Printer Friendly

The Narratorial Functions: Breaking Down a Theoretical Primitive.

When Barthes and Foucault opened up the notion of author to examine its inner organs, the operation was generally considered successful (to judge by the critical fortune of their ideas), but the patient died. So far, the narrator has been protected from this fatal deconstruction. Except for the challenge mounted by Ann Banfield's nonnarrator theory, which is restricted to the case of third-person omniscient narration, the notion of narrator has generally been treated as necessary, given, monolithic, and self-evident. The logic behind this stance is easy to follow: if narrative is a type of message produced through an act of narration, this act must be performed by an agent; and what should this agent be called, if not a narrator? Most general and technical definitions defer indeed the burden of characterization to another lexical entry: in Webster's dictionary the narrator is simply the agentive noun derived from the verb to narrate by adding the suffix--or, in Gerald Prince's Dictionary of Narratology the narrator is "the one who narrates, as inscribed in the text" (65). Yet even if lexicologists or narratologists were to succeed at the formidable task of defining the verb to narrate (whose meaning depends itself on that of the noun forms, narrative or narration), the formula would not automatically yield a definition of narrator. As the cases of theater and film suggest, the cognitive model we call narrative can be activated without an explicit verbal act of narration, and the concepts of narrative and narrator, therefore, cannot be captured in one throw of the definitional lasso.

Though it is not my intent to put the narrator to death, I would like to argue that the notion of narrator is not the theoretical primitive for which it has been taken so far. Narrating a story is a complex activity which can, and should be, analyzed into distinct semantic features, henceforth labeled "narratorial functions." "Narrator-hood" is, therefore, a matter of degree: the presence, visibility, and psychic density of the narrator depends on how many of these functions are fulfilled by the story telling agent.

The rarity of the term "narrator" in everyday language suggests that in its non technical usage it occupies an uncertain territory overlapping with those of author, storyteller, actor, speaker, or writer. In narratology, by contrast, the role of the concept is well-defined: "narrator" is used in opposition to "author," and its purpose is to relieve the author from the responsibility of fulfilling the felicity conditions of textual statements. The disjunction author-narrator is consequently what Dorrit Cohn has called "a signpost of fictionality." According to Genette (73), in nonfiction a[uthor]=n[arrator], while in fiction a [neq] n. But the narrator should not be an ad hoc theoretical construct added on to the author-parameter for the sole purpose of distinguishing fiction from nonfiction, for if this were the case we could greatly simplify matters by stating that nonfiction is narrated by an a and fiction by an n. By virtue of Occam's razor, the postulation of both an author and a narrator in the case of fiction can only be justified if each of these parameters fulfills a distinct role that complements the function(s) of the other.

What, then, are the pragmatic functions, or responsibilities involved in an act of narration? If we regard the conversational narrator of personal experience, i.e., the so-called "natural narrator" as the fullest form of narrator (who would dare deny him narratorhood?), these pragmatic functions are three: the creative (or self-expressive), the transmissive (or performative), and the testimonial (or assertive) function. The creative function resides in the activity of shaping and encoding the story, of forming discourse in the mind. It is the assumption that this function is being fulfilled that en titles readers and listeners to regard narrative discourse as the expression of a narratorial self. If no self is revealed in any psychological sense, the creative function still reflects on the storytelling competence of a specific individual. Without a materialization of the signs of language, however, the product of the creative function would never leave the privacy of the mind. This materialization is what I call the transmissive function, and it can take the form of either oral performance or written inscription. The third function consists of presenting the story as true of its reference world, which means accepting responsibility for the assertive statements that make up the bulk of narrative discourse. This function is admittedly more controversial than the other two: nobody will seriously deny that it takes the creation and transmission of discourse to tell a story, but as the case of the oral storyteller suggests, stories can arguably be told as invention. It is, however, my contention that there is always a cognitive level on which the audience of both a written narrative and an oral performance regards the text as a largely accurate statement of facts, even when the narrator is judged unreliable, because unreliability affects only a small proportion of narratorial statements. If the reader did not take a core of propositions as undisputably true, the narrative world would be in a state of such radical ontological indeterminacy that it would be impossible to construe a narrative made out of existents, states, and events.

