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Perhaps no term is more central to film history, criticism, and theory than "narrative." Yet narrative is hardly specific to the cinema. Storytelling is a defining trait of human experience and communication. Much of the world's information has always been delivered in story form, whether recounted as personal experience, historical events, imagined fiction, or a mix of all three. Art, entertainment, and instruction have all relied on narrative structures regardless of their form or media, yet the cinema, appearing as it did in the late 1800s, quickly proved itself particularly adept at incorporating and adapting a wide variety of narrative strategies from literature, theater, photography, journalism, and even comic strips. From the beginning, telling stories clearly was a major concern for filmmakers. Almost as quickly, the cinema's ability to present intriguing stories was evaluated by critics and audiences alike. Thus, narrative has always been a key component in how we watch, think about, and write about the cinema, and the history of that narrative theory is a fascinating side of film studies.


Among the first widely seen motion pictures were the amazing fifty-second films by Louis Lumière (1864–1948) and his camera operators. One of the more famous was the Arrivée d'un train en gare a La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train, 1896), in which the camera records the train pulling into the station, passengers descending and boarding, and bystanders interacting with the travelers. But does a single shot of a train arriving count as a narrative? For most critics, the minimal criteria for determining the presence of narrative include a series of events in some cause–effect order. Causality suggests temporal, spatial, and thematic links as well. Thus these events, "a train arrives, doors open and passengers climb out, a woman runs past holding a small child's hand, a man with a bundle walks after them," provide only the barest markers of narrative. One contemporary newspaper reporter actually embellished his account of the film: "The travelers all look pale, as if they were seasick. We do not recognize characters so much as known types: the petite maid, the butcher boy, and the young man with a humble bundle who has left his village in search of work" (Aubert, p. 225). In recreating the film experience for the readers, the reporter has inserted tiny bits of inferred story material, even generating a feeling of malaise for the arriving passengers and a personal history and goal for the man with the bundle, who now becomes a central character. Thus, critical definitions of film narrative necessarily touch on formal elements of storytelling, but also upon the audience's role in perceiving and comprehending the presented material in those tales.

Narrative is generally accepted as possessing two components: the story presented and the process of its telling, or narration, often referred to as narrative discourse. Story is a series of represented events, characters (or agents for some), and actions out of which the audience constructs a fictional time, place, and cause–effect world, or diegesis. In the Lumière short, the material elements include the arrival of the train, the scurrying of rushed passengers, the gestures of the railway workers, the steam emitted from the engine, even the moving shadows beneath people's feet. Out of these rather minimal visual objects and actions, the viewer generates tiny story events, including any effects that the train has on the people on the platform. The narrative discourse is evident in strategies of presentation, especially the camera position, which offers a view of the action that emphasizes perspective and depth, but also allows the viewers to watch the faces and movements of a number of the people involved. However, Lumière's film offers a very low level of narrative development, in part because of the short length and paucity of story events, but also because of the absence of other narration devices, including plot ordering, mise-en-scène choices, editing, sound effects, intertitles, or camera movement. As films expanded in length and technical options, narrative strategies increased as well. Stories could develop more complex characterization, thematic concerns, and temporal development, along with increasing devices for the narrator to manipulate and present those events.

While many sorts of films employ some storytelling strategies, when we speak of narrative film we are typically referring to fiction films. However, before moving to fiction films completely, we should acknowledge that French film theorist Christian Metz has famously argued that on one level, all films are fiction films. All cinematic experience is based by definition on illusion. Motion pictures are fundamentally still images projected onto a flat screen. Nothing moves and there is no real depth of space, yet we cannot help but "see" movement and spatial cues as the film is projected. The entire process is based on a fiction that what we see is actually present. We know Cary Grant is long dead, we know that we are only seeing his shadowlike image projected on a screen, and yet we see and hear him in an illusory three-dimensional world in which he moves in front of and then behind his desk, right there in front of us. Lumière films, Cary Grant laughing, or a bird chirping in a sex education documentary are all based on an illusion, an absence, that is only possible thanks to the cinematic apparatus and the audience's perception system. From this perspective, the fiction film is a specific type of cinema based on the content of the images and sounds rather than their material traits. The fiction film, the subject of narrative history, theory, and criticism, assumes a spectator who not only sees movement where none really exists, but also constructs characters, time, space, and themes.

Narration is a set of representational, organizational, and discursive cues that deliver the story information to the audience. The fiction film should be thought of as a text, a collection of narrative systems, each of which functions and exists in its own history, with its own stylistic options. For instance, during the 1940s, it became stylistically fashionable for American crime dramas to tell their stories out of order, often with voice-over narrators recounting some past events via flashbacks. Many of those crime dramas were also filmed with increasingly expressionistic sets, lighting, and acting styles. The resulting film noir movies are distinguished by certain shared, generic, story events and discursive strategies alike. Their narrative context was quite different from that of Lumière's train film. Narratives must always be studied in relation to history, including the history of film style, modes of production, and the history of narrative theory itself.


While the cinema was born out of a collection of scientific, industrial, and aesthetic initiatives, its narrative potential quickly came to drive its commercial viability. Alongside "actuality" (actualité) movies, such as most of the Lumières, there quickly grew short chase films and "trick" films, including the many highly influential movies by Georges Méliès (1861–1938). Méliès pioneered an entire subgenre of movies in which camera tricks combine with theatrical settings to allow characters to disappear before our eyes, fly through the air, or even lose their heads. Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon 1902)proved exemplary in presenting a series of scenes, edited end to end, each filled with a combination of painted stage sets equipped with trap doors and fantastic transformations exploiting in-camera editing tricks. He brought the spectacle of magic acts into the cinema, exploiting film's abilities to exceed the limits of real time and space in the theater. Similarly, chase films quickly became a staple of early filmmaking, in part because they too were well suited to a medium with no sound and only fledgling techniques for characterization or plot development.

Chase films followed the logic of comic strips, with a simple initial situation that leads through a series of accumulating visual gags. A typical scenario might include a dog stealing a string of sausages from a butcher, who gives chase, knocking over pedestrians as he goes, who then pursue him as he pursues the dog, with the number and variety of collisions and participants increasing steadily. One version is Pathé Studios' La Course des sergents de ville (The Policemen's Little Run, 1907). These films, like more melodramatic variations, such as Rescued by Rover (1905), take full advantage of early cinema's strengths, including its ability to show rapid movement and edit together a string of chronological events. These films were structured much like live-action comic strips, with individual shot sequences replacing the static comic frames. Many early narratives retold formulaic tales or condensed stories that were already well-known to the audience, so that there would be no need to explain character relations or motivations. Simplified reenactments of the crowning of a monarch, scenes from famous plays (Hamlet, for example) or novels (such as Uncle Tom's Cabin), or even Bible stories could be just as comprehensible as chase films full of visual gags.

The film historian Tom Gunning has found early cinema's tendency toward spectacle and illusion as evidence that it is more a "cinema of attractions" than a cinema straining to tell stories. Many cinema pioneers shared the same impulse as that of carnival or vaudeville acts. Their task was to present highly exhibitionistic entertainment shows that would grab and hold the spectator's attention. Films would be organized as a series of displays, occasionally linked by some story line that allowed for a logic of scene-to-scene ordering. Characterization, however, was often kept to a minimum, and the films' success was measured more by their effects than their stories or themes. Previously, some film histories had simplistically reduced much of early cinema to a series of baby steps toward an arsenal of effective fictional devices. More recently, however, historians of early cinema have labored productively to clarify the differences between film practice before 1910 and the subsequent, more narratively constructed, and voyeuristic silent cinema. Nöel Burch has labeled the early tendencies toward a unique film practice as a Primitive Mode of Representation, a mode that repeatedly defies and frustrates narrativity.

From the beginning, cinema was exploited for its ability to display processes in real time, which privileged documentation and instructional filmmaking, but most exploration of the medium, including avant-garde investigations of film's more abstract or formal potential, has historically been reworked and adapted for narrative purposes. The 1910s was a transitional decade for motion pictures throughout the world. The exhibition of films became more standardized into programs, typically featuring narratives to anchor the screening, though the bill also included documentaries and eventually animated cartoons. By the middle and late 1910s, it was the feature narrative presentation that lured audiences to the movies, thanks in large part to new theaters, stars, and the establishment of new genres that all attracted more middle-class spectators. With the increased length of films and the rise of specialized motion picture studios, American cinema, in particular, came to be built on corporate models, with division of labor, boards of directors, and prescribed slates of annual production quotas. Along with that, it began to concentrate on predictable, efficient stories and styles. Internationally, specialized film studios were being built that allowed more evocative lighting designs and facilitated increasingly intricate camera movements and set construction. A more conventional, commercial narrative cinema was in place by 1920 that was easily distinguishable on every level from the shorter, now somewhat radically diverse films of 1910. This new norm for narrative filmmaking became known as the classical realist cinema, and its dominant American form was the Classical Hollywood Cinema.


