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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 conceived—including, for example, classical narratology, rhetorical theory, and sociolinguistics—and 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.


"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 narrative—character (or agent), event, temporality, and causality—that 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): 237–272.

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

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mysticism to Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotideNarrative - From Novel To Narrative, Contemporary Narrative Theory: Contextual And Interdisciplinary Models, E. M. Forster's King And Queen And Narrative Across The Disciplines