Pagina principale Routledge Companion to Critical Theory

Routledge Companion to Critical Theory

The Routledge Companion of Critical Theory is an indispensable aid for anyone approaching this exciting field of study for the first time.
By exploring ideas from a diverse range of disciplines "theory" encourages us to develop a deeper understanding of how we approach the written word. This book defines what is generically referred to as "critical theory," and guides readers through some of the most complex and fundamental concepts in the field, ranging from Historicism to Postmodernism, from Psychoanalytic Criticism to Race and Postcoloniality.
Fully cross referenced throughout, the book encompasses manageable introductions to important ideas followed by a dictionary of terms and thinkers which students are likely to encounter. Further reading is offered to guide students to crucial primary essays and introductory chapters on each concept.
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‘An excellent introduction to the field.’
Robert Eaglestone, Royal Holloway, University of London
‘Comprehensive and wide-ranging, this volume combines accessibility with scholarly
soundness to offer an up-dated and engaging coverage of all the essential schools
in modern critical theory.’
Professor Galin Tihanov, Lancaster University

The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory is an indispensable aid for anyone
approaching this exciting field of study for the first time.
By exploring ideas from a diverse range of disciplines, ‘theory’ encourages us
to develop a deeper understanding of how we approach the written word. This
book defines what is generically referred to as ‘critical theory’, and guides readers
through some of the most complex and fundamental concepts in the field, ranging
from historicism to postmodernism, and from psychoanalytic criticism to race
and postcoloniality.
Fully cross-referenced throughout, the book encompasses manageable introductions to important ideas followed by a dictionary of the names and terms that
students are likely to encounter. Further reading is offered to guide students to
crucial primary essays and introductory chapters on each concept.
Simon Malpas is Lecturer in English Literature at Edinburgh University. He is
author of The Postmodern (2005) and Jean-François Lyotard (2003), editor of
Postmodern Debates (2001) and, with John Joughin, The New Aestheticism (2003).
Paul Wake is a lecturer in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan
University. He has published articles on narrative theory and postmodernism.
His monograph, Conrad’s Marlow: Narrative and Death in Youth, Heart of
Darkness, Lord Jim and Chance will be published in 2007.

Also available from Routledge
Poetry: The basics
Jeffrey Wainwright
Shakespeare: The basics
Sean McEvoy
Literary Theory: The basics
Hans Bertens
Contemporary British Novelists
Nick Rennison
The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism ; (second edition)
Edited by Stuart Sim
The Routledge Companion to Russian Literature
Edited by Neil Cornwell
Who’s Who in Contemporary Women’s Writing
Edited by Jane Eldridge Miller
Who’s Who in Dickens
Donald Hawes
Who’s Who in Shakespeare
Peter Quennell and Hamish Johnson
Who’s Who in Twentieth-Century World Poetry
Edited by Mark Willhardt and Alan Michael Parker


Edited by
Simon Malpas and Paul Wake

First published 2006
by Routledge
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Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada
by Routledge
270 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
© 2006 Simon Malpas and Paul Wake for selection and editorial matter;
individual contributors their contributions

This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2006.
“To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s
collection of thousands of eBooks please go to”
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or
reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical,
or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including
photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
The Routledge companion to critical theory/[edited by] Paul Wake and Simon Malpas
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Criticism. 2. Criticism (Philosophy) I. Wake, Paul. II. Malpas, Simon.
PN81.R68 2006
ISBN10: 0–415–33295–8 (hbk)
ISBN10: 0–415–33296–6 (pbk)
ISBN10: 0–203–41268–0 (ebk)
ISBN13: 978–0–415–32295–8 (hbk)
ISBN13: 978–0–415–32296–5 (pbk)
ISBN13: 978–0–203–41268–8 (ebk)




Editors’ introduction


Part I Critical theory: introductory essays


1 Structuralism and semiotics
Kate McGowan


2 Narrative and narratology
Paul Wake


3 Marxism
Glyn Daly


4 Poststructuralism
Catherine Belsey


5 Historicism
Simon Malpas


6 Psychoanalytic criticism
Rob Lapsley


7 Deconstruction
Andrew Benjamin


8 Feminism
Susan Hekman


9 Gender and queer theory
Donald E. Hall


10 Postmodernism
Linda Hutcheon




11 Race and postcoloniality
Apollo Amoko


Part II Names and terms








We would like to thank our colleagues in the Departments of English at
Manchester Metropolitan University and English Literature at Edinburgh
University for their support during the writing of this book. We would also like to
acknowledge the invaluable support of MMU’s Research Institute who created
a research post in the early stages of the project, without which it may never
have got going. The editors and readers at Routledge have offered invaluable
advice and assistance throughout the project, and, but for their enthusiasm,
professionalism and encouragement, it is unlikely that this book would ever have
been completed. Thanks too must also go to all of the contributors who have
made working on this book a real pleasure and to whom its overall quality must be
attributed and to Mary Garland for her help with the proofreading.
We should also like to offer our thanks and gratitude for their patience to our
long-suffering partners, Erikka Askeland and Christine Kessler.
Simon Malpas and Paul Wake



To some students approaching it for the first time, critical theory can appear
obscure, arcane, obfuscatory and even a distraction from what should be the real
focus of one’s interest – the literary texts, works of art, films or television
programmes, historical periods or forms of behaviour and experience that one
expected to discuss on courses in literary criticism, history of art, media studies,
history or psychology. Theory is, however, none of these things.
Although theoretical writing can often appear to be very complex and to
employ vocabularies and ways of thinking that are different from those with
which most of us might be familiar, it engages with questions, ideas and issues
that are crucial to our experiences of identity, culture and society, and focuses
precisely on the ways in which literature, art, the media, history and individuals
communicate and interact in the world in which we live. Critical theory allows us
to explore the cultural production and communication of meanings in precise and
nuanced ways, and from a range of different perspectives. It questions the ways in
which we might be used to making sense of artistic, historical or cultural artefacts
and prompts us to reconsider our beliefs and expectations about the ways
individuals interact with material things and with each other. Put very simply,
critical theory aims to promote self-reflexive explorations of the experiences we
have and the ways in which we make sense of ourselves, our cultures and the
Critical theory has become a necessary element of advanced study in the arts,
the humanities and the social sciences because of the now widely shared
recognition that meaning is neither natural nor immediate. Language is not a
transparent medium through which ideas can pass between minds without
alteration. Rather, as almost all of the essays and entries in this book
acknowledge, it is a set of conventions that influence or even determine the sorts
of ideas and experiences people are able to have. Language is cultural (some
thinkers even claim it is the essence of culture), and therefore open to criticism
and change. If linguistic meaning were naturally given, for example, why would
there be more than one language? A word does not mean what it does ‘naturally’;
rather meanings arise on the basis of complex linguistic and cultural structures
that differentiate between truth and falsity, reality and fantasy, and good and evil,
and are inextricably tied up with value judgements and political questions, as well
as with identity, experience, knowledge and desire. By exploring the processes by


