Introduction to narrative
:: Ruth :: Jonah
Hebrew narrative: Ruth and Jonah by Tim Bulkeley
Theory of Narrative: Poetics
- is the systematic study of literature, or a unified theory of texts.
By calling it "systematic" we seek
to avoid vague and woolly appreciation,
and to focus attention on the rules that govern literature. Using the word "literature"
begs many questions, but at least points out that we are not aiming to study
history, or the psychology of an author...
"poetics" comes from the pioneer work of the great Greek philosopher/scientist
Aristotle. This work was envisaged as a systematic science of literature:
"I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting
the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure
of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and
nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly
into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. Following,
then, the order of nature, let us begin with the principles
which come first."
Aristotle. "Poetics." Poetics by Aristotle.
12 May 2000. Online. Internet. 5 Dec 2000; 20:50 GMT +12.
- Two cautions:
- (i) although I've used words like "systematic", and even "scientific",
literature is such a slippery object, that we cannot hope to uncover
absolute "laws". The best we can hope for is descriptions that work
with some consistency and which allow us to make interesting discoveries.
- (ii) such a study is only a "way in" to the riches of the
Scriptural text, it may suggest meaning, it may show us limits on what the
text could mean, but alone it cannot cause the text to mean anything for us.
For that to happen we must "read"
as well as "study"!
- "Poetics" as we have defined it will ask questions like:
- How do these stories work?
- What points of view are present?
- How are the characters presented?
- These are elements that recur often in discussion of narrative poetics:
A number of other techniques and features of the telling are significant for
particular narratives and will also be treated here:
- narration - we defined
narrative as "the recounting of a series of facts or events..."
therefore for a narrative to exist someone must be "recounting".
The person who tells the tale is called the narrator. (In real life a narrator
can be seen and touched, in literature like everything else they "exist"
in the text, see below.)
- plot and structure - our definition also
required "the establishing of some connection between" the
facts or events of the tale. The pattern of this connection
is often called "plot".
- characters - our narratives are stories,
and stories require actors who do things. (I'd call them "people"
except this description would not fit works like "Toy Story" or
Jotham's Fable.) How the text develops, or tells us about, its actors is
- dialogue - in the Bible narration usually gives hearers
a sense that we are "watching the action" one way this effect
is produced is through extensive use of direct reporting of direct speech.
When dialogue starts, who speaks first, who speaks to whom (since most direct
speech is dialogue with only two parties involved), how the speeches
are worded, all contribute powerfully to the reader's understanding of the
- points of view - one way that a narrative
has meaning is through an interplay of different evaluations of the events
it describes, such evaluation is often called "point of view"
- narrative speed - telling can take place "faster"
or "slower", a lengthy description can cause the events of the
stroy to crawl by with seconds of action taking minutes to read, or a summary
may cause years to disolve in seconds, (although strictly a feature of narration
we will discuss this in a distinct section).
- irony and humour - these are incidental, ornamental features
in many texts, however in some narratives these features may carry the "point
of the story".
- prose and poetry - biblical narrative sometimes intersperses
poetry into the prose narration, this change of style impacts hearers of
- omission and ambiguity - all telling is selective, what
is selected for recounting and what is omitted can be highly significant.
Sometimes information that is omitted can lead to ambiguity (which can also
also reflect the ambiguity of "real life").
We will introduce each of these below, with particular attention to their working
in biblical narrative.
© Tim Bulkeley, 2008