The Different Styles of Narration

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Narrators in Film and Novel

In this chapter, Stam introduces the different styles of narrators in Novel. According to him, they vary from the first-person report-narrator to the multiple letter writers of epistolary novels, to outside-observer narrators of reflexive novels like Don Quixote and Tom Jones, to the once intimate and impersonal narrator of Madame Bovary, to the “stream-of-consciousness” narrators, on to the intensely objective/subjective obsessional narrators of Robbe-Grillet.

What interests Stam is the fact that these different styles of narration cannot be really explained by the conventional terms that exist. That happens because language and grammar are the foundation of the traditional analysis of film and literature and in this context have leaded to a terminology based on them, a terminology such as first-person narrator or third-person narrator. This kind of grammar based terminology and approach, can create confusion and obscure facts like writers shifting person and changing the relation between narrator and fiction. For Stam though, the most important issue is not the grammatical “person” as he says, but the control an author has over the intimacy and the distance and how he calibrates the access to a character’s knowledge and consciousness.

Literary narration can be complicated through film because of the verbal narration (voice over/speech of characters) and the capacity a film has to present the different appearances of the world. André Goudreault says that filmic narration is more powerful than “monstration” (showing) and “narration” (telling) and that for him, editing and other cinematic procedures consist of the evaluation and the comments of the filmic narrator. This way films tell stories (narrate) and at the same time stage them (show). Stam explains that «the film as “narrator” is not a person (the director) or a character in the fiction but, rather, the abstract instance of a superordinate agency that regulates the spectator’s knowledge». In other words “le grand imagier” and the “meganarrator”, all names attributed to the narrator, can be considered as the conductor of an orchestra who uses the instruments of cinematic expression as musical instruments.

The author (Stam) continues his chapter by explaining how a double play of forms can be made possible through sound cinema. Voice-over narration and monstration (showing) mutually reinforce each other like in Sunset Boulevard where the scene is supposed to be a visual manifestation of what Joe Gillis is saying. We will also come across that during my extract analysis. In more modernist films like India Song (1975) and Last year at Marienbad (1961) the two forms contradict each other, in a sense that what is told is not what is being shown.

Since sound made its appearance in film, cinema has been as Chion says “vococentric”, it has an orientation toward the human voice, which, in the cinema, according to Stam can provide information and focus for spectatorial identification.

A debate has started about whether a film can actually narrate. Film theorists believe that filmic “narration” is only a fiction of the human mind. They don’t argue of course about films being able to develop certain processes of “narration” but they state that these processes can only be considered as cheap copies of a “narrator”. This logic though can also be valid for novelistic narrators. Theorist like Christian Metz, consider film to be a deployment of “impersonal” narration in which case the narrator is both the one that provides the fictional world and the one that comments on this same world.

Stam chooses to stand on another important matter of narratology, the relationship between the events told and the temporal standpoint of the telling. For example, whether the telling if the story is taking place after the events of the story, which is called a retrospective narration, or prior, in which case, as he explains, we have an oracular or...
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