The article reprinted here was originally published as the introduction to no. 8 of Communications, perhaps the most memorable issue of the pathbreaking French journal and one generally considered to be a manifesto of the French structuralist school. This issue, wholly devoted to the structural analysis of narrative, included seminal essays by A.-J. Greimas, Claude Bremond, Christian Metz, Tzvetan Todorov and Gérard Genette. In their semiological work, these critics were indebted to a variety of sources: structural linguistics, the Prague School, Russian formalism, structural anthropology and so on. But their most direct influences were Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) and Lévi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology (1958, trans. 1963).
In his introductory essay, Roland Barthes proposed his own deductive model for the structural analysis of narrative at discourse level, closely following the example of generative linguistics. Rejecting all kinds of thematic approach, he aims at the construction of a ‘functional syntax’ theoretically capable of accounting for every conceivable type of narrative. He bases his model on Propp’s concept of ‘function’ as the structural unit governing the logic of narrative possibilities, the unfolding of the actions performed by the characters and the relations among them. Barthes’ model improves on Propp’s in that it offers the notions of ‘levels of description’ and the logic of vertical (‘hierarchical’) integration of narrative instances, which prefigure those of Genette and Bal. Barthes also contends that traditional classifications of character types are unsatisfactory because they rely excessively on the privileging of one particular kind of character: the subject. In line with Todorov and Greimas, he proposes to void the notion of ‘character’ of its humanistic connotations in favour of the functional notion of agent or ‘actant’. Anticipating the importance given
by reader-response criticism to the narratee, Barthes defines narrative communication as an exchange between narrator and listener. He stresses the peculiarities of literary enunciation and insists on the differentiation between narrator (who speaks in the narrative), implied author (who writes), and real author (who is). Barthes’ later phase is generally considered to veer towards a post-structuralist concern with desire, the pleasure of the text, the critique of cultural stereotypes and a looser, more contextualized and particularized approach, for instance, in his reading of a short story by Balzac in S
The narratives of the world are numberless. [ … ] Able to be carried by articulated language, spoken or written, fixed or moving images, gestures, and the ordered mixture of all these substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting (think of Carpaccio’s Saint Ursula), stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news item, conversation. Moreover, under this almost infinite diversity of forms, narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society. [ … ] Caring nothing for the division between good and bad literature, narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.
Faced with the infinity of narratives, the multiplicity of standpoints – historical, psychological, sociological, ethnological, aesthetic, etc. – from which they can be studied, [ … ] the Russian Formalists, Propp and Lévi-Strauss, have taught us to recognize the following dilemma: either a narrative is merely a rambling collection of events, in which case nothing can be said about it other than by referring back to the storyteller’s (the author’s) art, talent or genius – all mythical forms of chance – or else it shares with other narratives a common structure which is open to analysis, no matter how much patience its formulation requires. There is a world of difference between the most complex randomness and the most elementary combinatory scheme, and it is impossible to combine (to produce) a narrative without reference to an implicit system of units and rules.
Where then are we to look for the structures of narrative? Doubtless, in narratives themselves.
[ … ]
Thus, in order to describe and classify the infinite number of narratives, a ‘theory’ [ … ] is needed and the immediate task is that of finding it, of starting to define it. Its development can be greatly facilitated if one begins from a model able to provide it with its initial terms and principles. In the current state of research, it seems
that the structural analysis of narrative be given linguistics itself as founding model.
1. The Language of Narrative
1. Beyond the sentence
As we know, linguistics stops at the sentence, the last unit which it considers to fall within its scope.
[ … ]
And yet it is evident that discourse itself (as a set of sentences) is organized and that, through this organization, it can be seen as the message of another language, one operating at a higher level than the language of the linguists.2
Discourse has its units, its rules, its ‘grammar’: beyond the sentence, and though consisting solely of sentences, it must naturally form the object of a second linguistics. For a long time indeed, such a linguistics of discourse bore a glorious name, that of Rhetoric. As a result of a complex historical movement, however, in which Rhetoric went over to belles-lettres and the latter was divorced from the study of language, it has recently become necessary to take up the problem afresh. The new linguistics of discourse has still to be developed, but at least it is being postulated, and by the linguists themselves.3
This last fact is not without significance, for, although constituting an autonomous object, discourse must be studied from the basis of linguistics.
[ … ]
Structurally, narrative shares the characteristics of the sentence without ever being reducible to the simple sum of its sentences: a narrative is a long sentence, just as every constative sentence is in a way the rough outline of a short narrative. Although there provided with different signifiers (often extremely complex), one does find in narrative, expanded and transformed proportionately, the principal verbal categories: tenses, aspects, moods, persons. Moreover the ‘subjects’ themselves, as opposed to the verbal predicates, readily yield to the sentence model. [ … ] Language never ceases to accompany discourse, holding up to it the mirror of its own structure – does not literature, particularly today, make a language of the very conditions of language?
2. Levels of meaning
From the outset, linguistics furnishes the structural analysis of narrative with a concept which is decisive in that, making explicit
immediately what is essential in every system of meaning, namely its organization, it allows us both to show how a narrative is not a simple sum of propositions and to classify the enormous mass of elements which go to make up a narrative. This concept is that of level of description
A sentence can be described, linguistically, on several levels (phonetic, phonological, grammatical, contextual) and these levels are in a hierarchical relationship with one another, for, while all have their own units and correlations (whence the necessity for a separate description of each of them), no level on its own can produce meaning. A unit belonging to a particular level only takes on meaning if it can be integrated in a higher level; a phoneme, though perfectly describable, means nothing in itself: it participates in meaning only when integrated in a word, and the word itself must in turn be integrated in a sentence.4
The theory of levels (as set out by Benveniste) gives two types of relations: distributional (if the relations are situated on the same level) and integrational (if they are grasped from one level to the next); consequently, distributional relations alone are not sufficient to account for meaning. In order to conduct a structural analysis, it is thus first of all necessary to distinguish several levels or instances of description and to place these instances within a hierarchical (integrationary) perspective.
The levels are operations.5
It is therefore normal that, as it progresses, linguistics should tend to multiply them. Discourse analysis, however, is as yet only able to work on rudimentary levels. In its own way, rhetoric had assigned at least two planes of description to discourse: dispositio
Today, in his analysis of the structure of myth, Lévi-Strauss has already indicated that the constituent units of mythical discourse (mythemes) acquire meaning only because they are grouped in bundles and because these bundles themselves combine together.7
As too, Tzvetan Todorov, reviving the distinction made by the Russian Formalists, proposes working on two major levels, themselves subdivided: story
(the argument), comprising a logic of actions and a ‘syntax’ of characters, and discourse
, comprising the tenses, aspects and modes of the narrative.8
But however many levels are proposed and whatever definition they are given, there can be no doubt that narrative is a hierarchy of instances. To understand a narrative is not merely to follow the unfolding of the story, it is also to recognize its construction in ‘storeys’, to project the horizontal concatenations of the narrative ‘thread’ on to an implicitly vertical axis; to read (to listen to) a narrative is not merely to move from one word to the next, it is also to move from one level to the next.
[ … ]
It is proposed to distinguish three levels of description in the narrative work: the level of ‘functions
’ (in the sense this word has in Propp and Bremond), the level of ‘actions
’ (in the sense this word has in Greimas when he talks of characters as actants) and the level of ‘narration
’ (which is roughly the lev...