Mieke Bal: Narratology

[Readings] (03.03.09, 6:32 pm)

Bal’s goal is not to develop an entirely new narratology, but to introduce it generally. Bal wishes to do this without adhering to a specific existing theory developed by an author (Genette, Chatman, etc) or a school of thought (such as structuralism, deconstruction, or what have you). However, in order to do this, she must develop a new theory as a consequence, one that introduces terms on a general level. The review here gives three elements to narratives: text, story, and fabula (which others refer to as sjuzet or discourse). The contents of the fabula are events, which are organized and structured by elements: actors, time, location, and so on. The story itself is formed by its aspects, which are points of view, sequence, traits of actors and such. The text itself is dependent on the medium. In contrast to a number of other narratologists, Bal emphasizes the role of characters, which is what I shall focus on in my analysis of her book.

Story: Aspects (From Actors to Characters)

Bal discusses character and actor as aspects of a story, and in doing so makes an argument against the confusion of a character with a person. Specifically, she introduces the question “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” in order to critique it as impertinent. That particular question was discussed and criticized by L.C. Knights, and was later defended by Chatman. The argument is that the story character is not a person, and thus has no meaning, and no significance outside the context of the story. Bal gives the example of Proust’s Albertine, who appears as the object of Marcel’s love, has no depth beyond what is necessary to motivate the topics of jealousy and love, and when those topics have been satisfied she dies in an unlikely accident. Bal defends this depiction as instrumentally sufficient. Expecting Albertine to be a “real girl” makes the character frustrating, “irritating and antipathetic”, and also portrays Marcel as a selfish monster. These criticisms are disparaged, as essentially missing the point of what characters are and are there for. In Bal’s view, the character is only an image.

The section is introduced with the truism that narratives are “written by, for, and about people”. Characters resemble people, but are not people, as they have no life outside the page. However, it does not make sense to deny the reader’s interpretation of a character as a person. Bal compares this activity to the myth of Narcissus, falling in love with an image that lacked a body. The willingness to make a character into a person is a kind of “naive realism” on the part of the reader. But if narratives are for people, and readers are interested in people, why should anyone disregard or deny the reader’s desire to imagine personhood in a character? This fascination and desire is pervasive, far more than in the circles of literary critics. How can narratologists make the argument to readers everywhere that the essentially human activity of imagination and anthropomorphization is wrong? The warning is presented more as a fable that if readers (or literary critics) are to imagine personhood in characters then something awful is bound to befall them, as per Narcissus. But I do not see this is as an intrinsically dangerous activity.

Beyond this discussion, Bal discusses how characters are introduced as initially blank, and that through the course of reading, we are able to identify more of their characteristics, and thus predict their future behavior and responses. Characters are constructed by filling out parts of what we know about them, to further predict their behavior and to understand similarity and differences between characters.  Observations lead to the construction of semantic axes, which are often found as binary pairs. A character may be either strong or weak, diligent or not, and so on. These have a direct relationship with how the characters may be expected to respond to events. This leads to a surprisingly systemic way of thinking about characters. Characters can work according to roles and functions. The emphasis here is on how the information that describes these characteristics is revealed to the reader, but this model could be applied to thinking about the characters behavior within simulations.

Fabula: Elements (Events)

Events are elements of the fabula. The discussion that follows in this section is eerily similar to Schank, at least in terms of theme if not goals. The discussion revolves around how events are understood and processed by a reader in order for the reader to construct a story out of the fabula given. So, for instance the sentence “John is ill” has a different significance than “John falls ill” because the latter implies a change. Other formulations can imply causality, a discussion very relevant to Schank’s story comprehension system. Events are given three criteria for how they imply structure in the world: change, choice, and confrontation. Change demonstrates changes in the state of the world, while choice implies that a change is the result of an actor’s agency. Confrontation resembles something closer to verbs linking a subject and direct object.

The flow of narrative events leads to a cycle of possibility, realization (event), and conclusion. This leads to several schemas. For instance, an as processes of improvement, “the fulfillment of the task”, “the intervention of allies”, “the elimination of the opponent”, “the negotiation”, “the attack”, “the satisfaction”. Or, with negative processes, “the misstep”, “the creation of an obligation”, “the sacrifice”, “the endured attack”, “the endured punishment”. These are mentioned on pages (p. 192-193), and the concept of the narrative cycle derives from Bremond. These sorts of possibilities, or at least a few of them, may be organized and seen as a system of narrative tropes, much like Polti’s dramatic situations. Events can also be organized in terms of other themes, the subjects, the nature of the confrontation, the time, and the place.

Fabula: Elements (Actors)

Bal gives a functional account of how actors operate. This is purely teleological, to derive what the goals and functions of actors are. This leads to the use of an actant theory. Actors fit into different relationships, in subject-function-object relationships, helper-power-opponent relationships. These are mechanically significant, but are very dry. The focus on function also feels like a throwback to Propp, but this may not have been intended. Examples of functions in subject-function-object relationships are things such as “wants to marry”, “wants to become”, “wants to know”, “wants to prevent”, “wants to have”, and so on. This discussion is formatted in a way that suggests it can be integrated into Schank’s discussion of states, enablement, goals, and plans with relative ease. This does is not the intent, clearly, but the proximity is startling.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBal, Mieke
TitleNarratology: An Introduction to the Theory of Narrative
Tagsnarrative, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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