Literary narratologists, accustomed to analyzing narratorhood and narration into a myriad of manifestations, may be tempted to ask: why reduce narratorhood to three functions, and why give privileged status to these three specific ones, when there are so many other criteria available: for instance reliable/unreliable, personal/impersonal, and all diegetic or focalizer categories of Genette's taxonomy. The difference between these categories and my three narratorial functions is one of description versus definition. Description, which forms the primary concern of classical narratology, is arguably unlimited, and the more categories it uncovers, the better it accounts for the diversity of its object, but definitions owe their efficiency to the economy of their constituents. My three functions belong, therefore, to a deeper level of analysis than the categories of classical narratology. I view them as categorial headings, under which the descriptive features catalogued by narratologists can be subsumed. The creative function covers, for instance, such phenomena as control of rhetorical devices, speed, stance, self-presentation, chronological rearrangement, alternation between diegetic and mimetic narration, or economy versus disgressivity. A description of the transmissive function will ask: is the narrative written or oral; what is the channel of communication; in what genre is the narrator narrating; to what extent are the generic norms respected? The testimonial function subsumes questions of reliability, of source of knowledge, of sincerity, and of authority. And finally, techniques such as mode of focalization and choice of point of view can be regarded as manifestations of either the creative or testimonial function: while they contribute to the shaping of the story, they also determine with respect to whom or to what position in time and space narrative statements can be asserted.

Though I regard the three functions as constitutive of the language game of narration, I am not claiming that they carry equal weight in the mind of either ordinary language users or literary theorists. If narratorhood is a fuzzy set, or family-resem blance notion, membership in the set depends not only on the number of functions fulfilled by an agent but also on the relative weight of the functions. The dominant function seems to be the transmissive, followed by the creative and the testimonial. We readily label the performer of "Peter and the Wolf" a narrator, even though he fulfills only the transmissive function, while the narratorhood of an agent whose in volvement is limited to the testimonial function is highly controversial. Nobody will regard the example for the combination - - + in Table 1 as a narrator, since the nar ration is performed by somebody else, and some literary theorists (Banfield, Walsh) have proposed to do away with a narratorial figure for the manifestation of - - + in Table 2. But if the testimonial function lags behind the other two, my claim is that it carries sufficient weight to reinforce our sense of narratorhood. In the fuzzy set, agents who fulfill all three functions will occupy the strongest position, that of the inner circle.

The creative, transmissive, and testimonial functions are thus the building blocks of the act of narration, but they can be performed by different agents. Table 1 shows the various possible modes of participation in a narrative transaction for a given individual in a real-life situation. When a slot is occupied by a minus sign, an other narrating agent must step in and complete the script. A row with both plus and minus signs exists, therefore, in a complementary relation with another; for instance, Row 3 (TV narrator) presupposes 5 (documentary writer), and Row 2 (actor) presupposes 4 (playwright). But even if we add 2 and 4, the testimonial function is still missing. This is because drama--like the novel--is a fictional genre. The trademark of fictionality is indeed the decoupling of the creative and transmissive functions from the assertive function. In the properly narrative brands of fiction, assertive responsibility is delegated to a virtual agent, the narrator, who can in turn assume, in the realm of make-believe, any combination of the other two functions. Whereas all three functions must be fulfilled for narration to take place, there is indeed no prohibition against the duplication of functions, especially when one agent is located in the real world and the other in a fictional world.

