unique perspectives of literary analysis, perhaps touched on by other theories, but certainly deserving of its own place within the discipline.

A third concept of Narratology, that of time and how it is handled in literature. Time is not always linear in stories, and often works in a fluid and sometimes erratic fashion to enhance the story. In telling a story, a narrator may start at the beginning, relating the tale in a linear fashion, but many authors also make use of “in medias res” (Barry 235), the idea of beginning the narration in the middle of the story (Barry 235). Certain devices help the reader as the narrator guides them through the difficult desire to want to know the whole of the tale from beginning to end. Non-linear narration often adds more intrigue and entices readers to intuit meaning for themselves. For instance, “analepsis” is “The narration of an event at a point later than its chronological place in a story; an instance of this, a flashback” (OED). This may not be a scene, but may also include metaphor or hints through actions or dialogue that allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Conversely, “prolepsis” is “A prefiguring or foreshadowing of a future event in a narrative; the narration of an event at a point earlier than its chronological place in a story” and serves to help allude to what may be, often prophetic further adding to the tension of the future of the narrative (OED).

Ron Carlson features a number of short stories in Plan B for the Middle Class that play with time in ways that change the reading of the story through its manipulation. The tale of “Blazo” leaves much to interpretation of events based on an incomplete timeline including analeptic narratives that leaves us wondering about what connection these characters have with one another. The main character, Tom Burns, travels to a remote town in Alaska to find where his son died. We don’t know how long he has been planning this trip, and the events are not unfolded for us in a chronology that is understood well. His driving goal is to stand where his estranged son, Alec Burns, died for reasons we are not privy to throughout the narrative. The reader is not told the history, but is left with the task of trying to piece together what may have happened based on character interactions, just as Tom Burns must do. Not knowing this chronology leaves the reader asking questions and speculating on what really happened.

Every character refers to Alec’s death as an accident, in a conversation early when Glen and Julie meet, she is quick to tell him “And it’s a world of accidents, believe me. Someone will just drop the bread, right? And on the way home we’ll find the peanut butter. Lots of things get dropped” (Carlson 59). This proleptic event can lead the reader to wonder if Alec’s death was fully investigated, reinforced later by the idea that the local police department did not even take pictures of the scene, especially in light of Alec’s cabin being on fire. Furthermore, Glen Batton, a pilot with an unknown history does not land the plane when the two fly over the site of Alec’s death and hopes Burns will drop the issue and agree to leave. When Burns will not relent, Batton flies back to town and sets the plane down hard, injuring Burns which leads to an altercation between the men, with Burns questioning whether Batton might have interfered with Alec and Julie’s relationship, and perhaps taken part in his death, something we had begun to wonder about with previous hints of his interest in Julie. All these pieces must be put together to form a picture of what happened, though incomplete and elusive.

Time isn’t always how the tale is told, but sometimes left as a subjective and interpretive Narratological device, such as in Carlson’s “On the U.S.S. Fortitude” where a single mother takes charge of family life and raises her children on the “family aircraft carrier”. Though the interpretation is left open to be highly metaphorical, the sense of time is not firm. Could this be a literal situation of the future in some post-apocalyptic scenario? References to vintage tennis rackets and Swatch watches are things of the past, and we aren’t sure which version of a future we are in. Allusions to Hotel Atlantis, bring to mind a mythical and ancient sense of the fantastic, though rooted in a hotel, the reader draws images to the famed city as an aspect of the past, a mystery that ended in tragedy. Perhaps the world too has experienced tragedy, resurrecting the city from its resting place in the oceans. The reader’s inability to determine the reality of the time this story takes place, adds greatly to its intrigue and interpretation. But also, perhaps, the narrator has no sense of time and is unreliable in their ability to distinguish fact from fiction.