which texts, objects and even people come to be associated with particular sets of
meanings, critical theory sets out to question the legitimacy of common sense or
traditional claims made about experience, knowledge and truth. On this basis,
different critical theories set out to explore our fundamental beliefs about
existence and question the guiding structures and suppositions that organize our
A similar thing goes for ideas about the meaning of a work of art, a literary text
or a film. Since Hamlet was first performed, there have been hundreds, even
thousands, of different analyses and discussions of the play, each approaching it
from a different perspective to generate a variety of arguments about its impact
upon a reader or audience. If there were a single ‘correct’ or ‘true’ reading
shouldn’t somebody have found it by now? The fact that there is not a single
correct reading of the play, that it cannot be solved like a mathematical formula,
is crucial to its continuing interest. Hamlet, like any other artistic work or cultural
artefact, can be read in many ways, from a range of perspectives, in order to
present different ideas and images about the ways in which we live. The practice
of literary study, like the practices of analysis in similar disciplines, is necessarily
open to rereading, reworking and continuing argument.
And this is why theory is so important for students of the arts, humanities and
social sciences. All of the multiple readings to which a work, text, artefact or event
are open will be based on a theory: a set of beliefs about what it means, what
meaning itself is, how communication takes place and how the world works. Each
of us in our day-to-day interactions with others and the world carries such, often
implicit, beliefs around in our heads. The point of studying theory is to make
them explicit, and to question them. This, of course, has had, and continues to
have, a significant effect on the subject areas themselves. In each disciplinary
area, theory draws on ideas from other disciplines (so, for example, literary
theory imports ideas from philosophy, history, linguistics, psychology and
sociology, to name but a few) in order to think about the ways in which text and
reading interact with the world. The result of such borrowings and interactions
has often been a fundamental questioning of what is at stake in a particular area
of study, a reorganization of syllabi and canons of texts to be studied, as well as
significant redrawings of disciplinary boundaries as imported ideas are reworked
to develop new possibilities and modes of enquiry.
In recent years critical theory has become firmly established in many arts,
humanities and social science disciplines as an object of study in its own right.
Often referred to simply as ‘theory’, it has transformed study in each of these
areas in myriad ways. And, if it has become less controversial as the practice of
asking theoretical questions about disciplinary methodologies has become more
widespread, it has lost none of its excitement and potential to challenge. However, theory itself is neither a homogeneous discipline nor a unified movement.
Although it has broken down many of the traditional boundaries between
different disciplines, this does not mean that a new meta-discipline of critical
theory has emerged. Nor has theory simply provided a set of clearly defined rules


and concepts which can simply be learned like arithmetical formulae and then
applied at will to grasp the truth about a text, object or culture. The diverse
schools, thinkers, ideas and concepts that fall under the umbrella of critical
theory have to be read and discussed in their own right, and judged in terms of
their similarities and differences, at least as often as they are applied as critiques
of anything outside the field. This is unsurprising if one considers even for a
moment the complexity of the ideas developed by critical theorists and the strong
tendency of theory to reflect on its own authenticity and utility.
In whatever discipline it appears, however, critical theory provides a multifaceted and wide-ranging critique of many of the most important issues and
problems that one might encounter in the contemporary world. Anyone with an
interest in the culture that they inhabit will gain important insights from engaging
with the arguments and positions taken up by theorists and responding to what
they have to say. The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory is designed to help
make these arguments and issues more accessible, and to trace the relations that
obtain between the different movements and thinkers. It will help readers to
orientate themselves in what is often a difficult and always a fascinating field of
study by providing outlines of many of the main trends, analyses of the key
thinkers, and clear definitions of the cardinal terms and concepts.

The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory offers help both to specialist students
and also to those who come across theories and theorists in books, articles and
lectures and want to understand the ideas underpinning the arguments that they
encounter. It thus offers both detailed analyses of particular ideas and broad
surveys that contextualize what sometimes appear to be obscure assertions about
contemporary culture, thought and politics.
Because critical theory is such a large and complex area of study, The
Routledge Companion to Critical Theory is designed to fulfil this purpose in two
ways. First, it will help you to find your bearings in broad general area, such as
narratology or postcolonialism. Second, it will provide you with specific information about key figures like Jacques Derrida or Edward Said, as well as critical
terms such as differend or rhizome. In this way, the Companion goes beyond the
scope of an ordinary dictionary by placing the individual definitions in an
explanatory context that elaborates on their meaning and importance.
The first half of this book is given over to a series of essays that, read together,
present a picture of the range and scope of contemporary critical theory, as well
as charting its development in the humanities. These essays outline key movements and approaches to culture, and explore some of the main areas of
theoretical analysis by introducing their key tenets and their most influential
proponents, and assessing the different ways in which they have had an impact on
critical practice. Each essay is accompanied by suggestions for further reading
that include both significant primary texts and accessible introductory volumes.


Taken together, these essays provide the reader with a firm grounding in critical
theory and a good sense of where to go next to explore particular ideas, issues and
thinkers in more detail.
The second half of the volume is a critical dictionary, which comprises almost
200 short essays on terms and thinkers that students are likely to encounter
during their studies. The aim throughout is to provide straightforward definitions
that give the sort of information that will be useful for both the general reader
who wants to get to grips with a new name or term and the specialist reader of
critical theory who wishes to find out where to go next. Most of the more extended
entries also contain brief details of further reading for those who wish to explore
ideas or theorists in more detail.

The essays in the first half are designed to work alongside the definitions in the
second. To facilitate cross-referencing and help build up a comprehensive picture
of critical theory, names and terms that have separate entries in the second
section are picked out in bold type when they first appear. Also, at the end of
many of the entries are indications of the chapters in the first half of the book that
discuss the areas of theory that relate most closely to the name or term. For
example, in the essay on psychoanalysis in Part I the first use of the name Jacques
Lacan will be picked out in bold (as will the cognates of the word – such as
Lacanian), which indicates that there is a description of his work in Part II. This,
in turn, will pick out terms such as imaginary, symbolic and real, which are key
ideas developed by Lacan, and each of which has an entry of its own. Equally,
each of these terms will refer the reader back to the chapters in which it is used or
alluded to. By following these cross-references, the reader will be able to build up
a comprehensive idea about the central tenets of Lacanian psychoanalysis and its
relationships with other theoretical movements and ideas. To this end, the index
will point out yet more references to consult for information about any of the
names and terms included in the book. The two parts of this book are thus
designed to interact with each other in order to allow access to more or less
detailed information depending on what is required, and make links between the
many different areas of critical theory to build up a clear and detailed picture of
this important field of study.

The contributors to this volume are drawn from a wide range of academic disciplines and are all experts in their particular fields. They are, in alphabetical order:
Apollo Amoko
Neil Badmington [NB]
Catherine Belsey


Andrew Benjamin
Mark Bolsover [MB]
Ginette Carpenter [GC]
Claire Chambers [CC]
Christelle Charbonnier [CHC]
Christopher Robert Clark [CRC]
Laurence Coupe [LC]
Glyn Daly
David Deamer [DD]
Rachel Farebrother [RF]
Daniel Haines [DH]
Donald E. Hall
Susan Hekman
Keith Hughes [KH]
Linda Hutcheon
Huw Jones [HJ]
Dominick LaCapra [DL]
Rob Lapsley
Kate McGowan [KMc]
Simon Malpas [SM]
Christopher Marlow [CMa]
Chris Michael [CM]
Angelica Michelis [AM]
Kaye Mitchell [KM]
Jessica Mordsley [JM]
Judith Pryor [JP]
Sean Purchase [SP]
Theresa Saxon [TES]
James Scott [JS]
Akiko Shimizu [AS]
Robin Sims [RLS]
Tamsin Spargo [TS]
Ralph Strehle [RS]
Ailbhe Thunder [AT]
Paul Wake [PW]
Paul Walton [PSW]
Ross Wignall [RW]
Andrew Williams [AW]
Authors of entries in the ‘Names and terms’ section are identified by their initials.


