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... 

The name "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. Available:

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: 
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:

We will introduce each of these below, with particular attention to their working in biblical narrative. 

© Tim Bulkeley, 2008