Critical Reading: Unit 4 Narrative and structure

4.2 Narrative and narrative voice

Narrative means the relation or other kind of representation of a series of events, whether real or fictitious. The strength of the narrative is one of the things we measure when we decide whether a novel is well written. The story – what happens – isn't the only factor. Also significant is how we learn what happens. For example, Formalist critics made an important distinction between the order of events as you would relate them if you put them in chronological order and the events as they unfold in the text. In French a distinction can be made between the events that are the subject of a piece of discourse, or story, and the discourse, the relation of those events (the narrated and the narration). These distinctions are useful for literary analysis, and we shall be thinking about them more at a later stage.

A useful concept to understand at this stage is ‘diegesis’.

Diegesis: telling as opposed to acting out a story.

A narrative requires a narrative voice, which may be self-effacing to the point where we almost forget that we are being told a story, or distinctive enough for us to posit the existence of a narrator, a person, producing the voice. Reading literature can involve a sort of contract between reader and writer, or reader and text. We collude in the pretence that the events we are reading are in a sense 'real'; we forget, perhaps momentarily, that what we are looking at is a series of black marks on a white page, and we enter into the story, vicariously experiencing the emotions of the protagonists. This requires that both sides play the game. If the narrative voice is self-effacing, avoiding calling attention to itself, it's easy. If the narrative voice is interesting and engaging, it becomes like another character, part of the story. If the narrative voice interrupts the sequence of events and addresses us as readers, we are pulled out of the pretence, out of the vicarious experience and back into ourselves, behind the white pages with the black marks.

Here are two examples of narrative voice.

From W.M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair

I know that the tune I am piping is a very mild one (although there are some terrific chapters coming presently), and must beg the good-natured reader to remember that we are only discoursing at present about a stockbroker's family in Russell Square, who are taking walks, or luncheon, or dinner, or talking and making love as people do in common life, and without a single passionate and wonderful incident to mark the progress of their loves. (VI, ‘Vauxhall’)

From Charles Dickens, Hard Times

'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. (Chapter 1, ‘The One Thing Needful’).

As you can see, in the first extract, the narrative voice intrudes upon the story and addresses the reader directly, whilst in the second, the scene is laid before the reader with little trace of any voice that doesn’t belong to a protagonist of the story.

Further reading (optional)

Diegesis at the International Society for the Study of Narrative site, Georgetown University website.

Optional activity: Reference resources

Look at the entries for Vanity Fair and Hard Times in the Oxford Companion to English Literature, via the Oxford Reference Online resource.