Gerard Genette and Structural Narratology

The most important of the structural narratologists, Gerard Genette, has argued for the autonomous nature of the literary text. Genette’s work has been of particular use to literary critics for his  attempts to develop models of reading texts in a rigorously analytical manner. The analysis of narrative has been Genette’s abiding concern, as his voluminous work on the subject adequately demonstrates. Here  we shall look at the more important notions of the narrative suggested by Genette.

Genette, for instance, argues that the narrative voice has many levels. The voice is constituted by the following elements:

(1) Narrative Instance: This refers to the actual moment and context of the narration, the “temporal setting” of the enunciation of the narration. This context of the narrative moment is crucial to understand the meaning of that utterance.

(2) Narrative Time: This is the time indicated by the tense (of the verb) in the narrative. The narrative instance also indicates the time of narration with respect to the events narrated. For example, the narrative may be about a future event, where the narrative time is prophetic. Or, in certain novels the time of the event is the time of the narrative itself, where the event is narrated as it happens. In third person narratives there is no such time of narration, because the events are recounted from a perspective outside the narrative itself. Thus narrative time refers to the time of the narrative.

(3) Narrative Levels: This refers to the relation of the acts narrated to the act of narration itself. For example, is the narrative a story within a story?, for instance. The narrator may tell us about the events which lead to his narrating to us the story of a character: “Dear reader, when I was in Paris I met this young man . . . we became friends . . . and then he suffered a terrible tragedy . . . It happened this way….” Here the early remarks are a prelude to the narrative of the events that befell the narrator and his friend, which are to be narrated soon, as the final ellipsis indicates.

Genette discerns four important levels of narrative. They are:

(1) Order: The sequence of events in relation to the order of narration. An event may have taken place before the actual narration (analepsis, or flashback); it may not yet have taken place, and is merely anticipated/indicated/predicted by the narrative (prolepsis); discordance between “story” narrated and “plot” (actual order of events as they occurred and not the order in which they are narrated: anachrony); or there may be a movement between one narrative level and another (metalepsis).

(2) Duration: The rhythm at which the events take place (does the narrative expand episodes, summarise them?). There are four speeds of narration:

(a) ellipsis: infinitely rapid,
(b) summary: relatively rapid,
(c) scene: relatively slow,
(d) descriptive: no progress in the story.

(3) Frequency: The extent of repetition in a narrative (how many times has an event happened in the story?).

(4) Mood: This is distinguished by Genette into two further categories:
(a) distance, or the relationship of the narration to what it narrates. This distance may be diegetic, or a plain recounting of the story (the presentational level which is immediate as language or gesture), or mimetic, or representing the story (or character, situation, event);
(b) perspective or what is commonly called “point of view” or focus. Focus determines the extent to which the narrator allows us to penetrate into the character or the event. Narrative focus alternates and shifts throughout the narrative and may be of two kinds (1)paralipse: where the narrator with-holds information from the reader which the reader ought to receive according to the prevailing focus; (2) paralepse: where the narrator presents information to the reader which the reader according to the prevailing focus ought not to receive.

(5)Genette favours “focalisation” over the traditional “point of view.” Focalisation while not completely free of the visual connotation, is broadened here to include: cognitive,emotive, and ideological orientations of the narrator. Types of focalisation may be based on TWO criteria: (a) position of narrator relative to the story, (b) degree of persistence. Focalisation also includes TWO aspects- the subject or focaliser (one whose perception orients the presentation and the object or the focalised (what the focaliser perceives/presents for the reader). Focalisation based on the position of the focaliser is of two types:
(1) external: with its vehicle the “narrator-focaliser.” This is both panchronic and panoramic (across time and space)
(ii) internal: with its vehicle the “character-focaliser.” This is naturally more restricted because a character’s range of vision is always circumscribed by her/his location vis-a-vis places, people and events.

Vocalisation whether external or internal can be within- presenting the thoughts and emotions of the character, or without-presenting mil\ the outward manifestation of the object. Frequently, novels have both modes of localisation (it must be admitted that the “within/without” distinction in Genette is quite blurred in practice). There may also be “retrospective focalisation” where the character focalises her/his past.

(6) Every narrative, for Genette, has the following elements: the story, which is the actual order of events in the text, narrative discourse and the narration (which is the telling of the story). The statements made constitute narrative discourse. The narration is the act of making the statements. Narrative discourse is thus imbedded in the narration of the story, but is not identical to either of them. This element of narrative discourse is Genette’s work in his later books.

(7) A narrator may be of any type: homodiegetic, heterodiegetic, intradiegetic, extradiegetic, autodiegetic. The extradiegetic narrator is “above” the story. The heterodiegetic narrator is one who does not participate in the story. When characters become narrators they are intradiegetic. If such an intradiegetic narrator is also one of the characters in the story narrated by him or her (i.e. when the narrator tells her/his story to someone else in the context of the novel (e.g.: Charles told Sam: “let me tell you – what happened when I went to Delhi to meet my friends at the university…” what follows is Charles’ role as an intradiegetic narrator of his own story to Sam, all within the context of a novel that you as a reader are reading) then s/he becomes a homodiegetic intradiegetic narrator. When a character narrates her/his own tale(e.g., in an autobiography) they may be described as autodiegetic narrators.

(8) Genette also develops a whole typology of intertextuality (the notion that a text refers to, echoes, is influenced by a range of texts, thus making each text a site of numerous convergent texts) in his later work, especially in his seminal Palimpsests and Paratexts. “Transtextuality” is textual transcendence and cuts across genres. Hypertexts are late texts that follow (directly referring or writing back to an earlier text, such as Coetzee’s Foe that refers back to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This early text is a hypotext. Paratextuality refers to the relations between the body of text with its titles, epigraphs, illustrations, notes, and first drafts. Architextuality refers to the genre demarcations. Metatextuality refers to the relationship between a commentary and its object.

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  1. Narrative Theory – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
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