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Narratology: Understanding Narrative Structures and Relationships

May 24, 2023 | 0 comments

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May 24, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments

They lived happily ever after, the prince chivalrously helped the princess into the car before getting in himself and the car exploding into a million pieces spraying shrapnel in all directions. The prince, very frustrated, stepped out of the car to inspect the problem which was clearly a bomb fixed underneath the passenger floor panel. Upon heroically removing the bomb, he laid his eyes upon the most beautiful princess in the land and knew it love at first sight! Bored and alone, Prince looked over at the town’s people as they would walk arm in arm to the theatre. There once was a fair Prince with a lonely heart.

The discipline of Narratology refers to the principles and practices of how a narrative can be effectively structured as well as how it affects the meaning that is drawn out from it. As illustrated above by the story of the bomb disarming prince, there are elements in which must be carefully analysed and applied so that the purpose and perception of the narrative isn’t misinterpreted. At its beginning stands a structuralist pillar but has since developed its concepts and models to be used as heuristic tools for the flexible process of many communicative forms. Narratology helps us understand this process by identifying these elements and exploring the relationships between them. Throughout history there have been many prolific philosophers and writers that have adhered to these structures and relationships, developed variations and even sought to break them in order to subvert the expectations of a critical audience. After an explication of its initial phase as a humanities discipline this essay will then explore its historical, Aristotelian and Platonic lineage before examining Joseph Campbell’s revolutionary understanding of comparative mythology. In order to discover how these fundamental structures have evolved in contemporary storytelling the final step will be to re-establish the foundations and variations of Tzvetan Todorov, Roland Barthes and Nigel Watts as a frame of reference to analyse its application and subversion in feature films.

Originally, concrete discourse in the form of letters, words and sentences was the generalizing theory of narrative. Tzvetan Todorov (1969) rejected this surface level of text based narrative and argued that the focus should be shifted to a generalizing theory that could be applied to all structural and logical domains of narrative thus coining the French term narratologie (1969: 10) as a univers de représentations (9).
Todorov (1969) and Barthes (1966) were among the leaders that informed narratology by the paradigms of French structuralism. Barthes (1966) constructed a system of events referred to as “kernels” that function as the obligatory narrative architecture that guarantees a story’s coherence with the addition of “satellites” that serve as the orbiting embellishments of the main plot. Todorov’s (1969) narrative syntax of equating action to verb, character to noun and attribute to adjective provided further development of the linguistic analogy of narrative on an abstract level. Accounting for the manifestation of sequence and the “grammar” of virtual action, the infrastructure of all signifying systems was universally mapped. Defining narrative universals was the particular interest of narratologists in the mid 1960’s to the early 1980’s and this tendency continued, as concisely stated in 1993 that narratology is a “set of general statements on narrative genres, on the systematics of narrating (telling a story) and on the structure of plot” (Ryan & von Alphen 1993: 110). However in 2004, Fludernik and Margolin described it as a “discipline” which seems to be more accurate conceptually on the grounds that narratology has a dual nature of theory and academic application.

Aristotle and Plato contributed to the classical ancient understanding via modes of representation the functional relationship between action and character. Aristotle’s Poetics presented the fundamental criterion that has remained how we understanding narrative to the present day. The key to his criterion was the distinction between the mythos or narrated plot and the entirety of the events that are taking place in the world of the characters. The mythos was classified as always being aesthetically considered when constructing the subset of events. The functional approach and aesthetic consideration toward the fictional protagonists and their actions as described in Poetics explained the overall logistic requirements and artistic taste of the mythos. The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as if it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. This Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view to the action (Aristotle, trans. 1975, Section 1)
Plato’s The Republic listed the distinct literary genres separated into two fundamental modes and a third being a combination of both. Narrative is of three kinds, the simple, the imitative, and a composition of the two. An instance will make my meaning clear. The first scene in Homer is of the last or mixed kind, being partly description and partly dialogue (Plato, trans. 2009)

The concept of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey was introduced by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book of narratology and comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The hero being the central subject to the rites of passage that can be broken down into three arcs that could classify as the monomyth’s nuclear unit: separation, initiation and return. These arcs can be then unpacked into


Plato – C. J.Emlyn-Jones – William Preddy – Harvard University Press – 2013




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