Part I


Perhaps this is not a very challenging question since a spinster is, quite obviously,
simply an unmarried woman. Yet we already seem to know that a spinster is so
much more besides. I’m sure if I asked you to describe a spinster, you would do so
easily. A whole stock of images, I’m prepared to bet, would spring readily to
mind. Think about it, briefly. Is Cameron Diaz a spinster? Why not, she’s an
unmarried woman? Why, when you hear or see the word ‘spinster’, do you so
readily think of someone who is more like the Queen of England (even though
she is, in fact, a married woman) than, say, Naomi Campbell? Why do we seem to
share a conceptual notion of a spinster as someone who is boring, conservative,
shy and retiring, rather than someone who is enchanting, adventurous and
daring? And how do we come to know these meanings even when we don’t, if
you’re like me, regularly use the word ‘spinster’ in our vocabulary?
One way of answering these questions may lie in the fields of knowledge we
call structuralism and semiotics. If you have ever wondered about cultural
meanings generally – why some lies are white and bad actions always draw black
marks – then you have already begun to consider how the culture you inhabit
generates the meanings it does, as well as what might be at stake in those
meanings for culture generally. If this is the case, then structuralism and
semiotics will interest you because they can help you to pursue those questions
with a great deal more rigour than basic common sense. In the course of this
chapter, I shall introduce some fundamental principles of these interrelated
terms, and try to show exactly what they can offer us as cultural critics of varying
kinds. In addition to the two terms themselves, we shall look at the ways in which
each has been taken up in the fields of literary and visual studies, as well as within
cultural studies as a whole. Let’s start with structuralism.

As an academic discipline, structuralism is primarily concerned with the study of
structures – that is, how things get organized into meaningful entities – as well as
the structural relationships between things. Its premise is that whatever things
mean, they will always come to mean by virtue of a set of underlying principles
which can be determined by close analysis.
Structuralism’s understanding of the world, then, is that everything that


constitutes it – us and the meanings, texts and rituals within which we participate
– is not the work of God, or of the mysteries of nature, but rather an effect of the
principles that structure us, the meanings we inhabit and so on. The idea is that
the world without structures is meaningless – a random and chaotic continuum
of possibilities. What structures do is to order that continuum, to organize
it according to a certain set of principles, which enable us to make sense of it. In
this way, structures make the world tangible to us, conceptually real, and
hence meaningful. Once discovered, so the theory goes, structures show us how
meanings come about, why things seem to be just the way they are and, by implication, what might lead us to contest them.
One of the central principles of the structuralist project, at least through the
twentieth century, arises from the work of a Swiss linguist by the name of
Ferdinand de Saussure. In a series of lectures given at the University of Geneva
between 1907 and 1911 Saussure argued that language provides a foundational
structure for the world around us by organizing it into tangible entities that we
can, as an effect of that language, then describe and discuss. Without language,
Saussure argued:
thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing
is distinct before the appearance of language.
Against this floating realm of thought, would sounds by themselves yield
predelimited entities? No more so than ideas . . . The characteristic role of
language with respect to thought is not to create a material phonic means for
expressing ideas but to serve as a link between thought and sound, under conditions that of necessity bring about the reciprocal delimitations of units . . .
language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses.
(Saussure 1974: 112)

So nothing is distinct before the appearance of language. While as humans we
have the capacity for generating thought and sound, it is not until we enter
language that we are able to organize that capacity and to make the necessary
cultural associations between thought and sound. Although this account of
language may seem mildly tame to us now, it nonetheless provided a highly
significant assertion about language, the implications of which were to revolutionize the way we think about how we think.
Prior to Saussure, language had been thought of simply as a system for naming
an objective reality which was presumed to exist before, and outside of, language
itself. Within this way of thinking, the real world is clearly already there, while
language simply comes along to label it in all its specificities. If we return for a
moment to the example with which this chapter began, we might be able to
observe the workings of this assumption about language more closely. In the preSaussurean understanding of language, then, unmarried women would be
understood simply as a natural and inevitable phenomenon of human life, and
therefore readily intelligible as such. The function of language in this understanding would simply be to provide the vocabulary – the word ‘spinster’ – in


order to label that existence. Language, in other words, would play no role in the
formation of the entity, or the idea, of ‘spinster’ as we know it. But, stated like this,
the process already seems questionable.
In order for the idea ‘spinster’ to become meaningful in language, the concept
of ‘women’, as the other of ‘men’ in the duality ‘women and men’, would have to
come first. The idea ‘spinster’ could not, in other words, exist without a
corresponding idea of gender as male and female. But any meaning for ‘spinster’
is of course also dependent on the prior establishment of the concept of marriage,
as well as a differential understanding of the status of ‘women’ and ‘men’ in
relation to marriage. Indeed, in this example, meaning begins to seem to have a
great deal more to do with value, and specifically cultural value, than the model
of language as a naming system might suggest. The meaning of spinster is, after
all, surely not inevitable, natural or true, but rather the product of a system of
cultural values which are open to debate. If this is the case, then far from simply
naming an objective reality, language would seem to play an important role in
realizing reality, as well as its meaning for us within the linguistic communities we
inhabit. If we did not have the linguistic term ‘spinster’, would we think of female
existence in the ways that we do? It is certainly relatively easy to imagine a social
community in which the concept of a spinster might have no meaning whatsoever
– not necessarily because unmarried women do not exist, but rather because
women are not simply valued, or thought of as meaningful, in relation to whether
or not they are married to men.
While this example is not too difficult to follow – it does not really challenge
our assumptions about the world at this time in history – it does nonetheless
illustrate a principle which can be disturbing to the way we see things generally.
What if, for example, we lived in a linguistic community which did not
differentiate between ‘women’ and ‘men’ in the ways that we do so readily, and
apparently so naturally? What if the language we spoke did not have gender as
such? Would we still be able to think it? Say there were three terms for gender, or
six, or twelve. Imagine what that would do to the ways in which we think about
human existence and take for granted the apparent naturalness by which we
experience it? Of course, there are cultures other than English-speaking ones
within which gender is more than the two terms ‘woman’ and ‘man’. Hindi, for
example, has the term ‘hijra’, meaning something it is difficult, in English, to
comprehend fully since it is not translatable as either man or woman, nor as
something neutral or in between. Gender as three categories literally shifts what
is, or at least can be, thought of as gender as we in English believe we know it.
If you speak more than one language, you will already be familiar with the
impossibilities of translating conceptually from one language to another, and so
have plenty of examples of this yourself.
While the problems of translation can be interesting and amusing, however,
they also have wide-ranging implications. In the examples I have given it should
be apparent that different cultures, that is different linguistic groups, think about
the world in different ways. One way of responding to this observation, and the


history of imperialism attests to this, would be to conclude that some cultures
think about the world in better ways than others, or with a greater degree of
sophistication and authenticity. Another way might be to think more carefully
about, and with more attention to, just exactly how these meanings come about.
In order to do this, we would have to start again with our thinking, this time with a
different model of what language is and what it does. And, that is where Saussure
is useful to us.
As I have already suggested, for Saussure language is not simply a system for
naming a reality which pre-exists it. Turning that notion on its head, Saussure
argued instead that language is in fact a primary structure – one that orders, and
therefore is responsible for, everything that follows. If this is so, then it seems
fairly straightforward that different languages will divide, shape and organize the
phenomenal world in different ways. While this understanding of language
allows us to see cultures other than ‘our’ own as relatively different, by implication it must also show us that the culture we claim as ‘ours’ is in turn neither
natural nor inevitable. That is, it demands that we recognize as structurally
produced the culture which seems to us most obvious, most natural and most true.
What Saussure’s work gave to structuralism, then, was an account of language
as a primary structure, a system of signs whose meanings are not obvious, but
rather produced as an effect of the logic internal to the structural system that
language is. In addition, perhaps Saussure’s most radical claim was that within
that structure meaning is generated through the logic of difference. He writes, for
example, that:
Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there
are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive
terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms.
(Saussure 1974: 120)