The rise of this more realist cinema owes to a great many factors and influences, but it is clearly tied to the increasingly industrial base of the cinema that built upon narrative traits from the nineteenth-century novel and the well-made theatrical play. Narrative unity was built around character psychology within a rational world where events were relatively plausible, even in genres such as the adventure film. The "realism" of classical realist cinema was a product of numerous cultural and now cinematic codes and conventions. Further, the specific ability of the cinema to record and edit representational images lent great power to the credible presence of the characters and their fictional actions and worlds. The steady development toward an increasingly narrative cinema brought some more conservative forces to bear on film practice, especially with the more industrial, studio production norms. Burch and others label this an Institutional Mode of Production because of its privileging of consistent thematic, spatial, and temporal parameters. Clearly, the most successful model for this international classical realist cinema was the Classical Hollywood Cinema.

The formation of classical Hollywood narrative has been explained by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, who argue that classical story construction went hand in hand with developments in the mode of production and new conventions in film style. The classical narrative is organized around a goal-driven protagonist whose desires determine the cause–effect ordering of the plot, which often comes to include a second, embedded plot line. Saving the western town from the outlaws may also involve helping out and finally falling in love with the school marm, for instance. Minor characters typically help or hinder the protagonist's progress. Moreover, the time and space serve the story, which is often generic or formulaic, and there is clear closure with the protagonists achieving or failing to achieve their goals. During the 1910s in particular, Thompson points out that the move to feature-length films forced filmmakers to look to short stories and novels more and more for guidance in character and plot developments. Simultaneously, film techniques had to adapt to the challenges posed by longer narratives. Editing and camera techniques, along with lighting, acting gesture, and even set construction, worked toward clear methods of delivering story information.

With the rise of studio productions and more standardized storytelling, writers and directors functioned increasingly as narrators, guiding the audience's attention with film language as well as written inter-titles. More and more, unity of purpose and even redundancy were built into the presentation of fictional worlds, moving storytelling away from the series of tableau shot sequences and lack of closure that characterized much of the primitive film aesthetic. Increasingly, time and space were constructed around characterization, themes, and plausible plot ordering, with eyeline matches or dissolves clearly delineating the protagonist's perceptual attention or thoughts. Analytical editing, and especially shot-reverse shots, concentrated the audience's attention upon the interplay between actors while systematically unifying a functional diegetic time and space, or the world of the fictional character. After the established dominance of the classical cinema, first in the United States and then internationally, the free play of tableau space and other key components of the primitive aesthetic only resurfaced in consistent form in various avant-garde movements. Classical realist cinema, building as it did upon representational codes for verisimilitude and stories that stressed plausibly motivated human agents, became the foundation for commercial narrative cinema worldwide.

The arrival of sound added greatly to narrative cinema's arsenal. Recording natural sound, which later became known as direct sound, provided "real" documentary-quality sound. However, sync-sound recording was quickly found to require some manipulation to appear natural and at the same time serve the story. Sound design was tested for ways it could reinforce the narrative, delivering essential information such as dialogue and key sound effects and music, while repressing potential distractions. Sounds were carefully selected to guide the spectator's attention to specific characters or events and to fit the diegetic space. Even interior scenes began to have distinctive mixes, so that a conversation inside an office building in one scene should have a

b. David Wark Griffith, La Grange, Kentucky, 22 January 1875, d. 21 July 1948

D. W. Griffith's status in the history of the cinema is unique. Griffith grew up in a family that romanticized the mythic Old South and its values—his father was a Confederate Civil War hero—and he also prized Victorian literature and melodrama. Initially an actor, Griffith pursued playwriting, then shifted into writing for motion pictures, quickly earning a job as director at Biograph in 1908. No other director's career has gone through such extreme shifts in critical reception. For most of the twentieth century, Griffith was heralded as the founder of American cinema's narrative traditions, thanks primarily to his steady stream of over four hundred innovative short films and then The Birth of a Nation (1915). Subsequent features, especially Intolerance (1916) and Broken Blossoms (1919), were also praised for their story construction and technical sophistication. He was credited with adapting nineteenth-century narrative devices for the cinema and bringing genre, character development, and continuity editing into Hollywood movies. Publicity surrounding Griffith helped forge the mythical image of the motion picture director as creative genius.

Griffith's career parallels the growth of narrative cinema. He was there every step of the way as movies shifted from shorts to spectacular features, from a cottage industry to the classical studio system. Starting in 1908, Griffith brought together an efficient production team. Their films, including The Lonely Villa (1909), The Lonedale Operator (1911), and The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), reveal a constant updating of techniques for delivering story information clearly and emotionally. Griffith refined staging, shot composition, scene-to-scene organization, and editing rhythm to build character, suspense, and logical time–space relations. The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms exploited early cinema's full arsenal of storytelling techniques, including cross-cutting, rhythmic editing, and manipulative mise-en-scène. The controversies surrounding The Birth of a Nation also proved the cultural power of cinema. However, by the 1920s, Griffith's career was uneven at best. His two early sound films were failures, and after The Struggle (1931), he never directed again.

Since the 1980s, Griffith's status has been in nearly steady decline, or at least dramatic reassessment. An important renaissance of early film history has systematically rediscovered and reinserted other individuals, films, and social forces as crucial formative influences on the development of American and world cinema. Moreover, the insights of cultural studies made it impossible to continue forgiving the sexism and vicious racism at the core of his work while at the same time praising his craft and romanticizing his life. For many today, Griffith represents much that was wrong with Hollywood, American ideology, and even dominant film histories of the past. Nonetheless, Griffith's films remain key texts for understanding the development of narration in cinema. Theorists interested in film language point to their shot scale and editing patterns as important markers of a developing cinematic code system, while others look to Griffith as a canonical source of gender and genre construction in cinema.


The Lonely Villa (1909), A Corner in Wheat (1909), Enoch Arden (1911), The Lonedale Operator (1911), The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Judith of Bethulia (1913), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), America (1924)


Bernardi, Daniel. "The Voice of Whiteness: D. W. Griffith's Biograph Films." The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema. Edited by Daniel Bernardi, 103–128. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

Gunning, Tom. D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Henderson, Robert M. D. W. Griffith: The Years at Biograph. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Jerome, 1970.

Mast, Gerald, and Bruce F. Kawin. A Short History of the Movies. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.

Taylor, Clyde. "The Re-Birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema." The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema. Edited by Daniel Bernardi, 15–37. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Richard Neupert

different timbre than dialogue in a restaurant or a phone booth. For instance, early on in His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), Walter (Cary Grant) and Hildy (Rosalind Russell) walk through a busy newspaper office to meet Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). In an earlier scene the newspaper office was louder, with typewriters banging away in the background, establishing the diegetic space. But this time the sound effects are more muted, since the louder noises would distract from the conversation. Similarly, when the characters move on to a lively restaurant setting, the noises are reduced to clinking plates and glasses on their table only. When Walter is surprised by some bit of dialogue, the entire restaurant seems to go silent, ensuring that the audience notice how the normally chatty Walter is suddenly rendered speechless. The editing rhythm and shot scale reinforce the importance of this moment, as Walter has to think fast to change the course of the conversation and thus events. When he leaves the table to call his office from a small phone booth, the sound ambiance reflects a supposedly cramped space, though of course Grant is merely crouching in a set on a large sound stage. Conventions for classical sound mixes were established quickly to generate stable sound–image relations for delivering a causally motivated, codified, and classical diegesis.

Not all realist cinema had to be so formulaic and generic, however, and one of narrative cinema's most important theorists, André Bazin, specifically analyzed the realistic value of cinematic technique. Bazin, while often very complimentary of conventional narrative cinema, preferred films that broke away from formulaic tropes. He believed that the essence and strength of the cinema lay in its ability to capture key aspects of lived experience. Cinema's narrative potential would be best fulfilled by films that engage the spectator in ways comparable to real-world perception and understanding. The world is complex and often ambiguous, thus cinema should exploit tactics that can preserve some degree of those rich qualities and reward the spectator's active attention. Longer takes were often preferable to manipulative editing. In fact, Bazin lamented that classical Hollywood cinema had become too predictable in its editing by the late 1930s, reaching what he labeled its equilibrium profile, the point at which Hollywood films moved too smoothly forward, like a mature river, without digging deeper into the terrain. Cinema, to connect with reality, had to renew itself constantly, and Bazin found that by the 1940s, rejuvenation was occurring in the use of long takes and deep space compositions by Orson Welles (1915–1985) and William Wyler (1902–1981) in the United States, but especially in movies by Jean Renoir (1894–1979) in France and the neorealists in Italy. These directors carried the cinema back to its mission of delivering time and space in more authentic ways. For realist critics such as Bazin, once classical realism became so widespread, it lost much of its ability to reveal spontaneity and truth to the spectator.