The narrator, the mother, is concerned with time, as if there isn’t enough time to do everything, which stems from an analyptic reminiscence of her childhood where she states “There wasn’t much time for anything else. She and Dad had a little store and I ran orders and errands, and I mean ran – time was important” (Carlson 89). She is concerned about the time her daughter gets back home, as any mother would, worrying about the after-sunset return, hinting that her daughter doesn’t respect time as she should. This firm grasp of the moments of time and her constant focus on it, combined with her precise military bearing, conflict with the concept of a family on an aircraft carrier in the future of the world. This clash in the handling chronological events by the narrator certainly raise many questions about the story and how the reader can interpret its meaning for them self.

Another story, “Plan B for the Middle Class”, takes a great analyptic approach back and forth throughout the tale. The character, Lewis, seems focused on trying unsuccessfully, to have intimate sex with his wife, which is difficult because of their children’s constant interruption. They seem not to have any time, and he counts down the days till his wife and he go to Hawaii to have privacy. This storyline is interspersed with tales of his youth, where he had an opportunity to have sex on graduation night, and the resulting failure that ensued due to his jock itch and the Great Salt Lake.

With the exceptions of the flashbacks to his youth, time seems to not be moving forward in the narrator’s life, he even reflects that “Sorenson was one of my professors at Stanford and now. Like everyone else, he’s not getting any older” (Carlson 192). He remarks further that “It confuses me that I’m the same age as all these old guys” (Carlson 192). Lewis is aging, though he sees everyone else as remaining the same; his perception of his life flying by in a repetitive and endless loop drives him to break the chain of his stoic life. But his story of the past reflects on the situation of his present, and the reader is left wondering if he is reliving his story again regardless, perhaps doomed to repeat this cycle indefinitely, with no chronological progression affecting the character’s growth.

The Narratological analysis of how the narrator perceives or relates time certainly changes the reader’s perspective of the story. It can engender a desire to continue to discover more and reveal the plot in greater depth. It can leave the reader with more questions on what is real in the story, whether the narrator is in touch with reality, or if they are simply speaking poetically or metaphorically about how they see their lives. Either way, this one aspect of Narratology demonstrates a dynamic quality of narration worthy in Literary Theory and perfectly applicable to the works of Carlson.

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, brings to new life and different perspectives of the fairy tales many westerners are familiar with. These stories introduce variations in narrative that, though sometimes ambiguous in analytic categorization, deepen and alter the reader’s reading of them; adding a perplexity not found in the originals and allowing them to stand alone as rich sources of Narratological analysis. In some cases, comparing and contrasting the changes in the narrative from the originals enlightens the reader to the complexities the author is attempting to convey, while in others, understanding the many uses of straightforward allusion to other legends and fairy tales serve to draw us in culturally to understand and connect to the story.

Carter’s tale “The Erl-King” begins with a vivid description of the forest domain of the Erl-King and is open to exploring who the narrator of the story is, another of Barry’s points in Narratological Analysis. In the beginning, the seemingly disembodied narrator addresses the reader, placing them in the scene, seemingly in the form of a guided meditation, by telling them “You step between the first trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood Swallows you up (106). This narrative, defined as “Effaced” begins the tale drawing us in without an identity (Barry 234). Yet the narrative transitions shortly into the tale, introducing a character “A young girl would go into the wood as trustingly as Red Riding Hood to her granny’s house…” (Carter 106). This introduction still appears non-intrusive, with the assumption that the character would not be referring to herself in the third person. However, the third and next paragraph breaks the effaced narrative by stating “…The imaginary traveler walking towards an invented distance that perpetually receded before me” (Carter 106). The narrator has not transitioned from one of effaced to “dramatized” having now a persona and speaking from a personal point of view (Barry 234). The reader is left with a question as to whether the narrative began effaced or has from the beginning been a dramatized narration of this young girl speaking to a reader directly. The rest of the story continues from this intrusive perspective. The reader may divine from this that the young lady is telling the story may be reflecting on this tale from a future of it already having happened, yet all narrative is in present tense, so the question lingers.