In this model, it is language which enables the world to be constituted to us as
intelligible. The exact constitution of that intelligibility will depend on the
language we speak and, as a result, will be different depending on the language
we speak. It might be important at this stage to point out that this does not
presume a disappearance of reality as such. The real world is still understood to
exist in these terms. However, it does insist that we can only come to know the real
within the terms which language provides for us, in which case, it might be said
that rather than using language to describe the real as we find it, language
structures that real so that we are able to find it in the first place.
The implications of this are huge, and I shall come back to them in detail when
we get to semiotics. For the purposes of our discussion of structuralism, however,
it is enough at this point to say that the significance of Saussure’s theory is
threefold: (i) it gives us the notion that language is not natural but systematic; (ii)
that language is the primary system of cultural existence and that it works to


structure what we think we know; and (iii) it shifts the emphasis of cultural study
firmly in the direction of attention to texts and the evidence they can be said to
provide of the linguistic construction of meaning.
One result of this shift has been the development of the importance of
structuralist textual analysis within the fields of literary, anthropological, visual
and popular cultural study. This is important, since it moves critical attention
away from concern with the author, together with themes, characters and plots in
texts, and begins to focus instead on the structural principles by which texts
themselves are able to operate meaningfully.
In 1928, a Russian critic by the name of Vladimir Propp undertook what is
generally considered the first structuralist analysis of literary texts. Drawing on
the work of Saussure on language, Propp analysed 100 Russian folktales and
showed that a single set of structural principles was at work in them all. Just as
sentences in everyday language are determined by the internal rules of language
as a system – grammar, syntax and so on – so Propp proposed that stories can be
seen as the result of an analogous grammar of storytelling. In order to tell a story,
narrative structures must be in place to shape language into story form. If this is
the case, then the meanings which arise from the narrativization of language can
be seen to depend to a very large extent on the structures of narrative form, in
which case, form itself is far from incidental to the creation of meaning. One
result of Propp’s work, then, was to establish the intrinsic structural relation of
form in literary work to its content.
Concerned as it was with the identification of deep structures of narrative,
Propp’s work does not really pay very much attention to meaning in the cultural
sense that we are more familiar with now. It remained, in these terms, rather
formalistic. However, it did provide us with an important basis from which to
begin to discuss the ways in which what texts mean can be derived from an initial
analysis of how they mean.
Interestingly, this concern with the ways in which structures can be said to give
rise to meaning was by no means limited in its early manifestations to the analysis
of written texts, as the work of the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss
can be used to demonstrate. Borrowing specifically from Saussure’s work on
language, Lévi-Strauss was able to show that structural analysis is as relevant to
the study of what he identified as the ‘customs, institutions and accepted patterns
of behaviour’ of specifically cultural groups as it is to the written texts those
groups may produce. Indeed, in his foundational work Structural Anthropology,
he argued that by isolating and analysing the structures through which social
communities constitute themselves, anthropology could:
be in a position to understand basic similarities between forms of social life, such as
language, art, law and religion, that on the surface seem to differ greatly. At the
same time, we shall have the hope of overcoming the opposition between the
collective nature of culture and its manifestations in the individual, since the socalled ‘collective consciousness’ would, in the final analysis, be no more than an


expression, on the level of individual thought and behaviour, of certain time and
space modalities of the universal laws which make up the unconscious activity of
the mind.
(Lévi-Strauss 1963: 65)

The question of the structural meanings of more conventionally understood
texts was taken up again in Europe in the 1960s by a number of cultural critics at
work in fields such as art, film and literary studies. A broader discussion of these
works can be found in Chapter 2 of this book which focuses more specifically on
narrative. However, in order to illustrate the significance of structuralist method
to analyses of cultural meaning within these academic fields, it is worth briefly
summarizing two of them here.
Writing in 1957, in a work entitled Mythologies, the French cultural critic
Roland Barthes stated that ‘a little formalism turns one away from History, but
. . . a lot brings one back’ (Barthes 1993: 112). What this implies is that if
structuralist analysis of narrative is to be useful to the critic of culture and its
meanings, then it must start but not end with a detailed reading of the formal
properties that make meanings possible. Barthes gave an example of this in his
own rather painstaking analysis of a nineteenth-century short story by the French
writer Honoré de Balzac, entitled ‘Sarrasine’. Here, Barthes identifies five codes
of narrative structure which enable the novel to work as such. However, what
those codes are is less important to Barthes’ analysis than the fact that they seem
to play a double role in producing cultural meaning for the text. While the codes
enable the story to be told – without them its telling would not be possible –
they also seem to mark its limits. In Barthes’ account, the story of ‘Sarrasine’
revolves around the figure of a castrato whose gendered identity the structures of
the story itself cannot contain. The central figure of Sarrasine (the name implies
the feminization of a masculine referent) remains ambiguous throughout. It
cannot be male and it cannot be female, though the structural principles of
narrative try to make it each in turn in order to make it intelligible. In this case, a
structural analysis of storytelling is seen not simply to confirm the structures of
meaning to which narrative gives rise, but rather to challenge them. Ironically,
it is a structural analysis of the form of the story that makes possible a certain
kind of escape from the confines of the structures upon which that story itself
has to be built. By starting with the structural principles of textual form,
Barthes is able to show what he calls the ‘footprints marking the escape of the
text; for if the text is subject to some form, this form is not unitary’ (Barthes
1990b: 20).
This gesture of identifying the structures of a text in order to show the impossibility of the terms upon which it attempts to make its meaning is important
because it opens up a discussion of the relationship of narrative to cultural value.
It also fosters the possibility of resisting the apparently obvious meanings of
cultural texts which it might otherwise be tempting to understand as simply
confirming the status quo of cultural convention.


Drawing on the work of Barthes, the French literary critic Pierre Macherey
went on to apply the principles discerned by him to a concerted theory of literary
production as well as reading practice. For Macherey, the structural properties of
literary works are interesting in as much as they can be seen to fail to contain the
multiplicity of cultural meanings upon which they are necessarily built. In the
light of this, Macherey advocated a reading practice which would focus not on the
coherence of the text, but rather on its contradictions, its strangenesses and
inconsistencies: ‘it can be shown that it is a juxtaposition and conflict of several
meanings which produces the radical otherness which shapes the work: this
conflict is not resolved or absorbed, but simply displayed’ (Macherey 1978: 84).
He argued that if the work of the literary critic was ever to be more than
parasitic on the literary text – simply reprising its meaning as though it were
determined once and for all by the sense of the text – then it must be read
‘symptomatically’ for instances of non-sense. In other words, he urged that we
attend to the structural laws of the text only in order to show the instances in
which they are broken – the symptoms, that is, of the text’s own resistance to those
laws. Again, the argument advanced by Macherey is most compelling in its full
complexity. However, for the purposes of illustrating its importance to
structuralism, I shall explore just one aspect of it here with an example of my own.
In Deuteronomy, Chapter 22, verse 5, it is written that: ‘The woman shall not
wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s
garment: for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.’ Now the
obvious reading of this fragment of text would be something like: it is wrong for
women and men to dress the same. But to read it in this way would simply be
to reprise the text, to reinforce its obvious meaning by putting it into other
words which are simply substitutable for the original without attending to its
cultural implications. Those implications, however, are ambiguous if we follow
Macherey’s line of analysis. By isolating just a few oddities of the linguistic
construction of the verse, it is possible to produce an entirely different reading.
Take the term ‘shall not’. This implies, in a kind of legalistic way, that something
is strictly forbidden. It is a bit odd, it seems to me, that God (via Moses) feels so
strongly about clothes as to issue an edict demanding women and men to observe
strict codes of dress that ‘pertain’ only unto them. Is gender so precarious that
women wearing clothes which ‘pertaineth unto’ men (and, of course, vice versa)
threatens its undoing? If so, what is gender? Does it really boil down to
‘garments’, and if it does, is that not social rather than natural? ‘Abomination’
seems to suggest a huge transgression and one has to wonder what is at stake
here. What, symptomatically, is this text so afraid of and why? Also, what on earth
were people up to that meant God was forced to issue a statement forbidding
them to wear each other’s clothes? Perhaps, rather than being simply a testament
to the word of God, this verse can be made to show that the word of God is, in this
instance, symptomatic of a failure of meanings to stay where they are put.
Of course playing with meanings, showing the terms upon which they are
constructed in order to show the ways in which they may also be contested, places


a very different emphasis on the function and effect of the sign itself. Indeed, we
seem to be moving from general principles towards the specificities of the
individual signs which work within those principles to make cultural meanings
possible. In order to address this issue, it is useful now to turn our attention more
clearly to what the ‘semiotics’ part of this chapter’s title may imply.