A wide array of directors and national cinemas forged alternative styles in reaction to or isolation from the classical conventions of realism as well. Post–World War II film practice in particular boasted a lively and engaged modern art cinema. Directors as varied as Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda offered more subjective fictional worlds with complex, even contradictory characterization. The Art Cinema foregrounded stylistic choices and the filmmaker's presence, often constructing diegetic worlds full of ambiguity. Some modernist directors touted their experimental styles as closer to the uncertainty of lived experience, while others distanced themselves from concern with the real world and explored the cinema's formal potential. Working in their wake, the classical realist cinema incorporated some of these innovations, and its notions of plausibility and complexity certainly changed across time, but it typically remained centered on generic tales of goal-oriented protagonists. Since the 1980s, American independent cinema has tended to bridge the extremes of classical cinema and previous modern art film tactics.


Under the influence of more modernist film practice, as well as political and culturally inspired theory of the 1960s and 1970s, film criticism began to question systematically the cinema's ideological functions. Classical realism was one of the first sites to be investigated. In the pages of the British journal Screen, Colin MacCabe was representative of the growing resistance toward notions of classic realism, a resistance motivated by French Marxist and psychoanalytic theories, especially the work of Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan. MacCabe and others argued that cinema cannot reveal the real as if it were some transparent window onto the world. Rather, film must be analyzed as a set of generally contradictory discourses. Theorists pushed for analyzing the wide range of discursive markers in realist films, which had become the dominant aesthetic of narrative cinema, but they also renewed attention to films that violated the classic realist norms and thus worked against easily consumed notions of the real.

The French journal Cahiers du cinéma had already turned much of its attention in the late 1960s and early 1970s away from conventional narrative cinema and toward the more marginalized forms of cinema verité, Third World political cinema, and especially the narrative experimentation by Jean-Marie Straub (b. 1933), Danièle Huillet (b. 1936), and Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930). For Cahiers, film practice was only valuable if it undercut the illusionism of classic realism and fore-grounded the labor of production. Tout va bien (All's Well, 1972), which opens with a scene in which Godard writes checks to cover the necessary expenses of film production, became an exemplary film for critics attacking classic realist narratives. It constantly acknowledged its constructed nature, it overtly concerned itself with the politics and economics of everyday decisions, was made by a collective (the Dziga Vertov Group), and defied representational norms of both documentary and fiction filmmaking. By this point, Cahiers du cinéma was so actively opposed to conventional narrative norms that it had stopped reviewing any commercially released movies. Much of this highly politicized narrative theory prided itself on its strict Marxist foundations, but others, including the director François Truffaut (1932–1984), argued it had become so elitist that the articles were impenetrable for anyone lacking a Ph.D. in political science. The discourse of film theory and criticism had entered a new, more academic phase that drew from the demanding changes in the fields of linguistics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis.

One of the most significant shifts in narrative analysis began in the 1960s with the French theorist Christian Metz, who built upon linguistic theory, including that of Ferdinand de Saussure, to bring structural analysis into film scholarship. Metz, along with Roland Barthes, set the groundwork for much of subsequent work on narrative, including the shift toward discourse analysis. Adopting methodology from the field of semiotics, Metz began looking for how the cinema could be said to signify, or generate, meaning. Signification is a dynamic process that depends upon material signifiers, which for cinema include representational images, titles, spoken language, dissolves, and music and their range of signifieds, or denotative and connotative meanings. Signifying practice became the term for how movies told stories. Metz started by evaluating cinematic equivalents to language and systematically defined codes at work in cinema, much as Roland Barthes defined codes in literature. With S/Z (1970) in particular, Barthes pointed out that realism depended upon a system of textual, intertextual, and extratextual codes. Narrative analysis must include breaking down a text's codes of signification, but it also involves looking at cultural contexts and restrictions.

The assumption is that language is a social force struggling to shape how we think and act. Realism was a suspect mode of culturally determined, ideological discourse, and the reader or spectator must struggle to decode the text's systems or risk blindly submitting to its logic. If realist novels offered an illusory, coherent bourgeois worldview to naturalize culture's status quo, classical cinema, with its visual and audio power to "represent accurately," would have even more cultural power. Thus, realist cinema had to be attacked for its strategies of masquerading the fictional as natural. Metz and many others began to analyze the convincing "impression of reality" generated by strong cinematic cues, and a second stage of structuralism, more interested in intertextual and extratextual codes of spectatorship and ideology, became a central component of narrative theory.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many narrative theorists increasingly shifted from defining the narrative instance to explaining the process known as enunciation. One influential linguist was Émile Benveniste. For Benveniste, story (histoire) tries to hide its marks of communication, presenting itself in an impersonal, objective manner. By contrast, discourse includes markers of narration. In literature, the difference could be simplified down to whether the narration presents its information as given facts or includes references to a narrator, as in "I-you." The process of address, enunciation, structures the spectator's relation with the text. The enounced is always a product of enunciation, which, like language, is a social process. The analyst uncovers these marks of communication, which many classic realist films try to disguise and cover over. Thus, enunciation theory concentrates on syntax and cinematic modes of address that might be equivalent to those in verbal communication and calls for unmasking texts that pretend to tell their stories naturally. From this perspective, classic realist texts deceitfully pretend to be objective when they are actually complex, culturally determined discourses.

Renewed debate surrounding the specificity of cinema merged with interest in linguistics, psychoanalysis, and cultural studies and localized attention onto the cinematic apparatus and the spectator, or film subject. French and British theorists as varied as Jean-Louis Baudry, Colin MacCabe, Raymond Bellour, Jean-Louis Comolli, and Stephen Heath became increasingly concerned with the cinema's ability to "position the subject." Lacanian notions of subjectivity, based in part on the developmental move from imaginary to symbolic stages, privileged interest in point of view structures in the cinema. One assumption was that just as the young human subject was positioned by cultural structures, the film subject was determined by cinema's forms and modes of address. Baudry and others questioned the camera lens as a tool of ideology, built as it was to replicate monocular perspective and transform the social individual into a spectatorial subject. Now, Lumière's film of a train pulling into the station could be seen as a means for organizing and perhaps taming the social spectator. Further, Bellour explored how character desire and its submission to the "law" in classical cinema, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock in particular, structure narrative films as Oedipal journeys, replaying our inherent struggles for subjectivity. Metz too investigated the cinema as an "imaginary signifier" that satisfied, repeatedly, the spectator's regressive, voyeuristic drives.

The cinematic spectator was not only defined by the visual structures of the cinema, but narratives became evaluated for how they reinforced or challenged dominant cultural issues. If spectators were positioned visually, they were also positioned culturally within the mythic or symbolic structures of dominant ideology. Narratives, and commercial classical narratives in particular, became suspect for reinforcing bourgeois, typically patriarchal perspectives. The spectator could thus be doubly positioned, once by the apparatus, a second time by socially determined, and determining, narrative structures. Narrative and spectatorship thus became key concerns for feminist theorists. Laura Mulvey, Mary Ann Doane, and Annette Kuhn in particular directed feminist attention beyond the narrative surface of patriarchal main-stream cinema. Issues of race, class, and gender went beyond cataloging types of representations and were analyzed throughout the cinema's camerawork, editing, soundtrack, and plot structures.

While much of the theoretical legacy of enunciation theories of narrative, psychoanalysis, and cultural studies continues to thrive and inform film studies, it often reduces narrative analysis to serving as symptoms for larger social issues. Some narrative theorists, including Seymour Chatman, remained focused on the processes specific to cinematic narration. Work on intertextuality and narrative, much of it inspired by the literary theorist Gérard Genette, proved particularly pertinent to film studies. Moreover, the theorist and historian David Bordwell argued that enunciation theory remains too deeply indebted to verbal communication to be fully applicable to the cinematic experience. These new perspectives have led to rigorous investigation into motion picture narratives and challenges to recent theories of spectatorship. Many narrative theorists refused to reduce spectators to passive, predetermined subjects, but rather posited active participants in the production of meaning. Bordwell argued for a cognitive-based investigation of film practice and found that Russian Formalism, with its precise attention to story, plotting, and style, provided a methodology that functions well with cognitive vocabulary to reveal how spectators perceive and process cinematic images and sounds to comprehend narrative. Films deliver motivated cues and spectators apply an array of cognitive schemata to construct and understand fictional film worlds. Murray Smith enlivened the area of spectator identification, offering a highly functional grid to understand how films cue audiences to sympathize and identify with fictional characters. Cognitivism has contributed strongly to the rethinking of narrative films in relation to concrete models of human perception and comprehension.


