A Theory of Narrative

A Theory of Narrative

RICK ALTMAN
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 392
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/altm14428
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  • Book Info
    A Theory of Narrative
    Book Description:

    Narrative is a powerful element of human culture, storing and sharing the cherished parts of our personal memories and giving structure to our laws, entertainment, and history. We experience narrative in words, pictures, and film, yet regardless of how the tale is told, story remains independent from the media that makes it concrete. Narrative follows humans wherever they travel and adapts readily to new forms of communication. Constantly evolving and always up-to-date, narrative is a necessary strategy of human expression and a fundamental component of human identity.

    In order to understand human interaction, award-winning scholar Rick Altman launches a close study of narrative's nature, its variation in different contexts, and the method through which it makes meaning. Altman's approach breaks away from traditional forms of analysis, identifying three basic strategies: single-focus, dual-focus, and multiple-focus. Unpacking an intentionally diverse selection of texts, Altman demonstrates how these strategies function in context and illustrates their theoretical and practical applications in terms of textual analysis, literary and film history, social organization, religion, and politics. He employs inventive terminology and precise analytical methods throughout his groundbreaking work, making this volume ideal for teaching literary and film theory and for exploring the anatomy of narrative on a more general level.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51312-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. ONE What Is Narrative?
    (pp. 1-27)

    Among human endeavors, few are more widely spread or more generally endowed with cultural importance than narrative—the practice of storytelling. Not only are stories universally told, stored, and analyzed, but also they regularly occupy a place of honor in society. Stories constitute the bulk of sacred texts; they are the major vehicle of personal memory; and they are a mainstay of law, entertainment, and history. As Italian theorist and philosopher Benedetto Croce put it, “Where there is no narrative, there is no history” (1951:26). Omnipresent and culturally privileged, narrative gains much of its power from its ability to change...

  6. TWO The Song . . . of Roland?
    (pp. 28-54)

    As it is usually told, The Song of Roland is the tragic story of a youthful warrior who makes the successive mistakes of incurring his stepfather Ganelon’s ire and assuming that his rearguard can, by itself, repel the Saracen attack perfidiously engineered by Ganelon. As a result of Roland’s hubris, the entire rearguard is killed, including his best friend Oliver. Blowing his horn with his last breath, Roland finally summons the main force, which, under Charlemagne’s command, eventually avenges his death not once but twice—first against Marsile’s local army and then against Baligant’s combined legions.

    Behind this apparently simple...

  7. THREE Dual-Focus Narrative
    (pp. 55-98)

    The Song of Roland displays the characteristics of a narrative type that I call “dual-focus.” The narrator follows no single character throughout but instead alternates regularly between two groups whose conflict provides the plot. Because the group rather than an individual plays the lead role, individuals serve primarily as placeholders, defined by the group, rather than as characters whose development constitutes an independent subject of interest. Succeeding following-units typically portray the two sides engaged in similar activities. This parallelism induces comparison of the two sides and is the source of the text’s main rhetorical thrust. Each new pair of following-units...

  8. FOUR Hester’s Speculation
    (pp. 99-118)

    The dual-focus system is organized as if by divine fiat. Characters are subordinated to prearranged categories. Textual progression depends on an omniscient and omnipotent narrator. Decided from the outset, the locus of value remains invariable. Dual-focus texts thus adopt the ultrarealist position in the problem of universals. General categories are seen as real, concrete entities, whereas the particular objects, individuals, or statements that embody them are considered mere “accidents.” Single-focus narrative, to which we now turn, offers a radically different approach, tending toward the nominalist solution to the problem of universals. According to this system, categories are nothing but abstractions...

  9. FIVE Single-Focus Narrative
    (pp. 119-190)

    Dual-focus narratives begin by division into two antithetical groups or principles, both striving to govern the same space. The text serves to resolve the conflict and reduce duality to unity, subordinating all aspects of the narrative universe to a single, well-established system protected by rules assuring its continued existence and coherence. On this note of continuing unity, established values, and eternal return, dual-focus texts conclude. It is at precisely this point that single-focus texts begin. The dual-focus world is a cloistered realm: self-contained, timeless, oblivious to all but its own perpetuation. Those who would escape its bounds or regulations are...

  10. six Pieter Bruegel, or the Space of Multiplicity
    (pp. 191-240)

    In the preceding chapters of this book I introduce a wide variety of narrative examples—not only verbal texts like epics, novels, and sacred history but also image-based and multimedia examples including comic strips, television programs, and films. Here I continue this broadening impulse, employing the graphic works of Pieter Bruegel as an initial example of multiple-focus narrative. Two short analyses of artworks organized according to dual-focus and single-focus narrative principles provide a useful context for this treatment.

    The twelfth-century tympanum on the western façade of the basilica at Conques, in southwestern France on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de...

  11. SEVEN Multiple-Focus Narrative
    (pp. 241-290)

    When a text follows several different characters, I speak of “multiple-focus narrative.” Many multiple-focus narratives involve multiple plots. In fact, British theater’s tendency toward multiple plots (as compared with French classical theater’s spare unity-of-action style) is primarily responsible for much important writing about texts that attend to several different characters (Empson 1950, Dryden 1965, Levin 1971). But it is important not to confuse multiple-plot texts with the more general approach of multiple-focus narration. Whereas all multiple-plot texts are by definition multiple-focus, many multiple-focus narratives are organized around a single plot. Indeed, the level and type of a text’s multiplicity is...

  12. EIGHT Theoretical Conclusion
    (pp. 291-314)

    The body of this book has been devoted to two complementary methods of considering narrative texts. The rhetorical approach concentrates on the fluid relationship between reader and text that is created by the following-pattern. Constitutive of narrative itself, the process of following (along with its attendant panoply of modulations) positions the reader in a specific relationship to the characters and their actions. The study of following thus represents a necessary initial step in the understanding of narrative meaning. Limited to the bounds of a single text, the rhetorical approach is usefully complemented by a typological approach, which acknowledges the existence...

  13. NINE Practical Conclusion
    (pp. 315-340)

    Theories are rightly measured by two complementary criteria, pertinence and elegance. Does the proposed theory match the phenomena in question? Then it is deemed pertinent. Is the proposed theory neat, clear, and economically formulated? Then it is deemed elegant. In developing a theory of narrative based on following-patterns I have considered an additional criterion: usefulness. Can the proposed theory be easily applied to a wide range of activities? Then it is deemed useful. Here I suggest some possible uses for the theory developed in the preceding chapters. Principal areas covered include textual analysis, literary and film history, social organization, religion...

  14. References
    (pp. 341-356)
  15. Index
    (pp. 357-377)