An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative

Topics: Narrative, Linguistics, Narratology Pages: 23 (16371 words) Published: October 30, 2014

An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative*
Roland Barthes
T
HERE ARE COUNTLESS FORMS of narrative in the world. First of all, there is a prodigious variety of genres, each of which branches out into a variety of media, as if all substances could be relied upon to accommodate man's stories. Among the vehicles of narrative are articulated language, whether oral or written, pictures, still or moving, gestures, and an ordered mixture of all those substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fables, tales, short stories, epics, history, tragedy, (frame [suspense drama], comedy, pantomime, paintings (in Santa Ursula by Carpaccio, for instance), stained-glass windows, movies, local news, conversation. Moreover, in this infinite variety of forms, it is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind; there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative; all classes, all human groups, have their stories, and very often those stories are enjoyed by men of different and even opposite cultural backgrounds: I narrative remains largely unconcerned with goad or bad literature. Like life itself, it is there, international, transhistorical, transcultural. Are we to infer from such universality that narrative is insignificant? Is it so common that we can say nothing about it, except for a modest description of a few highly particularized species, as literary history sometimes does? Indeed how are we to control such variety, how are we to justify our right to distinguish or recognize them? How can we tell the novel from the short story, the tale from the myth, suspense drama from tragedy (it has been done a thousand times) without reference to a common model? Any critical attempt to describe even the most specific, the most historically oriented narrative form implies such a model. It is, therefore, understandable that thinkers as early as Aristotle should have concerned themselves with the study of narrative forms, and not have abandoned all ambition to talk about them, giving * Originally published in Communications, 8 (1966), as "Introduction 8. ravafine structurale des Moils." It will be recalled that such is not the case with either poetry or the essay, which rely on the cultural level of the consumer. 238NEW LITERARY HISTORY

as an excuse the fact that narrative is universal. And it is normal that structuralism, in the early stages, should have made narrative a primary concern. For is it not one of structuralism's main preoccupations to control the infinite variety of speech acts by attempting to describe the language or langue from which they originate, and from which they can be derived? Faced with an infinite number of narratives and the many standpoints from which they can be considered (historical, psychological, sociological, ethnological, aesthetic, etc.), the analyst is roughly in the same situation as Saussure, who was faced with desultory fragments of language, seeking to extract, from the apparent anarchy of messages, a classifying principle and a central vantage point for his description. To confine myself to the current period, the Russian formalists, Propp, and Levi-Strauss have taught us to identify the following dilemma: either narrative is a random assemblage of events, in which case one can only speak of it in terms of the narrator's (the author's) art, talent, or genius—all mythical embodiments of chance ;2 or else it shares with other narratives a common structure, open to analysis, however delicate it is to formulate. There is a world of difference between the fortuitous, in its most complex forms, and the simplest combinative or obligatory scheme: for no one can produce a narrative without referring himself to an implicit system of units and rules. Where then should we look for the structure of narrative? No doubt in the narratives themselves. All the narratives? Many commentators, who admit the idea of a...
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