There are many ways to think historically about narrative cinema. There is the history of storytelling itself, from presenting a train pulling into a station to the rise of the classical realist film, the modern art cinema, and the thousands of alternative individual filmmakers working to challenge the limits of mainstream narrative. But there is also the intricate history of how film criticism and theory have addressed the cinema. Strangely, within the debates over realism, artifice, personal expression, and cultural determinations, certain directors return over and over as examples. Two of the most important filmmakers, for a wide range of narrative critics, have been Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard. No other directors figure so prominently in narrative theory of the past fifty years. Hitchcock's masterful narration provides many of the most canonical scenes for analysis from any perspective, and Godard's work has systematically challenged both commercial narrative cinema norms and film criticism's vocabulary. The heart of narrative film is still the cinematic practice that makes defining story, narration, and the role of the spectator so fascinating. The history of narrative film remains forever inter-twined with the history of film production, film criticism, and the theorizing of the spectator, whose glorious task remains to perceive, decipher, and finally comprehend the stories generated by those still, two-dimensional images flashing upon the movie screen.

SEE ALSO Criticism;Early Cinema;Editing;Ideology;Realism;Semiotics;Structuralism and Poststructuralism


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Aumont, Jacques et al. Aesthetics of Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992. Translation by Richard Neupert of L'Esthétique du film (1983).

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Noonday, 1977.

——. S/Z. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Bellour, Raymond. The Analysis of Film, edited by Constance Penley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Translation of L'Analyse du film (1979).

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Burch, Noël. Life to Those Shadows. Translation by Ben Brewster of La Lucarne de l'infini: Naissance du langage cinématographique (1991). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Casetti, Francesco. Theories of Cinema: 1945–1995. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Translation by Francesca Chiostri et al. of Teorie del cinema: 1945–1990 (1993).

Fell, John. Film and the Narrative Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Kawin, Bruce F. Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and First-Person Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Translation by Mark Taylor of Essais sur la signification au cinéma (2 vols., 1968, 1973).

Neupert, Richard. The End: Narration and Closure in the Cinema. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1995.

Rosen, Philip, ed. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Richard Neupert


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Human beings are a narrative species. We tell stories incessantly; we read and listen to them, watch them unfold on screen and stage. In making and absorbing narrative—news, gossip, fiction, drama, anecdotes, and history—we spin and untangle explanatory accounts of the way the world works and how we and our fellow human beings act in every conceivable circumstance. Memories of the past and ideas of the future are expressed in narrative accounts of how the world was and how it will, or should, become. Individual identities and self-conceptions are packaged in life stories, part (and heirs) of larger family, community, and national stories that shape the life events and choices to become the chapters that follow. There is even evidence that narrative, rather than simply a creative use human beings have found for language, is instead the motive for its acquisition: Young children learn to talk in order to give some account of occurrences in their daily lives (Bruner).

For the most part, the word narrative is used inter-changeably with story to designate a more or less coherent written, spoken, or (by extension) enacted account of occurrences, either historical or fictional. Story, however, is used more often, especially informally, to denote spoken and fictional accounts, while narrative emphasizes the inclusion of nonfiction or indicates a contrast with visual or numerical data, as in historiography or book production or computer science. Narrative tends to be used generically in literary theory, perhaps following the Russian formalist and French structuralist distinction between story and plot, where story designates the events, and plot, the ordering of those events in the literary or historical account. Thus, the story of Oedipus begins with the prophecy his parents receive before his birth; the plot of Sophocles' play begins when, years later, he learns from the same oracle that the plague that afflicts his city is punishment for the unavenged death of the old king. Narrative refers to the whole and implies, for any particular telling, the inseparability of plot and story.

As it orders events, narrative asserts or connotes some causal relation among those events and imputes character and motives to the actors (Forster). Yet, despite this linearity, conclusions are never foregone. As narrative depicts events embedded in the lives and concerns of its protagonists, circumstances unfold through time in all their contingency and complexity (Ricoeur). Whether it is the life story essential to moral understanding (Burrell and Hauerwas; MacIntyre) or the political history of a nation (White), narrative explores the way cause and effect are entangled with the variables of human character and motivation, with luck and happenstance. When moral principles or political generalizations are abstracted from events without the use of narrative, those details are left behind as inessential, even though for those involved such particulars may represent what is most valued in a life or a history. Narrative remains mired in the particulars of human experience. From its designation of certain details as relevant "facts" and certain occurrences as "events" to the use of rhetorical strategies in the representation and description of those facts and events, narrative is concerned with the construction and interpretation of meaning.

Narrative and Medical Knowledge

Because narrative is the primary way of organizing and communicating the sense human beings make of the world, the interpretive process integral to shaping and understanding a story is at the heart of human knowing. Thus, the investigation of narrative forms and practices is a fruitful way of understanding how knowledge is acquired and transmitted. To understand medical knowledge—whether the patient's illness, the physician's practice, ideas of causality, issues of medical ethics, or activities of clinical research—it is helpful to look at the historical and explanatory narratives patients and practitioners tell themselves and each other (Charon, 1986, 1994; Hunter, 1991; Miles and Hunter).

Clinical medicine is a radically uncertain field of knowledge. Based on human biology, a science more complicated and multileveled than physics or chemistry, medicine has the task of applying scientific knowledge to the care of individual human beings. Not only does the living matter of biology change—the influenza virus mutates annually, tuberculosis and gonorrhea become drug-resistant, HIV gains purchase in the human community—but even more reliably, illness, that is, the manifestation of disease in human beings, varies unpredictably from person to person. Despite the triumph of the germ theory, "disease" remains a label given to a complicated interaction of physiological phenomena—none of which need be a necessary or sufficient cause—in circumstances identified and construed culturally, socially, and personally. Much about disease can be known scientifically, if not entirely predictably; but both the patient's illness and his or her response to treatment remain complex events with multiple causes occurring in circumstances that are impossible or immoral to replicate.

Given such uncertainty, narrative in its various guises is essential to the scientific practice of medicine. Patients relate the history of their illness when they present themselves for medical attention; disease plots make up the clinical taxonomy found in textbooks; their variant subplots are stored in physicians' memories; written accounts of medical care preserved in charts fill hospital basements; case reports contribute, one by one, to clinical research. In the physician's office where patients are well known and practice is solitary, narration may dwindle to a nearly invisible minimum. But in academic medical centers where medicine is taught and research carried out—just where one might expect to find narratives banished by the ever-present concern for scientific objectivity—narrative flourishes. The clinical case is not only the record of care but the mainstay of clinical education and academic discourse. Cases are presented at morning report, at teaching rounds, patient-care conferences, grand rounds, ethics conferences, informally in halls and locker rooms, and around lunch tables. The case record is compiled in the hospital chart by several hands. When anomalies occur, the case becomes the vehicle for communication and further investigation that may lead to sustained clinical or laboratory research. As the translation and interpretation of the patient's account of illness, augmented by further investigation, the medical narrative enables clinicians to apply scientific knowledge and therapeutic judgment to the understanding and relief of illness in particular human beings.

The case thus constitutes the scientific data in the investigation and treatment of a patient's malady. Confronted with the signs and symptoms, guided by the patient's story, the physician asks questions, sorts the information into a list of possible diagnostic plots, and then sets to work to eliminate from consideration the least probable and most life-threatening and to confirm the most likely. The goals of this medical retelling of the patient's story are representational: fidelity to the clinical observation of the patient and minimalization of the observer's (and the patient's) subjectivity. To this end the conventions of the medical case are strict and almost inviolable. The narrator is all but effaced, appearing only as a signature authorizing the passive voice, while the patient's experience is subordinated to the medical retelling of illness events and physical signs, a version that resolutely ignores the fear and bewilderment, the loss of control, and the suffering that may attend the experience of illness. This is not meant to be cruel; it is meant to provide the patient with an objective gaze that is capable of establishing with some certainty what the matter is so that treatment may begin and, with luck, health may be restored.

The physician's familiarity with other cases grounds the investigation and, indeed, the whole interpretive, diagnostic circle. Whether read and heard about or, better, observed and directly experienced, these cases make up an intellectual storehouse backed by the myriad of information accumulated in publications and through consultation. Well understood and ready to hand, this body of practical knowledge enables physicians to apply physiological principles, textbook summaries, and clinical wisdom to signs and symptoms presented by individual patients, testing each particular case against those established, more abstract patterns. There are no all-encompassing laws of disease, and physicians must learn not only operative rules and their variants, but also the habits of perception that narrative enforces, habits that will stand them in good stead for a lifetime of practice in a field where knowledge and practice constantly change—and new diseases appear. The case narrative is the means by which such a store of exemplars is assembled both in formal education and in practice (Dreyfus and Dreyfus), and is the medium for the consultation, further investigation, and publication that are the hallmarks of modern academic medicine.