Semiotics is concerned with signs. As an academic discipline, semiotics is
primarily concerned with the life of signs – from their production as an effect of
signifying systems, right through to the particular implications of the significations they can be said to carry within the cultural systems in which they operate.
If language works, in Saussurean terms, to structure the real as we know it, then
the signs of which any language is composed may be said to constitute the
minutiae of that real in all its specificities. If this is the case, then signs deserve
special attention when it comes to any kind of analysis of cultural texts.
One advantage of thinking of signs as systematic – that is, as an effect of
signifying systems – is to open up the possibilities of thinking about systems as
more than just language as we understand it commonsensically to simply mean
speech. If you have ever looked critically at an advertisement, you will already be
aware of systems of signification which are not wholly verbal. Indeed, there are
whole regimes of signifying systems that are primarily visual. Art, for example, is
one such system of signification, as are film and advertising, all forms of writing,
and sign language, which itself clearly signifies without recourse to any form of
sound. What connects these different systems of signification, however, is their
function as systems of signs and, for Saussure, this makes each of them comparable to language as he has described it. Indeed, for semiotics, the sign system
of language is still primary and continues to provide the fundamental basis from
which meaning can be said to arise. Where sign systems are acknowledged as
visual, gestural or marks on a page, they are understood to work like language in
that they are analogously effective only when understood as part of an underlying
system of logic. In each case, it is still the structural rules and regulations of the
system from which they arise that makes visual, gestural and written signs
intelligible as such.
Let us take film as one particular example. What is film? Well, technically, it is
a series of marks made by the play of light on a photosensitive surface. But it is
also a particular combination of those individual marks into sequences which can
then be projected at speed to produce an apparently continuous stream of
images. In turn, these images themselves can be understood to provide a particular set of suggested meanings. Take, for example, a single image of a deserted and
dusty outcrop of rocks. If I cut that image between an image of a mother and child
and one of an unshaven man with a rifle, my single image comes to signify
something like danger. On its own, that single image has the capacity to signify a
whole range of things – it could mean peace or desolation – but that range is


limited by its place in a system of signification we can call the shot sequences of
film. The meaning of the single shot, then – the deserted and dusty outcrop of
rocks – is not intrinsic either to the shot itself or, rather more remarkably, to the
rocks themselves, but is rather determined by the association of the shot with
what comes before and after it in the sequence. And it is in this sense that the
signifying system which is film can be said to operate just like language.
No language I know operates without the presumption of relationships
between the elements which compose it. Verbal language may well be composed
of individual words, but these words in themselves are not entirely meaningful
until they are associated with other words in a highly structured sequence. If I
were to write the words ‘horse’ ‘pigs’ and ‘busted’, for example, I would be writing
words which have meaning within the English language, but I would not be
making sense since English presumes a set of structural laws for the combination
of words in order for meaning to be generated. Of course, even the words
themselves are ambiguous since their meaning can vary in English usage – ‘horse’
can mean a four-legged equestrian animal, but is also potentially food (at least in
France), and in slang terms, so I’m told, heroin. Each of these potential meanings
would seem to have nothing necessarily to do with the marks h-o-r-s-e as I
construct them on the page, but rather a whole lot to do with the cultural
associations drawn between those marks (in this case the written sign ‘horse’) and
a conceptual notion. Both the marks and the conceptual notion, then, are an
effect of the cultural value of a sign as it operates socially. However, as can be
seen from the example of ‘horse’, even that cultural value is not entirely fixed.
Indeed, the meaning of the sign ‘horse’ is implicitly not present in the sign itself.
‘Horse’, as a sign, depends to a large extent for its meaning not on what it is (since
that is overdetermined) but rather on its relative position within a sequence of
signs that we can say, in language, roughly equates to a sentence.
I could, after all, write ‘I love horse’ and so narrow its potential for meaning to
food or heroin. I could write ‘I love horse, but hate pigs’, but that might remain
equally, if differently, ambiguous. It could mean that I love eating horse but don’t
like bacon sandwiches, in which case the meaning of ‘horse’ is temporarily
delayed onto, and determined by, the pigs which follow. But, it does not end there
since ‘pigs’, in the colloquial use of British English, can also mean ‘police’, in
which case the individual sign ‘horse’ could still mean heroin. The best I can say is
that I have ruled out the four-legged equestrian animal. If I wrote ‘I love horse,
but hate pigs. Last week I got busted’, then my sentence structure could narrow
the meaning of ‘horse’ a little further to mean, most obviously, heroin. That
meaning, however, is still far from fixed, since it would always be vulnerable to a
shift in meaning by whatever I might write next.
I could go on. It may be sufficient, however, to draw the following three
conclusions from this example: (i) signs function to constitute meaning only
within the terms of the system of which they are a part; (ii) while all sign systems
function according to their own structural principles, they all function nonetheless like language; (iii) all forms of cultural text can therefore be understood as


signifying systems, the meanings of which are not fixed for all time but, rather, are
open to change.
Film is, as I have suggested, one such example. When understood in the terms
of systems of signification as I have just described them, film becomes meaningful
as cultural text precisely because of the terms of the system which constitutes it
as such.
Any story film tells, any meanings it provides, will not be natural in its
obviousness, but rather the effect of the signification of a whole series of signs and
their relative positions within the rules of combination for the system which is
film. Films in this sense do not simply reflect a pre-ordained reality, but rather
work extremely hard to manufacture one. If this is the case, then films become
important sites not only for the constitution of cultural meanings, but also for the
contestation of cultural values. Of course, this is not simply the province of film,
but might just as easily apply to any system of signs participating in the constitution of cultural meaning and value in any society and at any given moment in
time. As such, as well as film this would include the visual regimes of advertising
as easily as literary text.
Just as structuralism could be said to have changed the ways in which we
engage with texts like literature or the bible, so semiotics (hand in hand with
structuralism) can be said to have changed the ways in which we are able to
engage with the specificities of meanings comprising texts. Again, it can change
what it means to read, as well as the practice of reading itself. This obviously has
implications for cultural study in that it implies all forms of cultural text are
equally rich in meaning and, potentially, sites at which meaning can be contested.
In this sense, a pop video is as replete with significance as, say, a poem by John
Donne. And presumably each can be analysed critically just as easily as the other.
All that separates them, if anything does, is a notion of value.
This should not necessarily mean, however, that the only implication of
structuralism and semiotics as forms of cultural analysis would be to do away with
the study of literature in favour of more populist forms of signification. Indeed,
there is an important argument to be made for retaining the study of literature
alongside more populist forms in order to show that the meanings it produces are
as entirely cultural as anything else. There might even be an argument for
suggesting that it is even more important to apply the reading practice to which
semiotics gives rise than to any other kind of text. That would of course lead us to
a whole new reading practice in relation to literature, but that might be no bad
Indeed, to read literature as a system of signs would be to open literary texts
themselves to a process of decoding capable of revealing not just its structures
and forms but also the ideological implications of the very syntax and grammar
from which it is composed. As an act of cultural critique, this seems to me to be
well worth exploring.