Adding to this ambiguity is the external narrative focalization of the text. Even in tense scenes such as where the young girl declares “But in his innocence he never knew he might be the death of me, although I knew from the first moment I saw him how the Erl-King would do me grievous harm”, the reader finds the narrator speaking about herself and how she felt, not an insiders all-knowing and introspective glance into her mind (Carter 113). The reader is left still wondering if she began the narrative but now understands that what parts she is narrating, she is doing from an external focalization.

The complexity of the narrative and speech within “The Erl-King” seem to fall outside Barry’s assessment of Genett’s six areas of Narrative Discourse (231). We are privy to the young girl addressing the Earl King, not in quotation, but as a flowing part of the narrative. She remarks “What big eyes you have” and “Lay your head on my knee so that I can’t see the greenish inward-turning suns of your eyes any more” (Carter 112-113). The reader is and is not the audience for a moment during these assumingly internal dialogues. This speech is presented as both direct and untagged, bringing these moments to the forefront of the mind of the reader in their change of form, while in the case of the prior, also alluding to “Little Red Riding Hood” and summoning the image of the young woman understanding her plight in the face of her lover-destroyer.

The only quoted mimetic speech given is in the last sentence where the strings of the violin, strung with the Erl-King’s own hair posthumously declare in single quotation marks “‛Mother, mother, you have murdered me!’”  (Carter 114). This powerful conclusion leaves the reader with many paths of interpretation. First, of course being that in single quotation, the proclamation can be understood to be a quote within a quote; namely that of the entire story being related to us in a personal discourse. This is telling, and helps the reader understand that it is perhaps, in its entirety, that of the young woman.

She, our author and character, has also reversed the roles on the Erl King, strangling him with his own hair in an allusion to Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” wherein the woman lover is strangled with her own hair instead. She is an empowered young woman with the intelligence and instincts to understand the situation combined with the wisdom and strength to understand how to end the threat and actually carry it out.

Many questions challenge the reader as to the identity of this narrator. It is discovered that the Erl-King names the female character as mother, which powerfully makes us reimagine this whole scenario as either his recognition in death of this young girl as not a young woman but an elf-woman, and his mother, perhaps come to asses her sons’ stewardship of the forest only to find it corrupt. Another allusion in this narrative is the original Scandinavian tales of the Elveskud, which Goeth’s version was based on, but which elven maidens lured travelers to their death. In making love to the young woman, the Erl-King brings on himself his own doom in an Oedipal Rex-fashioned damnation. Finally, the narrator, the young woman, directly mentions Little Red Riding Hood, begging the question of how this young woman would know of fairy tales in our world, that is, outside the narrative world; were she a fairy creature from another world; if not, then what makes her the Erl-King’s mother or at least what other cause would there be to refer to her so? Who is telling the story? We want to know, but this narrator is ambiguous and inconsistent in identity.

Time and dimension, relationship and paradox are all in question. Who is the audience and who is the narrator is not known or understood, but the application of Narratological Theory provides a not-so-simple rubric that compels the reader to explore these multi-leveled facets of complexity that its implementation brings to light.

Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49”, being a novel rich for any branch of Literary Theory, yields a trove of entertaining and thoughtful delights when specifically applied to Narrative Theory. A reader can take any of Genette’s six areas of Narratological focus and delve into how these aspects of perspective are able to draw a reader deeper into the seemingly organized chaos that is wonderfully and painstakingly integrated into Pynchon’s narrator (Barry 235). Specifically, an analysis of Barry’s Embedded Narratives, which occurs often, sways us constantly to help answer and ask more questions in this post-modernist, non-whodunit, psychotherapeutic exploration of a young woman under unusual circumstances featured in 1960’s California.