Narrative and Bioethics

The centrality of narrative characteristic of clinical medicine is shared with other case-based disciplines of knowledge, such as law, moral theology, and criminal detection. In these domains, knowledge is not simply a "top-down," theory-driven activity. Research must be conducted retrospectively, and knowing is interpretive, accumulated from the experienced scrutiny of many individual instances in the light of general rules. The case—a term common to them all— functions as both exemplar and test of more general formulations: legislation, ethics, criminology, and biological science. In everyday practice, "in the trenches," these generalizations are extended or refined as they are applied, and practical expertise is developed in the continual search for more nearly adequate rules.

Narrative is also central to bioethics. Not only does it provide an opportunity for imaginative moral reflection for its audience, it is equally the proving ground of moral argument. Although the contemporary study of bioethics, especially medical ethics, until recently has focused almost exclusively on principles (Beauchamp and Childress; Pellegrino), the applicability of moral principles is inevitably gauged against the particular case, and cases regularly provoke the careful study and refinement of the rules. Indeed, the rehabilitation of casuistry—dealing with questions of right and wrong—has been the work of philosophers in bioethics (Toulmin; Jonsen and Toulmin; Jonsen).

The role of narrative in moral life is well established with regard to literature (Horace; Coles; Banks). Along with history, which is also strongly narrative, fictional narrative has long been regarded as a moral teacher—especially in that most narrative of eras, the nineteenth century. Both literary theory and historiography have struggled against this assumption of moral didacticism in the twentieth century. French historians of the Annales school and American cliometricians (mathematical and statistical analysts) have attempted to reduce the narrative element in history writing in favor of numerical data—the records of glacially slow and macroscopic social change for the former, and a microanalysis of economic statistics for the latter. In literature, from the "art-for-art's-sake" movement at the turn of the last century through Dadaist experimentation to the frequently reported "death" of the novel, twentieth-century writers defied critics to draw morals from their stories. For much of the century, literary critics, too, eschewed moralism in favor of the aesthetics of "the work itself," relegating morals to a matter of folk tales. Thus, it was oddly fitting that when structuralists reanimated a critical concern with narrative it was necessary to turn to Vladimir Propp's The Morphology of the Folktale (1968; Todorov; Brooks). More recently, literary theorist Wayne Booth and philosopher Martha Nussbaum have made strong cases for literature as the medium of moral knowledge.

Literature's usefulness for moral reasoning lies not only in its themes and characters—those elements the McGuffey Readers drew upon for the "morals" that concluded their tales—but also in the interpretive reasoning it requires. As in clinical reasoning, narrative negotiates the application of general truths about human experience to the individual case. Readers know that murder is evil, but they turn to Macbeth, Crime and Punishment, or Native Son to reflect on precisely why and how. At the same time, narrative also tests such moral truths. Its representation of the particular instance asks implicitly whether circumstances can ever be extenuating; it negotiates on behalf of ethical inquiry, as it does for medical diagnostics, the imprecise and uncertain fit between general rule and particular instance.

The narrative that constitutes the bioethics case likewise plays a role in moral reasoning. The purpose of constructing and presenting a case in bioethics should not be limited to the illustration of a rule or principle any more than in medicine (Arras; Donnelly). It is rather to set out accounts of events in order to explore imaginatively their meaning for the people they affect and to determine what action should be taken. Because narrative's representation of subjective experience gives its audience access to the perception and judgment of other human beings, good ethics cases offer a means of thinking about the meaning of illness in the life of the patient, and about the role of the physician and the meaning of a patient–doctor interaction in the life of the physician. These are traditional themes of literature, and beyond literature—the themes of the unwritten stories, the gossip, and the self-revelation—that convey and test social values and give texture both to individual lives and to culture. To read and listen to stories and to watch them enacted on screen and stage is to open the understanding to the experience of other people, and to the meaning that experience has for them. Physicians do the former all the time, asking their patients about pain or the history of an illness, talking about the effects of disability or the likelihood of death. But imagining the meaning of experience for other people is very difficult and rarely undertaken (Kleinman; Waitzkin); for physicians, traditional, professional reticence and self-protection are obstacles (Katz). The desire for just this sort of understanding from another person, especially one pledged to a certain disinterested concern, informs both nostalgia for the legendary general practitioner and Anatole Broyard's request that his physician "spend five minutes thinking about my case" (1992). A longing for an interpreter who will both hear our stories in all their physical starkness and nevertheless see in us human subjects, people who create meaning in the story of our lives, may underlie the burgeoning interest in medical ethics. The public discussion of troubling cases—in the mass media, in the courts, in drama and film and autobiography, and in ethics courses—reveals a narrative hunger for meaning in the face of death. Indeed, Walter Benjamin (1936) has located in death's certainty the closure that narrative meaning requires.

As in clinical medicine, the use of narrative in bioethics is necessitated by the limits of human knowledge, and an attention to narrative enforces an awareness of these limits for both narrator and audience. Not only does the audience understand that the narrator's knowledge is limited, but, in addition, both narrator and audience know—or soon learn— that the knowability of the narrated is limited (Hunter, 1993). What happens next? Then? And then? The unfolding of narrative through time captures the contingencies of causation, the radical uncertainty of the most ordinary life, the uncontrolled variables that resist attempts to regularize and codify social knowledge. More questions may yield more information, yet uncertainty is best met not by the pursuit of every elusive clue, but by a sense of the balance of knowledge and tolerable ignorance sufficient for action. Although always accountable to social and cultural norms— indeed, these norms are operating in the framing and interpretation of narratives—moral knowledge is inevitably subjective, always open to question, discussion, elaboration, retelling, and reinterpretation.

In bioethics as in clinical medicine, narrative knowledge is always situated knowledge. Just as every malady has its patient, every tale has a teller—either the voice of an omniscient author or a character who has been witness to the events—and every narrator has an audience, imagined or real, to whom the story is addressed. Narratives are enmeshed in the circumstances of their telling, even when, as with clinical cases, the form is specially designed to extricate itself from those circumstances. Cases do not drop pure and untouched from the sky, nor do they contain a truth or essence that could be revealed if only the circumstances of their telling were stripped away. Instead, they are narratives constructed and presented by human beings who are making an effort to be understood—or to deceive, to impress an audience, or to reinterpret an event. Even stories meant to be perfectly transparent—medical cases, news reports, ethics cases—are framed by their all-but-invisible tellers and interpreted by their audience. Though the narrator may be a disinterested and impartial observer, there is nevertheless a standpoint from which the story is told (Chambers). Some things will be emphasized or privileged, others will be out of the narrator's view. While norms exist and exert their force, they do so variously and unpredictably, and determining how they do so is one of the tasks that readers and listeners undertake. Narrators are revealed to their audience, in part, by the stands they take in relation to both the norms of society and the conventions of the narrative genre. This tension between tale and teller (or tale and the untold) is always a part of the narrative.

Where the sense of events offered by a narrative is contested or where its interpretation is in doubt, the narrative itself comes under scrutiny. The reader or listener begins to ask about the narrator and the narrative frame. Who is telling the story—the physician, the patient, a family member, an ethicist? Why is it told? In what circumstances? How does the teller frame the story to include or ignore culture, history, life stories, power relations, economic conditions, the history of the present question? Because an understanding of the problem turns upon the answers to these questions, this is where the study of ethical discourse must begin (Chambers, 1994). Cases may be narratively impoverished and morally inadequate even when bioethical principles are followed and apparently right conclusions are reached.

Through narrative, bioethics partakes of an ongoing dialogue among human beings perceiving and acting in the world. This is not a theoretical but a practical activity with strong resemblances to the clinical epistemology of which medical-case narrative is a part. As in medicine, the "facts" are sometimes of uncertain relevance and the circumstances may not be replicable, but the representation of experience through time acknowledges and puts to use the inevitable subjectivity of human understanding (Ricoeur). The subjectivity and apparent relativism unavoidable in narrative openly represents one of the conditions of moral discourse. There is no neutral position or Archimedean platform beyond nature from which a narrator, cleansed of bias, may see "truth" or "reality" in all its uncluttered purity. Indeed, narrative may be most valuable as a guarantee against this positivist assumption, for an awareness of narrative and its workings is a constant reminder that there is no absolute truth, no certainty. For the most part, stories are relatively straightforward about the conditions of their acquisition and telling. They make no pretense to objectivity—or when they do, the pretense is readily apparent as yet another storytelling genre. Narratives can be questioned: The potential prejudices of the narrator's situation beg to be understood. The interpretation of narrative may be one of the few ways human beings have of seeing our customary blind spots as both narrators and interpreters. As Ernst Hans Gombrich (1960) observed about the perception of art, there is no innocent, no "naked eye." And if there is no sight without a lens, it can become second nature to inquire into the character and quality of the lens in any particular instance—and to adjust it as needed.