Barthes, Roland (1990b) S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, Oxford: Blackwell.
This book is, as its preface states, the trace of work done during a two-year seminar
(1968–9) at the École pratique des Hautes Études. While it provides some interesting
principles of structuralist analysis, it is nonetheless an extremely close reading of
Balzac’s novella line by line. It is, perhaps, the implications of Barthes’ painstaking
reading which remain of interest to students today.
Barthes, Roland (1993) Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, London: Vintage.
This is a highly readable and engaging text which outlines Barthes’ theory of the
structure of ‘myth’ as well as offering a series of short essays on aspects of French
bourgeois culture as examples of how the theory may be used to engage with the
everyday. These essays range from readings of advertisements for soap powder,
through wrestling matches, to an exhibition of photographs entitled ‘The Great
Family of Man’.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1963) Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooker
Grundfast Schoepf, New York: Basic Books.
This is now a classic structuralist text and shows the ways in which structural analysis
informed a great deal of our understandings of culture.
Macherey, Pierre (1978) A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall, London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul.
For anyone interested in reading against the grain of conventional meanings, Pierre
Macherey’s account of the process of production of literary texts is an important
Propp, Vladimir (1958) Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott, Austin and
London: University of Texas Press.
This study asserts that the fairytale is an important prototype for all narrative
structures. It also examines the ways in which the narrative patterns of fairytales work
to establish ‘norms’ through which their content is, subsequently, stated as obvious.
Propp’s point was to de-familiarize the ‘obviousness’ of the content of the tales he
studied, and to locate it instead in the realms of cultural value.
Saussure, Ferdinand de (1974) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin,
London: Fontana.
This is an interesting publication since it is derived from the transcription of notes
made by students who attended Saussure’s lectures on linguistics at the University of
Geneva between 1907 and 1911. It is a key text in structural linguistics and remained
central to the tradition of poststructuralist thinking in Europe through the twentieth
century. It is, of course, primarily concerned with aspects of linguistics as a quasiscientific study and can be rather dry if read in its entirety if this is not your main
interest. However, key passages from it have been widely anthologized.



Narratology, which has roots in structuralism and which draws much of its
terminology from linguistic theory, is the study of the ways in which narratives
function. Rather than being the study of any one particular narrative, an individual novel for example, narratology begins from a consideration of the ways in
which narrative itself operates. This said, the value of narratology lies in its
application, and the narratologist Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan makes a valuable
point when she suggests that narratology should have a ‘double orientation’ that
allows it to ‘present a description of the system governing all fictional narratives’
and, at the same time, ‘to indicate a way in which individual narratives can be
studied as unique realizations of the general system’ (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 4).
This ‘double orientation’, which marks out much of the best of narrative theory,
can be seen in works such as Roland Barthes’ S/Z (1990b), which presents both
his narratological theory and a remarkably close reading of Honoré de Balzac’s
short story ‘Sarrasine’ (1830); Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse (1972; trans.
1980) which sets out its rigorous methodology alongside a reading of Marcel
Proust’s novel A la recherche du temps perdu [Remembrance of Things Past]
(1913–27); and Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot (1984), a discussion of intention in narrative that is combined with what have become influential readings of
several texts, notably Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and William
Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936).
Before moving on to consider the specifics of narratological theory, it is
important to understand a little more about its object, narrative. To many the
term ‘narrative’ will immediately suggest the kind of stories found in novels,
but whilst the aim of the narratology of early structuralist theorists such as the
Russian formalists was to identify what might be called ‘literariness’, narrative is
not confined to the novel. On the contrary, narrative can be found in numerous
aspects of life: not only in other forms of art (drama, poetry, film) but in the ways
in which we construct notions of history, politics, race, religion, identity and time.
All of these things, regardless of their respective claims to truth, might be
understood as stories that both explain and construct the ways in which the world
is experienced. As Barthes famously said, ‘narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself’ (Barthes 1977a: 78). It is
this all-permeating, and in some senses constituting, aspect of narrative that
makes its study central to so much of contemporary critical theory.
The idea that narrative can be found in so many contexts might begin to
account for the wide array of terminology that is employed in its discussion.


Accordingly, the familiar literary terms ‘story’ and ‘plot’ might variously be
designated, with subtle variation in meaning, fabula and sjuzet (Russian
formalism) or histoire and récit (Genette, French structuralism). Whilst this
varied terminology makes it clear that there are several versions of narratology, it
also suggests a level of abstraction in narrative theory that allows its translation
across diverse media. The suggestion of an almost universal application notwithstanding, it is fair to say that contemporary narratology emerged from literary
study, and what follows here mirrors this trajectory, focusing on narratology in its
literary aspect before suggesting ways in which narratology interacts with other
theoretical disciplines such as postmodernism, historiography and postcolonial

At the heart of narratology lies the assumption of a dualism within every text: that
there is, on the one hand, story and, on the other, plot. Before considering the
implications of this division it is necessary briefly to define its two elements.
Story is, put simply, ‘what happens’. It is the sequence of events that lie
somehow ‘behind’ the text, or rather it is the sequence of events that can be
abstracted, or constructed, from the text. In this context an event can be defined
as ‘something that happens’ (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 2): for example, ‘the dog was
taken out for a walk’. In most cases it would be usual to speak of a succession of
events: ‘after the walk the dog went to sleep’. Plot is the particular presentation of
the story in the narrative, a sequence that need not parallel the temporal
sequence of the story events, but that supplies information about the causal
relations between them. Accordingly, plot introduces causality to what become a
chain of events. In the above example the implications are (i) that it is the same
dog and (ii) that it is tired as a result of the walk.
One clear way of distinguishing between story and plot is the distinction that
narrative grammatologists, working at the level of the sentence, make between
‘deep’ and ‘surface’ structures (see, for example, Algirdas Julien Greimas’ On
Meaning, 1987). Deep structures correspond to stories, whilst surface structures –
the literal arrangement of the words that make up a sentence – are comparable to
plots. The sentence ‘Walking dogs should be encouraged’ has a single surface
structure (plot) and two deep structures (stories). Accordingly, this single
sentence can be read as an invocation to encourage dog owners to exercise their
pets (story 1) or as a suggestion that perambulating dogs should be cheered on and
applauded (story 2). Conversely, the sentences: ‘The dog ate my homework’ and
‘My homework was eaten by the dog’ have different surface structures (plots), i.e.
they differ in their word order, but have the same deep structure (story). The
meaning of both sentences is the same, despite the variation in its presentation.
Whilst the distinction between story and plot is both persuasive and well
established, it does demand close attention. This dualistic approach is a useful
working hypothesis, but there is disagreement about whether such a division is


actually viable. According to the story–plot distinction, the reader is allowed no
direct access to story, which can only ever be reconstructed from the plot, the
narrative. The suggestion that the reader cannot access story is, perhaps, somewhat counterintuitive and appears to challenge the well-established dualism that
exists between story and plot. Barbara Herrnstein Smith pursues this challenge in
‘Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories’, criticizing the tendency for isolating
‘pure’ story from the particular form, the individual text, as ‘naïve Platonism’
(Mitchell 1981: 209), arguing that for any particular narrative there are
potentially multiple stories. There is clearly a need to maintain an awareness that
both story and plot are derived from the text, something that is accomplished by
Genette’s ‘récit’ (narrative), the ‘oral or written discourse that undertakes to tell
of an event or a series of events’ (Genette 1980: 25), which makes clear the
necessary relation between plot and text.
Despite these legitimate calls for caution, the distinction between story and
plot provides a useful way of approaching narratives. One of the implications of
the split is the suggestion that story, which is only ever available as a paraphrase,
is translatable from medium to medium, whilst plot appears to be text-specific.
This is to say that an individual story can appear in numerous distinct texts and
across a wide range of media: for example, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
has appeared as a trilogy of novels (1954, 1954, 1955), an animated film (Ralph
Bakshi dir. 1978), numerous computer games (1985–2004), a radio play (Brian
Sibley, 1981) and, most recently, as Peter Jackson’s highly successful trilogy of
films (2001, 2002, 2003). Despite this variety of media and ‘authors’ there is a
general consensus that the story of The Lord of the Rings is recognizable in each
This view of the translatable nature of story was advanced by the work of
Russian formalist Vladimir Propp. In Morphology of the Folktale (1928) Propp
studies the formal aspects – what he terms their ‘morphology’ – of 100 folktales.
Plot is considered in terms of its use of 31 functional units: for example, ‘The hero
leaves home’ or ‘The villain is defeated’. Propp argues that whilst no single
folktale features all 31 functions, all tales can be summarized in terms of the
functions that they contain and which, he claims, always appear in the same order.
Similarly, character, which is regarded as secondary to plot, is discussed in terms
of ‘roles’, such as ‘the villain’ or ‘the helper’. Propp concludes that all folktales
share certain formal features and consequently that they can, in fact, all be
reduced to one of only four classes of folktale. Propp’s work was largely neglected
until the late 1960s when it was taken up by structuralist critics, in particular
French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss whose discussion of myth
in Structural Anthropology (1963) develops and refines Propp’s ideas. LéviStrauss identifies what he terms ‘mythemes’, the smallest units of myth from
which all myth is created. Other theorists who have advanced comparable ideas
include Claude Bremond, Joseph Campbell, Greimas and Gerald Prince.
Aspects of structuralist narratology have been adopted, and adapted, by film
theory, where it is usefully employed alongside discussions of genre.