One consistent form of framing are the songs found throughout the novel from different characters. The Paranoids, Metzger and even Yoyodyne Corporate officers and president sing. The songs often serve to pull us out of the direct narrative and take an introspective look into what function the character singing it adds to the story. For instance, Yoyodyne Corporate President, Mr. Clayton Chiclitz sang a song amongst the attending stockholders meeting “Glee” to the tune of “Aura Lee” (An American Civil War Song). The song reads as a list of government contractors who produce anything from planes to missiles to satellites, while almost celebrating the fact that Yoyodyne seems to not get these contracts out of spite from the DOD (Pynchon 66). This narrative is both entertaining in the humor of a company talking about all the companies that get the contracts that his company does not, but rejoicing in a sense of corporate solidarity and pride nonetheless. This list of corporations (save Yoyodyne) are references to real contractors, such as Douglas, Martin, Boeing and so forth that at once, in their song-form, pull the reader into the story and at the same time push them out as aspects of reality in a novel full of false names. A list of anything in a mystery is typically an important clue to the solution of that mystery, but seems innocently far removed from Oedipa’s quest for Trystero. This narrator is trying to communicate much more than the empirical narrative suggests in the framing of information through song, imploring the reader to perhaps look beyond the text and research the underlying meaning; in essence, embark on a search for information themselves – to become Oedipa.

Another frame narrative woven into the novel is that of The Courier’s Tragedy, the play that strangely mimics Oedipas discovery of a company of World War II soldiers’ situation and subsequent demise. This play, observed by Oedipa and Metzger, is given scene by scene in detail of the “history” involving noble families and Thurn and Taxis. At the end scene IV, Oedipa is shocked by the line “Who’s once been set his tryst with Trystero.” (Pynchon 58). The depth and detail at which the narrator describes this play and the fact that the play continues on for nine pages, demonstrates that the narrative is quite important. This play does set Oedipa off on a driven investigation into Trystero, meeting others and working to investigate where the origin of the tale came from, specifically when and who added the name Trystero. But the play is long, and only that one word and the similar situation of the soldiers dying and their bodies being interred into the lake bear any significance on our main character. This play could have been pared down and a complete diegetic summary given with only those two pieces of information relevant to Oedipa, yet the author certainly hasn’t done that. When framed in the narrative of the story of Oedipa and her struggle to solve this mystery, the complete details of the play seem superfluous; however, when viewed in the light of metaphor, the story begs the reader to find the significance of these occurrences as pertaining to their life in the greater scheme of the historical culture in which they live. The narrator is enticing the reader to look deeper and find the significance in the narrative.

These narrative devices tell the reader what the narrator will not tell them overtly, certainly shouldering the burden of understanding on the reader, but not indecipherably so. The frame break from the texts flow brings the reader out of the story enough to highlight important concepts in what can be taken as a secret message, but not so fully as to create a disjunction such as an aside narrative device might. These integrated framing moments enhance the experience for the involved reader, drawing them in further and helping them to understand what the narrator felt was necessary information toward the goal of understand the story better.

Barry’s points of Narratological Analysis have provided a defining framework with which to draw a deeper understanding of the story and has done so for many years. With these tools at their disposal, the student of Literary Theory has access to perspectives that derive not through the delineation of staunch philosophical viewpoints, but through working to understand the story by how it is narrated and who is telling it, ultimately and uniquely broadening the field of Literary Theory.


Works Cited

“narratology, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 29 May 2016. <>

Barry, Peter. “Narratology.” Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 2nd ed. New York: Manchester UP, 2002. 222-247. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York: Washington

Square, 2002. Print.

Miller, J. Hillis. “Narrative.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentriccihia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, (1995). 66-79. Print.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960. 3. Print.

“analepsis, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 3 June 2016.

“prolepsis, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 3 June 2016.

Carlson, Ron. “Blazo.” Plan B for the Middle Class: Stories. New York: Norton, 1992. 49-84. Print.

Carlson, Ron. “On The U.S.S. Fortitude.” Plan B for the Middle Class: Stories. New York: Norton, 1992. N. 87-92. Print.

Carlson, Ron. “Plan B for the Middle Class.” Plan B for the Middle Class: Stories. New York: Norton, 1992. N. 167-223. Print.

Carter, Angela. “The Erl-King.” The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. New York: Penguin, 2015. 105-16. Print.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Perennial Library, 1986. Print.


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