Narrative exists in dialogue with other narratives, other interpretations—including the principles that, distilled from accounts of good and evil, have come to represent those accounts. Stories are not a substitute for norms and principles, just as clinical medicine does not replace medical research and case law does not render legislation irrelevant. Historians know well that every story implies an answering account, one that will surely—at last!—set the record straight. If the physician tells the patient's story, no one truly believes that it is the only story that matters; nor is the patient's story sufficient; otherwise the patient would not have sought medical help. The two are in dialogue. The goal is not a synthesis or a determination of a "truth" that will swallow up other accounts, but a sustainable representation of incommensurability, a consensus that may be acted upon. Ethics is practical knowledge, forged experientially and honed on circumstance. It is practiced in the negotiation of story and teller, story and listener, story and answering story. Because, in narrative, inquiry is inseparable from explanation, narrators and audiences must test the sources of our stories, compare versions, and sustain a healthy skepticism about answers. Thus, narrative represents the conditions of moral discourse, even as it is the principal medium of that discourse.

kathryn montgomery hunter (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Ethics: Moral Epistemology; Health and Disease: The Experience of Health and Illness; Literature and Healthcare; Metaphor and Analogy; Value and Valuation


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Although the study of narrative goes back as far as Aristotle's Poetics, narrative theory emerged as a distinct field of inquiry only in the second half of the twentieth century. At that point, work on the theory of the novel intersected with structuralism's project of writing the grammar of stories and storytelling. This intersection in turn opened out to other streams of traffic in narrative studies, including the analysis of oral narrative by sociolinguists; reflections on historical narrative by historiographers; and the varied investigations of film scholars, among others. In the early twenty-first century many other disciplinesmedicine, law, business, and psychoanalysis, prominent among themboth draw upon and contribute to narrative theory (see sidebar). In this respect, contemporary interdisciplinary thought has undergone a "narrative turn."

From Novel to Narrative

The most influential figures in the early theorizing of the novel were novelists themselves, particularly Henry James (18431916) and E. M. Forster (18791970). In "The Art of Fiction" (1888) and in the Prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels (19091910), James describes and defends his own novelistic practice. He argues that the artistry of the novel depends on its representation of "felt life," and, in the Prefaces, he describes, often with rich, extended metaphors, how he came to view the "treatment" (the technique) of his novels as even more important than their "subject" (their characters and situations). More specifically, James explains why he came to prefer the technique of narrating from the consciousness of his central character(s): such treatment highlights the impression of felt life even as it allows him to offer fresh ways of exploring his subjects. James's distinction between treatment and subject is a distinction between the how and the what of the novel that reappears in some form in every major theoretical approach to narrative. James's specific preferences soon became codified by his followers into a set of rules for good novelistic practice: use scenes rather than narrative summaries because they are more impersonal and objective; narrate from the perspective of a central consciousness rather than from the perspective of an external narrator because that treatment involves less rhetoric and more artistry. In short: show, don't tell.

If James is the theorist of treatment (the how), Forster is the theorist of character (one element of the what). In Aspects of the Novel (1927), he introduces a distinction between "round" and "flat" characters that is still frequently cited in the early 2000s: Round characters are capable of surprising in a convincing way, while flat characters can be summed up in a single sentence. Forster also distinguishes between story and plot (see sidebar), viewing the first as a kind of necessary evil ("yes, oh dear, yes, the novel tells a story"), and the second with its inclusion of causality as what makes the recounting of events worthwhile. But he regards character as the most important element of the novel. In fact, he sees plot and character as often in conflictone requires closure, the other does notand he laments those novels in which he thinks character is sacrificed for plot.

Contemporaneous with Forster's theorizing, the Russian Formalists, a group including Victor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and Yuri Tynanov, develop ideas about the novel that provide an especially interesting comparison with James's. They introduce a more formal and ultimately more influential distinction between the what and the how, identifying the fabula as the abstract chronological sequence of events independent of their expression in the sjuzhet, the actual presentation of those events in the novel's text. This distinction explains one's intuition that there can be different versions of the same narrative: different sjuzhets do not constitute different narratives unless they also are based on different fabulas. The Formalists also go James one better by arguing that the purpose of literature in general and the novel in particular is not the representation of felt life but defamiliarization or estrangement: the purpose of literature is to renew or revise our perceptionsin Shklovsky's famous phrase, to make the stone stony. This view leads the Formalists to an account of literary change built on the formal necessity of innovation, especially in the how of the novel: novelistic forms that once provided estrangement gradually lose that effect as they themselves became familiar, and so the inventive novelist discovers new devices of estrangement.

The next significant literary critical approach to form, that of the Anglo-American New Critics, emphasizes the distinctiveness of literary language itself, and so focuses on the image patterns of novels (the how) as containing the key to their thematic concerns (the what) and, thus, their formal artistry. The rivals of the New Critics, the Chicago School neo-Aristotelians, though generally unsuccessful in their effort to unseat New Criticism as the orthodoxy of the critical mainstream, turn out to be more influential than the New Critics in the evolution of narrative theory. R. S. Crane, working without knowledge of the Russian Formalists, develops a concept of plot that distinguishes between its "material action" (the what, roughly equivalently to the fabula ) and the "plot proper" (the synthesis of what and how in the service of a given purpose and set of effectsroughly equivalent to sjuzhet ). Crane's student Wayne C. Booth reexamines, from the neo-Aristotelian perspective, the Jamesian rules for novelistic success and repudiates them with a method that transforms Crane's neo-Aristotelian poetics into a rhetoric. In The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), Booth argues that techniques of showing are as rhetorical as techniques of telling; the choice is not between impersonal art and inartistic rhetoric but rather between different ways of trying to influence the audiencein short, different kinds of rhetorical appeals. More generally, Booth's insight that the novel is rhetorical from top to bottom paves one road for the entry of ethical and ideological approaches to narrative.

Another Russian scholar of the 1920s, Vladimir Propp, provides a model for a different approach to narrative in The Morphology of the Folktale (1929). Propp identifies thirty-one functions that occur in invariable order (for example, hero perceives a lack; hero meets a magical agent) in every Russian folktale. But more important than his specific account of the folktale itself is Propp's insight that underlying the surface variety of the folktale is a single deep structure (an Ur-fabula, if the reader will). The structuralist narratologists of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Tzvetan Todorov, Claude Bremond, and, in one phase of his work, Roland Barthes, look back to Propp and to Ferdinand de Saussure in their effort to uncover the underlying structures of narrative. Saussure's distinction between langue, the abstract system of language that underlies any utterance and makes it intelligible, and parole, actual utterances, provides an analogy for the structuralist project of describing the grammar of narrative that makes any given narrative intelligible.

Strikingly the results of these efforts are not a comprehensive grammar but a number of conceptual tools that remain both useful and influential to this day. Chief among these tools are the story / discourse distinction, a new version of the what/how distinction, and Gérard Genette's analyses of discourse. Story encompasses the characters, events, and settings (or states, events, and existents) of narrative, and discourse encompasses all the devices for rendering the story in one way rather than another. Genette groups these devices into three main kinds: (1) those of temporality, which include order, duration (the relation between story time and its expression in discourse time, for instance, twenty years may be summarized in a single sentence, just as one minute may be treated in several pages), and frequency (the relation between the number of times an event happens in story and the number of times it is reported in discourse); (2) voice, the answer to the question "who speaks?"; and (3) vision, the answer to the question "who perceives?" Even more significantly, as the link between Propp and the structuralist project suggests, the emergence of narratology makes possible the shift from novel to narrativethat is, storytelling of all kindsas the central object of study, even if literary fiction narrative retains a special status within the project. Genette, for example, develops his conceptual toolbox from his analysis of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (19131927; Remembrance of things past). Consequently, in the 1980s the field of narrative theory emerged with a recognizable identity.

Contemporary Narrative Theory: Contextual
and Interdisciplinary Models

Even as the field was emerging, it was being affected by the larger "theory revolution" of the last quarter of the twentieth century in two main ways: (1) the field's focus on narrative form expands and becomes complicated through attention to the relations between form and ideology; and (2) as already noted, the field becomes increasingly interdisciplinary. The discovery and dissemination in the West of the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, another Russian scholar of the 1920s and 1930s, is especially significant in the complication of formal approaches. Bakhtin, in one sense, is as concerned with the form of the novel as Shklovsky or any other Russian Formalist; indeed one of his goals was to earn for the novel as a genre the kind of respect and status accorded to poetry in 1920s Russia. But Bakhtin conceives of the novel's form as inseparable from its ideological component, because he conceives of language as always already ideological. He views any national language (English, French, Russian) not as a unified system but rather as a collection of sociolects or minilanguages, such as the language of the working class, the language of the law, or the language of the academy, each of which carries the values of its group. Bakhtin argues that the novel necessarily draws upon multiple minilanguages and puts them into dialogic relationships with each other; this dialogue among languages is also a dialogue among ideologies.