The type of structuralist theory exemplified here by Propp would later be
criticized by Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially
Symbolic Act (1981), where he suggests that the way in which Propp organizes his
material is itself an overriding narrative. According to this view, narrative is
about power, property and domination rather than universal archetypes. To
consider plot in this way is to recognize its dual status as both a noun, ‘a/the plot’,
and a verb, ‘to plot’. Reading plot as a verb insists on the presence of a plotting
agent, or agents. For example, the plot in ‘Gunpowder Plot’ refers to the intention of the conspirators, or plotters, to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. In this
version of narrative theory, questions of who has the authority to speak and of
who controls narrative become central, and so the ‘official’ narrative of the events
of 1605 was controlled by the state and legitimated the persecution of Catholics
under James I.

The most obvious way in which story and plot relate is in terms of time. If a story is
a sequence of events then its temporal aspect must be presented in the narrative.
What might be termed ‘text-time’ is a spatial pseudo-time that is limited by both
reading and writing practices; in other words, usual reading practices dictate that
a text is read from beginning to end and that only one passage is read at any one
time. This ensures, in the majority of cases, that text-time will appear in a linear
form and that, as a result of this, it is unable to correspond exactly to the often
multilinear strands of story-time. To clarify: whilst several events might occur
simultaneously in story-time they can only be presented sequentially, one after
the other, in text-time. The discrepancy that thus arises between story-time and
text-time is at the heart of many arguments that would separate story from plot,
and accordingly it is given a great deal of attention in narratological works.
Narrative techniques include analepsis (also referred to as flashback or
retrospection) in which the time-line of the main narrative is interrupted by an
earlier scene; so, for example, whilst recovering from illness Lockwood hears the
events of Wuthering Heights from his housekeeper Mrs Dean: ‘These things
happened last winter, sir’ (Brontë 1992: 315). Conversely, prolepsis (known
variously as flash-forward, foreshadowing and anticipation) is a technique by
which a narrative interrupts the main story-time with an event, or events, that
properly belong to its future. Whilst prolepsis may occur with less frequency than
analepsis it can be used to great effect. For example, the opening lines of Chuck
Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1997) start a narrative that will move circuitously back to
its own beginning:
Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and
saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler
and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.
(Palahniuk 1997: 11)


The possibility of prolepsis provides a useful insight into narrative structure,
laying bare the assumption that an end will be reached and that the sequence of
events moves towards an end point. This is an idea explored by Frank Kermode in
The Sense of an Ending (1967) in which he argues that narrative is impelled by the
expectation of a concordant, i.e. a necessary and complete structure. A further
related technique is the use of ellipsis, the omission of events from the narrative.
The 1990s action film Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla dir. 1993) provides a
dramatic example of ellipsis, its narrative jumping 40 years from the crime-ridden
Los Angeles of 1996 to the serene San Angeles of 2036 where arch-criminal
Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) unexpectedly awakens from a 35-year stint in the
Cryopenitentiary. Unable to cope with the violent twentieth-century criminal,
the authorities revive old-fashioned cop John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone),
himself sentenced to life in the Cryopenitentiary, pitting him against his old
adversary. Missing 40 years from the centre of a story is an extreme example of a
narrative ellipsis; commonly the technique is used to avoid narrating inconsequential events. The analysis of ellipses can reveal much about social taboos,
which can themselves be regarded as part of the narrative about the way society
views itself. Demolition Man plays on this notion by including the commonly
elided fact that characters must sooner or later use the toilet, whilst emphasizing
society’s preference for omitting such scatological detail by refusing to specify the
purpose of the ‘shells’ that are, presumably, intended to facilitate Stallone’s
character’s ablutions. Identifying ellipses, which are often sites of textual aporia,
is a reading practice that is central to deconstruction.
This ordering appears not only in what is included in a narrative but also in the
number of times that events are presented in the narrative. In Genette’s terms, in
‘singulative’ narrative a single event in the story is narrated once; in ‘repeating’
narrative a single event is presented more than once; and in ‘iterative’ narrative
an event that is repeated in the story, such as the weekly winding of a clock, might
be narrated just once – so we read that Tristram Shandy’s father ‘one of the most
regular men in every thing he did . . . made it a rule for many years of his life, – on
the first Sunday night of every month throughout the whole year, – as certain as
ever the Sunday night came, – to wind up a large house-clock which we had
standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands’ (Sterne 1949: 45–6).
In providing a terminology with which the temporal construction of texts can
be discussed, narratology makes clear, by dint of its very methodical nature, the
constructed nature of all texts. Plotting is an act of selection and organization, and
the implication of this is that every text is constructed from a certain position.

Every text has a narrator, however subtly they might be presented. As Mieke Bal
says, ‘As soon as there is language, there is a speaker who utters it; as soon as
those linguistic utterances constitute a narrative text, there is a narrator, a
narrating subject’ (Bal 1985: 121–2). The relation between this ‘narrating


subject’ and the story, effectively what he or she says, can be usefully discussed
in terms of mimesis and diegesis. Plato (c.428–347 BC) uses the terms in the
third book of The Republic in order to distinguish between types of speaking:
diegesis refers to the points at which the poet speaks with her or his own voice,
whilst mimetic speech occurs when the poet tries to create the illusion that the
characters themselves are speaking. According to this understanding drama
becomes the clearest instance of mimetic art. Plato’s distinction, filtered through
Aristotle’s (c. 384–322 BC) more general use of the terms in his Poetics, approximates the way in which they are used in contemporary literary studies and they
can be equated to the more familiar terms ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ (see Lodge,
1992). The following passage from Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957) is
mimetic; it ‘shows’ what happens by presenting its dialogue without any evidence,
excepting the quotation marks, of the narrator:
‘Sallie, I want to go to New York with you.’
‘But how?’
‘I don’t know, honey. I’ll miss you. I love you.’
‘But I have to leave.’
‘Yes, yes. We lay down one more time, then you leave.’
(Kerouac 1991: 100)

By way of contrast, the following passage, whilst still presenting speech, contains
diegetic, telling, elements:
‘We’ll all watch over each other,’ I said. Stan and his mother strolled on ahead, and
I walked in back with crazy Dean; he was telling me about the inscriptions carved
on toilet walls in the East and in the West.
(Kerouac 1991: 267)

In the first sentence the diegetic nature of the passage is marked by the narrator’s
‘I said’, whilst in the second sentence crazy Dean’s words are paraphrased,
presented as summary. However useful this distinction might be it is worth
recalling that, as Genette points out, ‘no story can “show” or “imitate” the story
it tells’ (Genette 1980: 164), because, whether oral or textual, narrative uses
language – a system of signs that signifies without imitating. Mimesis can only
ever be an illusion, a consensual acceptance of what is, and what is not,
representative of the real.
If narrating is thus connected to speaking, focalization has to do with seeing.
Focalization has similar optical-photographic allusions to the more familiar
‘point of view’ but, by dint of its technical nature, avoids the possible suggestion
that the person ‘seeing’ (perspective) should be the same as the person ‘speaking’
(narrating) which might be inferred from the term ‘point of view’. However, the
apparent neutrality implied by this terminology masks, to a certain extent at least,
the notion that focalization is supplied from a certain perspective. In other words,
focalization, like narration, is never neutral.


