Beyond grammar and logic: The foundation of narratology

All theories of narrative must assume a geometrically linear progression of narrative. Hero X begins at point A, passes through middle point B and at last arrives at end point C. Just on the face of it, a silly trivialization. In order to give this basic structure any meaning or teleology, “point B” has to be asserted as passed through by necessity. Hero X, in order to get to any reasonable endpoint C MUST pass through the given midpoint B. Any given theory of narratology defines itself in its definition of midpoint B as a necessary point of passage. Therefore, midpoint B becomes the defining moment of narrative: a story’s telos is its middle, not its end; the midpoint motivates the Hero to reach the end at last.

Well, narrative theory thus escapes trivialization, but it doesn’t escape being silly. It is metaphysically impossible for any point in a narrative to function as a telos except the endpoint. If a story opens with a Hero at startpoint A deciding to go forth to endpoint C, that must be the Hero’s motivation. This means precisely that a storyteller can construct any midpoint B, or any series of midpoints B1, B2, B3, …, that he or she can imagine. And each of these midpoints will function, not to move the story along, but rather to inhibit it, to delay attainment of the endpoint in a manner that holds the interest of the reader or other audience.

There are definitely narrative structures that can accomplish this strategic aim for the storyteller (but this would be the storyteller’s telos, not that of either the Hero or the narrative). But none of these structures occur of necessity. Oedipus is certainly doomed to discover the truth of his marriage to Jocasta (that she is his mother), and suffer some consequence of that discovery; but while it is indeed intriguing that he is warned away from this discovery by a blind prophet, and then, in the last, chooses to blind himself, this does not happen by some inner narratological necessity. One can imagine the same story where he would be warned away from his discovery by an eunuch, and then, upon the discovery, castrates himself. Of course this would not be the narrative that Sophocles actually used for his play, but so what? Sophocles was not the only playwright capable of dramatizing this narrative, he just happened to be the one who did. (One can hear the rejoinder, “well, but he had to use the story of the myth as it had been handed down to him” – baloney; in fact Sophocles deploys a considerable amount of invention in the embellishment of the narrative; for instance the chorus is not a function of the myth but of the accepted dramaturgy of his day; but he gives it a role to play far beyond that of the Theban citizens in the given myth.)

What we are discovering is that a narrative is an open structure; the only two points having necessary sequence are the startpoint and the endpoint, just about anything at all can happen between these, dependent only on the storyteller’s rhetorical purposes and the audience’s willingness to follow along. There’s no point in demonstrating this further, it has been well demonstrated by some of the finest storytellers of history, East and West – The Tale of the Genji, The Satyricon, the stories of Shaherazade, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – the magnificent rocks against which the ships of literary theory always crash.

Of course, there will be a few readers who will even deny that an endpoint is necessary to a narrative – why can’t a story simply go on and on? What if a narrative is simply an endless sequence of events?

There are indeed stories presented to the public that are written on this basis, especially, e.g., the so-called “soap opera”, dedicated to the proposition that life is but an endless series of meaningless adulterous affairs. So there is no denying the possibility. But such stories are mere evidence of fear, of postponement, on the parts of both storytellers and audiences. Nature has predetermined an inevitable end for any real human story: death. Narrative is one of the most important of rhetorical strategies through which human intelligence comes to terms with this unshakeable truth.

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