Feminist narratologists such as Robyn Warhol and Susan Lanser participate in the spirit of Bakhtin's work by linking technique to ideology, though they are most concerned with ideologies of gender and their interests extend beyond novelistic language to other features of narrative discourse, especially the devices and techniques of woman writers and female narrators. Although other ideologically based theoretical approaches such as Marxist theory and postcolonial theory have not yet spawned their own branches of narratology, these theories also contribute to a general understanding of the inseparable connection between form and ideology: Each shows how an author's choice of particular narrative techniques and structures occurs within both a formal and a political context and therefore has both formal and ideological consequences.

Another significant complication of the formal model has been the rise of narrative ethics, itself a subfield of the burgeoning area of ethical criticism. Martha Nussbaum argues that narrative, due to its concrete particularity and its capacity to draw on the cognitive power of the emotions, is, in the hands of a novelist such as Henry James, a site for ethical exploration that rivals the explorations of philosophical ethics. Booth extends the rhetorical approach of The Rhetoric of Fiction to the ethical realm by focusing on the quality of one's life in the hours spent reading narrative. More specifically, Booth proposes the metaphor of "books as friends" and suggests the reader can judge the quality of such friendships by attending to the trajectory of desires they invite the reader to follow. Adam Zachary Newton and others develop approaches to narrative ethics through attention to the relation between the specifics of story and discourse, on one hand, and ethical categories derived from philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas, on the other. James Phelan seeks to extend the work of both Booth and Newton by exploring the ethics of technique as much as the ethical dimension of characters' situations.

Contemporary narrative theory is interdisciplinary in two related ways. As the example of narrative ethics shows, it either brings the insights of other disciplines to the study of narrative or it brings the conclusions of narrative theory to the concerns of other disciplines. In each case, the interdisciplinarity is a two-way street: Not only does philosophical ethics illuminate narrative's representations of ethical situations, but those representations have implications for philosophy's investigations into ethics. Similarly not only does, say, medicine benefit from drawing on narrative theory, but medicine's use of it has consequences for the field's ongoing efforts. Among other things, this aspect of inter-disciplinarity corrects literary study's attraction to the experimental or innovative case and helps keep the focus on what seems to be the fundamental elements of narrative's power (see sidebar).

One of the most promising current interdisciplinary developments is the cognitive approach to narrative taken by such scholars as David Herman. In a sense, this movement is an extension of classical narratology because it also has the goal of giving a comprehensive view of narrative, its elements, and their combinations. But rather than fashioning that comprehensive view by analogy with Saussure's theory of language, the cognitivists start with the idea that narrative is a way of organizing experience, one that involves, in both its production and consumption, the development of a mental model of that organization. This starting point means that the cognitivists draw upon both the findings of narrative theory broadly conceivedincluding, for example, classical narratology, rhetorical theory, and sociolinguisticsand the findings of cognitive science about how the human mind processes information, forms patterns from diverse data, and so on. Whether the cognitive approach succeeds in establishing a new dominant paradigm for understanding narrative or becomes, like classical narratology, a movement that is more significant for its local successes than the achievement of its ultimate goal remains to be seen. But the cognitive project is a telling example of the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary narrative studies and strong evidence, along with the undeniable ubiquity and amazing variety of narrative itself, that the future of narrative theory is very bright.

See also Formalism ; Literary Criticism ; New Criticism .

E. M. Forster's King and Queen and Narrative across the Disciplines

"The king died and then the queen" is a story. "The king died and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. Thus spake E. M. Forster, who also points out that the difference between the two is causality. Theorists have debated the validity of the distinction since Forster proposed it in the 1927, arguing, for example, that the very temporality of "and then" entails causality (or at least invites the reader to supply it) so that the only difference between the two versions is the explicit naming of the cause in the second. The debate also includes objections to defining plot solely in terms of causality, since many narrative artists build plots on other principles. Nevertheless the debate itself shows that Forster identified four elements of narrativecharacter (or agent), event, temporality, and causalitythat are essential to the contemporary interest in "narrative across the disciplines." Because narrative spells out the specific relations among agents, events, time, and causality, it is capable of explaining phenomena that escape more abstract analyses such as those based on science-oriented ideas of general laws. In twenty-first-century culture, with its widespread abandonment of a belief in eternal verities, this capability is of great importance for many disciplines.

Many legal cases, for example, involve disputes about the relation among the agents involved, the temporal order of events, and the causes of those events; judges and juries often render their verdicts according to which side constructs the most convincing narrative about that relation. In medicine, the narrative of an onset of an illness with its particular relation of what the patient did when and for what reason can provide clues to both to the nature of the illness and the appropriate treatment. Furthermore many patients find the opportunity of relating their "illness narrative" to a sympathetic medical professional to be salutary in itself. The talking cure of psychoanalysis is a narrative cure: an analysand comes to recognize how the relation among agents, including herself, events of her past, and their causality are still affecting her and, thus, how she can break the grip of that narrative and write another one for her life. More generally, narrative's interest in character, event, temporality, and causality provides the basis for claims that people's identities are constituted by the narratives they tell about their lives. The queen died, in other words, because the event of the king's death made her own passing the inevitable next event in her narrative of her life.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse in the Novel." In his The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Barthes, Roland. "An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative." Translated by Lionel Duisit. New Literary History 6 (1975): 237272.

Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane Lewin. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Herman, David. Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

James, Henry. The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and Practice of Fiction. Edited by William Veeder, and Susan M. Griffin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Lanser, Susan. Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Newton, Adam Zachary. Narrative Ethics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Phelan, James. Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. 2nd ed., rev. Translated by Laurence Scott. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968. Originally published in 1929.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics, edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Reidlinger and translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

Shklovsky, Victor. Theory of Prose. Translated by Benjamin Sher. Elmwood Park, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.

Warhol, Robyn. Gendered Interventions: Narrative Discourse in the Victorian Novel. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

James Phelan


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Narrative can be situated within the range of speech acts that comprise ordinary communication. At one end, there are relatively brief communications, such as token conversational responses like "umm" or "uh-huh" or short descriptive statements like "I've felt that way all my life." At the other end, where narrative is situated, are more extended and complex commentaries, such as full-blown life stories or the frames of reference that researchers themselves use to analyze narrative material (Linde; Gubrium and Holstein; McAdams; Riessman). Harvey Sacks, a pioneer of conversation analysis, characterized narrative or storytelling as an extended turn at talk or a relatively lengthy speech act (see Silverman).

A distinguishing feature of research on ordinary communication is that it centers on naturally occurring speech, as it is conveyed in subjects' own words. For example, if the subject is the aging World War II veteran, the veteran's own responses to the war experience is of central concern, not, for example, contemporary front-line journalists' accounts of the soldier's experience or a spouse's reports about her husband's thoughts and feelings in the course of battle. What others say about the subject's experience, how they describe the subject's world, and the explanations they offer for his or her sentiments and conduct are of secondary interest.

The subject is not always a single category of individual. The focus of attention may center on narratives of any and all who subsequently commented on the war experience, which would include the soldier himself, significant others, and journalists' remarks, among those whose narratives served to communicate what it was like to be in and survive the war. The subject might be extended to include the narratives of veterans of other wars, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars, perhaps aiming to document comparatively how public sentiments surrounding war affect the way soldiers communicate their identities and fighting aims (see Hynes). Whoever the subject is and however extended this is categorically, the goal of narrative analysis is to focus attention on subjects' own accounts.

The growing significance of narrative

The acceptance of narrative analysis as an approach to understanding experience has grown significantly. The social sciences, in particular, have undergone a resurgence of interest in life stories. Narrative analysis is now once again an important investigatory and research genre. One stream of early work in the areatellingly called the "own story" approachproduced rich and detailed depictions of individuals' social lives. A leading example is sociologist Clifford Shaw's presentation of "a delinquent boy's own story" in his book The Jack-Roller, which portrayed the subject, Stanley, and his delinquent career, in Stanley's own words. To Shaw and others working in this vein, statistical profiles, professional assessments, and other "outsider" reports were no substitute for the deep understanding one gained from a narrative approach, a perspective now being extensively revisited.