Table 2 proposes a typology of fictional narrators based on the functions fulfilled by the narrating agent. In this table, a negative value for the creative function means that the narrative discourse is not felt by the reader as springing from the mind of an individuated, anthropomorphic being and does not express a narratorial personality. A negative value for the transmissive function means that the narrator is not imagined as "speaking," "writing," composing in a recognizable genre, nor indeed as engaging in an act of communication that counts as an event in the history of the fictional world. And finally, a negative value for the testimonial function describes two distinct cases. It can mean that the fictional enunciator is not really narrating any-thing but simply mumbling or rambling, producing incoherent discourse without representational intent. It can also characterize an agent who functions within the fictional world as an author or storyteller, in which case a new set of features will be required to describe the narrator of the embedded narrative. (The model is infinitely recursive.) In contrast to Table 1, where values are reasonably binary, the + and - signs should be taken here not as absolutes but as scalar coefficients whose value may be relative to that of other texts. Because the fictional narrator is a virtual entity, not a real-world individual like the agents of Table 1, its properties are inferred by the reader, and they remain to some extent a matter of personal interpretation. More-over, I conceive the values of narratorial functions as potentially fluid and renegotiable. A narrator who first appears to be a historian or memorialist, for instance, may fall out of the genre by resorting to mind-reading techniques, or a narratorial personality may emerge and disappear in third-person narration, destabilizing through this oscillation the value of the creative/expressive function.

Row 7 represents a conception of the narrator that became popular in the late Seventies, when literary critics discovered speech act theory and tried to use it as a basis for a characterization of fictionality. According to this characterization, whose main proponents were Mary Louise Pratt and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, fiction is an "imitation speech act," and narrators engage in an act of communication that reproduces a genre of real-world communication: writing a diary for Roquentin in La Nausee, entertaining a customer with gossip for the barber who narrates "Haircut."

The proponents of the non-narrator theory of fictional discourse objected to the generalization of this model by pointing out the case represented by Row 1. Here the text is not interpreted as the transcription of an utterance act, nor as the expression of a narratorial self, but as the recording of the fictional world by a camera-like device that automatically translates life into language. This mode of narration represents the triumph of the early modernist aesthetics of objectivity epitomized by the slogan, "Show, don't tell." If the narrative reflects a subjectivity, if it exhibits storytelling skills, these can be directly attributed to the author. For instance, the syntax and narrative techniques of "Cat in the Rain" represent Hemingways's literary voice, and not the self and writing talent of a specific member of the fictional world. Banfield argued that since the texts of Row 1 may involve unspeakable sentences (representation of the inner life of characters in free indirect discourse), there is no need to postulate a narratorial figure performing a speech act: here nobody speaks, the events are just telling themselves. For Richard Walsh, on the other hand, the narrator of this type of fiction is none other than the author, despite the obviously divergent attitude of the two regarding the factuality of the report. My proposal stops short of these two ways of eliminating the narrator, but it reduces "him" from an anthropomorphic being to an abstract consciousness responsible for the purely logical function of asserting the textual statements for the fictional world.

We tend to associate the first-person narrator with a natural (i.e., nonfictional) mode of narration, but the texts represented by Row 5 challenge the necessity of this connection. Row 5 describes the situation of a well-individuated first-person narrator whose discourse may be taken as both a representation of facts and as the expression of a personality, but because of pragmatic impossibilities, this discourse cannot be naturalized as an act of communication. The text, therefore, is taken as the artificial transcription of a discourse that never leaves the mind. As Cohn has shown, in J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, the narrator's sustained use of the present implies living and telling at the same time--an illocutionary paradox showcased in the sentence, "I doze and wake, drifting from one formless dream to another" (101). Meanwhile, in A la recherche du temps perdu, the occasional recourse to character-focalization, a technique that presupposes omniscience, disqualifies the text as a credible specimen of personal history.

Let us eliminate the creative function (Row 3), and we get the case of an agent whose sole involvement with the text is its material dissemination. This situation, exemplified by the editor figure of epistolary novels, presupposes however an additional narrative layer supported by its own narrating agents, the letter-writers, who are typically described by the values of Row 7.

