On Narrative

Carol Colatrella

Professor Carol Colatrella
Professor Carol Colatrella

LMC’s tag line “humanistic perspectives on a technological world” offers an expansive promise to inspire students and faculty. As a humanist with interdisciplinary degrees (liberal arts and comparative literature), I have tried to live up to this claim by developing courses at Georgia Tech that encourage students to understand connections between the liberal arts and STEM fields and to develop technical expertise in literary and cultural study. My scholarship and teaching focus on social equity issues illustrated in post-Romantic (i.e., Shelley’s Frankenstein and after) narratives that represent scientific and technological concepts. My syllabi include fictions, films, on-line videos, and advertisements, and our class discussions concentrate on figuring out and responding to the social commentary and cultural values embedded in these narrative texts. My literature and film courses have focused on race as a theme in works by African-American and white women writers; issues of authority, transgression, and adaptation in Herman Melville’s fictions; and class conflict in recent British films. Courses in gender studies look at sociological, literary, historical, and medical accounts of femininity and masculinity and consider how gender matters in shaping personal views and public policy. Students develop skills in analyzing narratives and ideologies that they can apply to study and work in a range of academic fields and to their everyday experiences. The approach taken is that of “cultural study of narrative,” which focuses attention on written, visual, and non-verbal discourse.

Understanding the dynamics of a fictional world, as one does when one reads a novel or sees a film, and teasing out the logical contradictions of an attempt to persuade, as one does when viewing a print or television advertisement or hearing a political speech, are skills that one uses every day. 

What is “narrative”?

In the past century there has been an explosion of interest in studying narrative forms and in establishing robust theories of narrative that apply across disciplines, media, and cultures. Porter Abbott (2008) offers a succinct and commonsense definition that privileges plot: “As soon as we follow a subject with a verb, there is a good chance we are engaged in narrative discourse.” Gerald Prince (2003) acknowledges the mixed rhetorical modes of narrative in his definition: “Narrative is a discourse representing one or more events. Narration is traditionally distinguished from description and from commentary but usually incorporates them within itself.”

French theorist Roland Barthes’s essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” initiated interest in applying techniques used to study literary texts to cultural texts in claiming “The narratives of the world are numberless. . . . Moreover, under this almost infinite diversity of forms, narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is nor has been a people without narrative. All classes, all human groups, have their narratives, enjoyment of which is very often shared by men with different, even opposing, cultural backgrounds. Caring nothing for the division between good and bad literature, narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.”

Barthes’s description of narrative is the most expansive and exciting in connecting cultural activities to textual accounts of such experiences and doing so across time, space, and other boundaries. To study narrative is to study human existence, to better understand who we are, but it is also a way of characterizing other forms of existence. For example, fictions such as Gulliver’s Travels and Black Beauty provide accounts of animal consciousness. Science fictions offer opportunities to analyze aliens, monsters, and zombies, characters that may or may not be versions of us.

There are many reasons to study narrative.  We think and remember in stories. We learn about how things work and how to make them by means of following and developing procedures, which are causal narratives. We communicate and establish relationships by sharing stories (jokes, anecdotes, visual narratives, histories). We like to hear, read, view, and act out stories and to write narratives.

The study of narrative encompasses a number of disciplines and related topics, including

  • Literature: genres, conventions, representations
  • Television and cinema: fictional and documentary structures
  • Media: analog and digital forms (games and other objects)
  • Communication: discourse and audience
  • Graphic arts: comics, painting, sculpture, prints
  • Psychology/Cognitive Science: how we think and understand, what we remember
  • Advertising/Marketing: how to persuade others
  • History: narratives of human events and traditions
  • Cultural Studies: human values and relations

Studying narrative and narrative theory enhances a student’s capabilities. Reading and writing about texts increases one’s understanding of how narrative discourse has been constructed and adapted over time and of how different socio-political interests prevail in narrative form. Doing so also improves one’s understanding of how cultures and organizations work and enables one to be a better thinker, reader, writer, and communicator. Understanding narrative makes one into a more interesting human being.

Studying narrative makes one powerful. As film director Brian De Palma argues, “People don’t see the world before their eyes until it’s put in a narrative mode.” Being familiar with narrative structures and strategies increases one’s capacity to discern ideologies of power influencing interpretation. Analyzing texts includes considering both author and reader, for, as feminist literary theorist Susan Lanser notes, “Feminist critique of the masculinist bias. . . has . . . taken the view that theory sometimes says more about the reader than about the text.”

The study of narrative can be the foundation for many career paths. Fields that value understanding narrative include

  • Creative writing, technical communication, web and graphic design, journalism, marketing
  • Working in television, film, social media, game, Internet, and other companies
  • Teaching literature, media, communication, cultural studies, design
  • Pursuing study/practice in law, public health, medicine, business

In short, reading, discussing, and writing about narratives prepares one for work, relationships, and political engagement. Understanding the dynamics of a fictional world, as one does when one reads a novel or sees a film, and teasing out the logical contradictions of an attempt to persuade, as one does when viewing a print or television advertisement or hearing a political speech, are skills that one uses every day.

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