The widespread contemporary interest in life stories followed a fallow period, from the 1950s through the 1970s, in which the leading research paradigms eschewed narrative. Narrative analysis was figured to be too "subjective," emphasizing that term's association with being biased. The view was that only neutral outsiders could be objective in describing personal experience, which by the same token required "objective" research procedures. This led to the proliferation of positivistic, quantitative techniques in these decades, which stressed measurement and statistical analysis, not the extended story-like accounts favored by narrative researchers.

The resurgence of interest in narrative, which began in the 1980s, stemmed in part from the disappointingly thin representations of experience produced by positivistic methods. While surveys of experience of all kinds, from quality of life to political sentiments, provided information about the distribution of attitudes and opinions, they offered little understanding of how these operated in subjects' lives. The desire for richer detail reminded researchers of the promises of early work on narrative material, once again centering attention on the subject's "own words" and "own story," as communicated by those whose experiences were under consideration. At the outset of the twenty-first century, narrative analyses of all kinds are being conducted across the social sciences and overlapping fruitfully with literary, linguistic, and historical studies (Holstein and Gubrium; Josselson and Lieblich; Rosenwald and Ochberg).

The structure of stories

The key argument that experience comes to us by way of narrative suggests that experience can be viewed as structured along the same lines that stories are. For example, when we are asked about what may have happened to us over a particular span of time, we are likely to respond with an unfolding story, not just a list of events. A listing is simply a series of happenings, which may or may not be organized chronologically. A story, in contrast, can have myriad internal linkages and thus considerable overall organizational complexity. These linkages supply both the meaningful connections between events and the horizons of meaning that comprise the varied worlds of lived experience.

Stories and their events are narratively structured in at least three waysthrough characterization, by formulating events into plots, and by discerning an overall theme or point. In responding to a question about what one has experienced, one can, respectively, describe who was involved and how, detail the temporal organization of events, and make a point, for example, of what it all led to or explain why things developed as they did. For instance, as far as characterization is concerned, the dramatis personae of the story of one's caregiving experience for a demented parent may be limited to the caregiver and the care receiver, with all events described as unfolding around them. The point being made about the experience might be that, overall, it was an important learning experience and strengthened the caregiver's resolve as a person. In contrast, such a story might be told in terms of a huge cast of characters, ranging from the caregiver and care receiver themselves, to professionals, neighbors, friends, and both close and distant relatives, and whose plot links up with the point that if it had not been for the help and support of others, the caregiver would not have survived the ordeal.

While the actual experience of caregiving might be similar in any two cases, their respective characterizations, the plots, and the points subsequently conveyed, can make for distinct forms of knowledge. In practice, we respond as much, if not more, to the stories told about experience as to the experience in its own right. The argument that experience comes to us in the form of stories is important because the organization of stories, separate from what actually happened, bears significantly on how we respond to the events in question. The relevance of studying stories follows directly from this, as their organization brings the researcher face-to-face with the experience's communicative realities.

Each of the three ways of structuring a story can be further divided into subcategories, into forms of characterization, kinds of plots, and types of themes. Vladimir Propp was an important pioneer in distinguishing the underlying plot structure of the folk tale, for example, an approach that other narrative researchers have since developed extensively into additional structures and categorizations (see Polkinghorne). Moreover, the three ways of structuring a story may be narratively related in different ways. For example, emphasis might be placed on characterization, with the plot and the point given relatively minor roles, or conversely the point and plot might be highlighted with little character development. This, too, affects how we respond to the experiences being described.

Applications to aging

One of the earliest applications of a narrative approach in gerontology was clinical and focused on the life review (Butler and Lewis). Psychiatrist Robert Butler determined that in old age, individuals were likely sooner or later to take stock of their lives in relation to their impending death. The process of coming to terms with the past in relation to the present was called the life review and was seen to have a positive psychological function. Butler advised professional care-givers and service providers to encourage life reviewsnarrative reconstructions of a lifetime of experienceas a way of producing overall meaning at life's end. However, the life review approach is controversial because it focuses on the individual and fails to take account of the circumstances of the reconstructions, which may prove to have negative consequences for the life reviewer (Kenyan and Randall).

Anthropologist Sharon R. Kaufman's study of personal narrative and identity in old age has made a significant contribution to the formulation of an area of research now called narrative gerontology (Kenyon, Clark, and de Vries). Kaufman's book The Ageless Self shows that older people are narratively active in conveying the contours of their lives through stories. The plots and themes are not governed by old age itself for Kaufman's respondents, nor by this generation's major historical experiences, such as having lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Significantly, Kaufman's respondents construct the stories of their lives on separate terms, many of them centered on personal values (but see Ruth and Öberg for contrasting results).

Sociologist Jaber F. Gubrium's study of the life narratives of nursing home residents takes this approach into an institutional setting. Gubrium's research focused on the quality of care and of life in the nursing home; he was interested, in particular, in how the residents themselves communicated these qualities. Rather than asking exclusively about the qualities, he raised questions about them in relation to the residents' life stories. The rationale for this was that residents don't leave a lifetime of experiences behind when they check into nursing homes. Interestingly enough, the qualities of life and of care in the nursing homes studied had strikingly distinct meanings. No particular degree of quality of life or of quality of care seemed to matter as much as what the nursing home experience meant in the context of life as a whole. The "same" quality of care, in other words, had different meanings for residents with contrasting life stories.

There are many other new applications in place in gerontology. Researchers have been studying the way that emotional experience is narratively conveyed across the life course. Others are researching the character of storytelling in therapeutic encounters in old age. Some are revisiting the life review approach in nursing practice and in adult education, as well as examining life stories against a variety of historical events (see Birren et al). Studies combining narrative approaches with more traditional, field-based research also are showing considerable promise. Researchers are examining how characterization, plots, and themes are mediated by the social settings in which they are conveyed, such as in focus groups, formal care organizations, and distinct residential environments (see Rowles and Schoenberg). A new technique known as guided autobiography is extending the study of narrative to include the researchers and interviewers as co-storytellers, as those who elicit life stories are taken to be in narrative collaboration with their subjects (Kenyon). Across the board, the research horizon for narrative studies in aging is vibrant and expanding.

Jaber F. Gubrium James A. Holstein

See also Life Review; Qualitative Research.


Birren, J. E.; Kenyon, G. M.; Ruth, J.-E.; Schroots, J. J. F.; and Svensson, T., eds. Aging and Biography. New York: Springer, 1996.

Butler, R. N., and Lewis, M. Aging and Mental Health. St. Louis, Mo.: C. V. Mosby Co., 1977.

Gubrium, J. F. Speaking of Life: Horizons of Meaning for Nursing Home Residents. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993.

Gubrium, J. F., and Holstein, J. A. The New Language of Qualitative Method. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Holstein, J. A., and Gubrium, J. F. The Self We Live By: Narrative Identity in a Postmodern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hynes, S. The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Josselson, R., and Lieblich, A. The Narrative Study of Lives. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1993.

Kaufman, S. R. The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Kenyon, G. M. "Guided Autobiography." In Qualitative Gerontology. Edited by Graham D. Rowles and Nancy Schoenberg. New York: Springer, 2001.

Kenyon, G. M. and Randall, W. L. Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth Through Autobiographical Reflection. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.

Kenyon, G. M.; Phillip, C.; and de Vries, B., eds. Narrative Gerontology: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Springer, 2001.

Linde, C. Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

McAdams, D. P. The Stories We Live By. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.

Polkinghorne, D. E. Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1988.

Propp, V. The Morphology of the Folk Tale. (1928). Reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

Riessman, C. K. Narrative Analysis. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1993.

Rosenwald, G. C., and Ochberg, R. L., eds. Storied Lives. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Rowles, G. D., and Schoenberg, N., eds. Qualitative Gerontology, 2d ed. New York: Springer, 2001.

Ruth, J.-E., and Öberg, P. "Ways of Life: Old Age in a Life History Perspective." In Aging and Biography. Edited by James E. Birren, Gary M. Kenyon, Jan-Erik Ruth, Johannes J. F. Schroots, and Torbjorn Svensson. New York: Springer, 1996. Pages 167186.

Sacks, H. Lectures on Conversation, V. I & II. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1992.

Shaw, C. R. The Jack-Roller: A Delinquent Boy's Own Story. (1930). Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Silverman, D. Harvey Sacks: Social Science and Conversation Analysis. London: Sage, 1998.


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nar·ra·tive / ˈnarətiv/ • n. a spoken or written account of connected events; a story: the hero of his modest narrative. ∎  the narrated part or parts of a literary work, as distinct from dialogue. ∎  the practice or art of narration: traditions of oral narrative.• adj. in the form of or concerned with narration: a narrative poem | narrative technique.DERIVATIVES: nar·ra·tive·ly adv.

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