The most controversial cases are those with a negative or question mark value for the testimonial function. I have suggested above that "narrativity" presupposes the construction of a textual world, an operation which can only take place if at least some statements are taken as truthful representation of facts. Texts with a negative value for the testimonial function thus flirt with the limits of narrativity, though they represent a fictional possibility well-documented in postmodern literature. For this category, I envision two types of text. The first places us directly in the theater of the mind, either through the artificial recording of private thoughts (Molly Bloom's stream of consciousness, Row 4) or through the verbalized discourse of a delirious speaker (Beckett's Molloy, Row 6). The only solid narrative "facts" that we retrieve from these two texts is that certain thoughts flashed through Molly's mind and that certain words were uttered by Molloy (though some readers may imagine him as merely thinking the text). Whether there are external events behind the character's discourse, or whether the character is fantasizing or hallucinating, is anybody's guess. The second type of nontestimonial narration corresponds to what Brian McHale describes as texts that place their world "under erasure": texts that build up a world and take it back, or that present themselves from the outset as "lies." These texts--which could be either 4 or 6, perhaps even 2--tell us nothing about the factual domain of their ontological system: if readers want to get a story out of them, they will have to relocate themselves in imagination to the world that the agent describes as nonexistent, an imaginary alternative to the primary fictional world, which is itself an imaginary alternative to the actual world.

Let me conclude with two remarks about the theoretical implications of my proposal. First, by dividing up narratorhood into three distinct functions, the model questions the ontological status, indeed the universality of the theoretical correlate of the narrator, namely the narratee. The concept of narratee is strongly implied by function 2, weakly implied by function 3, but not implied at all by function 1. The degree of presence of the narratee is, therefore, as variable as the visibility and mode of existence of the narrator.

And second, by permitting a whole range of realizations for the narrator, my proposal smoothes out the uneasy relation between classical narratology and its "natural" cousin, an approach inspired by discourse analysis which provides fresh insights into literary narrative but tends to reduce fiction to an imitation of conversational and historical genres. The present model secures a room in the house of literary narratology for embodied human narrators who communicate in a simulacrum of reality-based discourse, but it reminds us that the narrator is a theoretical fiction, and that the human-like, pseudonatural narrator is only one of its many possible avatars.

Marie-Laure Ryan is an independent scholar who has widely published on narrative theory and electronic textuality, most recently Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (2001). Her current project, Symbol Rock (a pure labor of love destined to a handful of friends and kindred spirits), is a hypertextual multi-media hybrid of computer game and local history in which the user investigates the life of the settlers of an abandoned ranch in Northern Colorado.


Banfield, Ann. Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Cohn, Dorrit. "'I Doze and Wake': The Deviance of Simultaneous Narration." In The Distinction of Fiction, 96-108. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1999.

Genette, Gerard. Fiction and Diction. Translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Toward a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1977.

Prince, Gerald. A Dictionary of Narratology. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. On the Margins of Discourse. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978.

Walsh, Richard. "Who Is the Narrator ?" Poetics Today 18, no. 4 (1997): 495-514.
The distribution of narratorial functions in actual agents.
   Creative  Trans-   Testi-
             missive  monial
0     -         -       -
1     -         -       +
2     -         +       -
3     -         +       +
4     +         -       -
5     +         -       +
6     +         +       -
7     +         +       +
1  Witness vouching for the truth of some-
   body else's testimony in a trial
2  Actor performing a narrative monologue;
   narrator of "Peter and the Wolf"; scribe
   taking dictation from a blind poet
3  Well-known broadcaster narrating a TV
   documentary; religious figure taking dicta-
   tion from God.
4  Writing a play; telling oneself imaginary
5  Writer of a TV documentary
6  Oral storyteller (of tales or jokes); novelist
7  Historian, narrator of personal experience
The distribution of narratorial
functions in fictional agents.
   Creative  Transmissive  Testimonial
0     -           -             -
1     -           -             +
2     -           +             -
3     -           +             +
4     +           -             ?
5     +           -             +
6     +           +            ?/-
7     +           +             +
1  Third person effaced narrator:
   "Cat in the Rain"
2  ?
3  The editor character of an
   epistolary novel
4  Molly Bloom's monologue in Ulysses
5  "Marcel" in A la recherche du temps
   perdu; J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for
   the Barbarians
6  For ?, Beckett's Molloy. For -,
   Scheherazade in the frame tale of
   The Arabian Nights
7  Roquentin in Sartre's La Nausee;
   the barber in Ring Lardner's
COPYRIGHT 2001 Ohio State University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ryan, Marie-Laure
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
Previous Article:Reading Visual Art, Making-and Forgetting--Fabulas.
Next Article:(Im)plying the Author.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters