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Critical Reading: Unit 4 Narrative and structure

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Book: Critical Reading: Unit 4 Narrative and structure
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Date: Wednesday, 21 March 2018, 8:17 PM

4.1 Introduction

Having focused on poetry last week, we are now going to bring some of our skills of close critical analysis to bear on prose fiction. We shall be focusing on narrative, perspective, and dialogue.

On successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:

  • understand the concept of narrative
  • understand the concept of narrative voice
  • understand the significance of perspective in literary narratives
  • understand and analyse different forms of dialogue in literary narratives.


For this week’s work you will need to read Goring, Hawthorn and Mitchell, Studying Literature: The Essential Companion, pp. 25–36, 246–247 and 299–300. You will also be asked to look at some websites.

Regular activities

Individual activity: Glossary of the critical idiom

To review the terms introduced this week go to the Glossary of the critical idiom.

Individual activity: Resource library

If you find any useful resources while working through this unit, add them to the Resource library. You can also look to see if any new resources are added by the tutor or your fellow students.

Individual activity: Blog

Don't forget to update your blog with a record of your reading this week, including Mrs Dalloway and/or Ulysses, and your responses.

Individual activity: Book club

If you read anything you'd like to recommend, including other good examples of interior monologue, add the details to the Book club forum.

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.

4.3 Perspective

The narrative voice must have a perspective, a point of view, but this need not be fixed. The voice that tells the story may not be the same as the character through whose eyes we see events. The person whose perspective is given to the reader at any point in the narrative is the 'focaliser'. To avoid suggesting that there is always a 'real' or even fictional 'person' behind the narrative voice, critics sometimes refer to the 'subject position' to refer to the agency through which narration happens – the transmission of the events to the reader.

It is important to ask 'Who is telling this story?', 'To Whom?', 'Why?' and 'Do I believe him or her?' In a sense, of course, we don't 'believe' any of this but, within the contract of fiction, is the narrative voice 'reliable'? Think about whether the narrator is relating all the facts as she or he knows them. Are there inventions and suppositions to fill in gaps? Could there be deception? Is the 'voice' telling the story identified? Is the narrator of the story also a character who appears in the story, or an anonymous individual with apparently no identity or power? What would be the effect of either of these? Is the narrative told in the first person, that is, using 'I' and relating events that happen to that 'I', or is it told in the third person, that is, narrating events that happen to characters referred to by name or pronoun ('he', 'she', 'they'...)? What would be the effect of these? Does the narrator seem to be able to see into the minds of all the characters? Does he or she follow different characters through the story, apparently showing us events through many eyes, or does he or she 'see' through the eyes of one character?

When does the story happen? Is it happening 'now', that is, in the present tense? ('John gets up, he takes a shower, cleans his teeth, and dresses.') Is it happening in the past? ('John got up, he took a shower, cleaned his teeth, and dressed.') Why might it help or hinder a story to be written in the first person, present tense?

Here are some examples to help you organise your thoughts on these topics.

Jane Austen wrote her novels in the third person, retrospectively, using a narrative voice who is not one of the characters in the novel. Her narrative voice is anonymous yet has a personality; it comments on the actions and characters, sometimes ironically, but without disturbing our sense of the flow of events. Although the narrator can tell us about the thoughts and feelings of more than one character, it tends to follow (to see through the eyes of) one, usually the heroine.

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is written in the first person, as though narrated by the central protagonist, retrospectively, using the past tense. The perspective is limited to that of Jane Eyre, although, like anyone else, she can speculate about other characters' thoughts and feelings. The novel is presented as an autobiography, though there was no pretence that 'Currer Bell' (Charlotte Brontë) was 'really' 'Jane Eyre' or vice versa. During the early development of the novel as a genre, fictional narratives were often offered as 'true histories' or biographies or autobiographies, with introductory sections offering explanations about how the story came to the ears of or into the hands of the author. Such 'framing devices' could be quite simple ('someone told me') or quite elaborate ('I found an old chest with a clue that led me to an old journal, which led...')

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has two narrators, Lockwood and Nelly Dean, or, rather, Lockwood narrates to the reader, ostensibly in letters to a friend, Nelly's narration of the 'back-story' to him, so there is a 'story-within-a-story'. This means that sometimes we read a first- and sometimes a third-person narrative.

George Eliot's Middlemarch has a third-person narrative and is told in the past tense. Although it begins very much focused on the heroine, Dorothea Brooke, seeing events through her eyes, it includes events at which she is not present. The narrative voice sometimes takes on the perspective of other characters, such as Tertius Lydgate. Like Austen, Eliot makes no excuse and offers no reason for telling the story, but her narrative voice does discourse on matters outside of the events of the narrative, making opportunities for philosophical and moral reflections. The narrators of novelists such as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett are often intrusive; they 'break the frame' of the fiction, interrupting the flow of events to address the reader directly, often playfully.

For technical terms about narrative, perspective, and voice, see Glossary of the critical idiom.

Individual activity: Reading

Read the section on prose fiction in Goring, Hawthorn and Mitchell, pp. 25–36.

Individual activity: Responses

Goring, Hawthorn and Mitchell provide an extract from Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre and some questions to bear in mind while you read the extract. Using these questions as a starting-point, make some notes about your thoughts. Then read the authors' thoughts and compare them.

Further reading (optional)

Cobley, P. 2001 Narrative, The New Critical Idiom Series, London: Routledge.

Optional activity: Perspective

For an example of an interesting choice of perspective, read the beginning of section XI of Henry James, What Maisie Knew , at the Project Gutenberg website.

4.4 Dialogue

Dialogue (from roots meaning ‘through’ and ‘speak’) means verbal linguistic exchange; spoken language between two or more people; and, in our case, the literary representations of that. Monologue (from root words meaning 'one' and 'word') means speech produced by one person, and in our case its literary representation. Obviously, dialogue is crucial to dramatic texts, but it is also important in narrative fiction and does feature in some poetry. Usually, dialogue is easy to spot in printed texts, because each new speaker's contribution is indented and enclosed in inverted commas:

'Shall we go now?', said John.
'Certainly,' replied Hazel.

Not all authors follow these conventions, however. James Joyce, for example, didn't use inverted commas.

The conventions for representation of speech are quite straightforward, but what about the representation of thought? At its simplest, we might have something like this:

John thought the party was becoming boring. 'Shall we go now?', he asked. Hazel was enjoying herself, but she didn't want to irritate John. 'Certainly,' she said.

The narrative voice is telling us what John and Hazel felt and thought. If the author had wanted to give us a more direct sense of John and Hazel's thought, though, he or she might have written the lines like this:

This party is boring, thought John. 'Shall we go now?' Oh no, I'm just beginning to have fun, thought Hazel. He'll be tetchy all night if I say no. I'd better agree. 'Certainly.'


David's gone… hate this music … wine's undrinkable … Adam's leaving… no one worth talking to … ugh this wine's vinegary … Hazel's still yakking to Martine … football's on at 11… so bored … . 'Shall we go now?' Is my nose red? Should I have any more? Just one. Shall I dance? Would I look a fool? 'Yes, love it. Where did you buy it?' Doesn't suit her. 'Have you heard about Lucy?' Yes, I'll get away from her and dance. 'No? Really? Who?' What's John doing? Putting down his glass. Go? Now? But I'm just beginning to have fun … I don't want to … have to, though … he gets so tetchy when he can't go the instant … drumming his fingers now … impatient. 'Certainly.'

What are the differences between the different ways of representing the thoughts and speech of these characters? How does the presence of the narrative voice change? Are the representations of thoughts really very like the way we think? How could they be made more like the thought process?

Individual activity: Narrative techniques

Read these short sections from Goring, Hawthorn and Mitchell: pp. 246–247 ('free indirect discourse') and pp. 299–300 ('stream of consciousness'), and the entries on ‘free indirect speech’ and ‘stream of consciousness’ in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, via the Oxford Reference Online resource.

Group activity: Commentary

Follow the links below to the opening section of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and the last section of James Joyce's Ulysses. Try to identify the different techniques used by the authors to represent speech and thought. Post your responses to the Narrative and structure forum.

Mrs Dalloway at Project Gutenberg

Ulysses at Project Gutenberg

Optional activity: Further exploration

If the novels intrigue you, read more of them. Don't forget to add entries on the texts you have looked at this week to your blog. If you have encountered other texts that use similar techniques, recommend them via the Book club forum.

Further help and information

If you would like more help, or more details about the techniques touched on in this session, read the notes on some techniques for representing the interior monologue.

Group activity: Interior monologue

Write a short piece of stream of consciousness no more than six lines long, and post it to the Narrative and structure forum. Post comments on others' pieces.

4.5 Further and optional reading and resources


  • Cobley, P. Narrative, New Critical Idiom Series (London: Routledge, 2001)


4.6 Next week

Next week we shall be looking at literary descriptions, of weather, places, things and people. You will need to read:

  • Lodge, D., The Art of Fiction (1994) (browse)
  • Bennett and Royle, Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, pp. 60–67

You will also be asked to look at some websites.