Film theory, which must contend directly with the medium’s apparent lack of a
conventional narrator, provides useful comment on the positioned nature of
focalization in its formulations ‘monstration’ and ‘auteur theory’. Monstration
refers to the way in which early films were ‘shown’ to the audience with little or
no interpretative narratorial ‘telling’. By contrast, auteur theory (from the
French for ‘author’) emphasizes the creative role and influence of the director,
suggesting that films combine elements of both showing and telling. Although
monstration and auteur theory, in terms of narration, occupy opposite ends of the
scale, both reveal the focalizing presence as positioned, however unobtrusive that
positioning may be.
Focalization can be either external or internal. An external focalizer operates
‘outside’ the story. Such a narrator, often described as ‘omniscient’, has complete
comprehension of the story, which will necessarily be written in the third person
(‘she said’). Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) is a third-person narrative
with an omniscient narrator, beginning ‘No one who had ever seen Catherine
Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine’ (Austen
2003: 15). External focalizers can be ‘impersonal’, apparently neutral, or
‘intrusive’ such as the narrator of Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) who
repeatedly interrupts the story: ‘The disconsolate Joseph, would not have had an
Understanding sufficient for the principal Subject of such a Book as this’
(Fielding 1999: 39). Internal focalizers appear, usually as characters, within the
story itself. These narrators display partial knowledge of the story, which can be
written in either the third or the first person (‘I said’). For example, Ian
McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden (1997) is a first-person narrative, ‘I did not
kill my father, but I sometimes felt that I helped him on his way’ (McEwan 1997:
9). Internal focalization can be ‘fixed’ (derived from a single character), variable
(from a succession of characters), or ‘multiple’ (from numerous characters at the
same time).
So far the focalizer has been equated with the narrator; however, this is not
necessarily the case. The distinction between focalizer and narrator is well
illustrated in Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations (1860–1) which is
narrated in the first person by Pip (fixed-internal focalization). In this instance it
would seem reasonable to expect that Pip will be both focalizer and narrator;
however, it becomes clear that the events are focalized by Pip as a child and
recounted, or rather narrated, by an older, adult Pip.

D. H. Lawrence famously stated ‘Never trust the artist. Trust the tale’ (Lawrence
1990: 8). Whilst these words encapsulate the ideas of text-centred literary
studies, and New Criticism in particular, they also, unintentionally perhaps,
indicate the beginnings of what might be called the ‘communication model’ of
narrative. The sentence contains three elements, placing them in a specific
relation to one another: ‘trust(er)’, ‘tale’ and ‘artist’. Numerous critics have


considered the ways in which these three elements interact in what Seymour
Chatman calls the ‘narrative transaction’ (Chatman 1980: 147), a phrase that
usefully acknowledges the complicity of both addresser and addressee in the
process of communication.
Russian formalist and member of the Prague Linguistic Circle, Roman
Jakobson, sets out his highly influential model of oral communication in
‘Linguistics and Poetics’ (lecture 1958, pub: 1960; 1987). Arguing for the
linguistic analysis of poetics, Jakobson proposes a model of verbal communication in which an ‘ADDRESSER sends a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE’
(Jakobson 1987: 66). In his subsequent discussion of the ‘poetic’ function (the
emphasis of the message itself which is dominant in artistic/literary artefacts)
Jakobson hints towards the more detailed models of communication that would
be developed to discuss narrative:
Ambiguity is an intrinsic, inalienable character of any self-focused [poetic]
message . . . Not only the message itself but also its addresser and addressee
become ambiguous. Beside the author and the reader, there is the ‘I’ of the lyrical
hero or of the fictitious storyteller and the ‘you’ or ‘thou’ of the alleged addressee.
(Jakobson 1987: 85)

Jakobson’s linguistic model of communication and particularly this recognition
of the multiple origins, and recipients, of a poetic text have been, as will become
clear below, highly influential on narrative theory.
The application of this kind of communication model to narrative was popularized by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), which is notable for
the introduction of the ‘implied reader’, a reformulation of Jakobson’s ‘alleged
addressee’. The culmination of the various attempts to account for narrative
communication can be seen in Chatman’s diagram:
Narrative text
Real author → Implied → (Narrator) → (Narratee) → Implied → Real reader
(Chatman 1980: 151)

This diagram illustrates six constituents of narrative communication. Within the
boxed section the ‘Implied author’ and ‘Implied reader’ are unbracketed to signal
that they are immanent in narrative, whilst Narrator and Narratee are bracketed
to illustrate that, in Chatman’s view, they are non-essential. These four elements
are the real concern of literary or text-focused narratology.
The implied author is, distinct from the real author, constructed by the reader
from the text. This ‘author’, unlike the narrator, has no voice; he or she tells us
nothing. The implied author is best viewed as a constructed set of norms or
standards against which a narrative can be judged, and not in some vaguely


personified form. The necessity of the implied author can be seen, for example, in
Jonathan Swift’s satire ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1729) in which the narrator proposes the sale of infants’ flesh as a solution to Ireland’s poverty: ‘a young healthy
child, well nursed, is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome
food’ (Swift 1984: 493). As the real author of ‘A Modest Proposal’ Swift can only
be recognized as a satirist, and not as an advocate of cannibalism, if the reader
acknowledges a distinction between him as real author and the implied author
(and the class to which he or she belongs) whose selfishness is the subject of the
satire. The implied reader is a similar construction; this is a reader who is interpellated, assumed and constructed by the text. To continue with the example of
Swift’s satire, it can be inferred that the implied reader of ‘A Modest Proposal’ is
not of the classes that will give up their infants for food, and that he or she might
be inclined, through a lack of sympathy, to consider the idea in earnest.
Accordingly, the satire succeeds when the real reader reacts against the implied
reader, disassociating her or himself from this textually generated counterpart.
Chatman’s view that the narrator is non-essential is hard to sustain. Whilst the
presence of a narrator may not always be obvious, as is the case in third-person
narratives, a narrator is necessary if narrative is to be produced. Bal makes the
astute, if curiously phrased, point that ‘“I” and “He” Are Both “I”’, arguing that
in a narrative in which ‘the speaking agent [the narrator] does not mention itself
. . . it may as well have done so’ (Bal 1985: 120). In other words, every narrative
utterance could be prefaced by ‘I narrate’. According to this view the narrator’s
presence or absence is always a question of degree. By way of contrast, the
narratee, who is the recipient of the narrative communication, is non-essential,
replaceable by the implied and real readers.
Beyond the confines of the boxed section are the ‘Real Author’ and the ‘Real
Reader’, both of whom are outside of the narrative instance, essential in real
terms and yet considered to be beyond the reach of narrative theory which is
concerned with the internal textual evidence. Accordingly author criticism
becomes part of biography and psychoanalytic criticism. Narratology, in its early
attempts to explain meaning as a result of narrative structures, might be seen as a
contributing factor to the eventual proclamation of the ‘death’ of the author. This
position is persuasively argued by Barthes in ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968;
trans. 1977) in which he famously suggests that there is no access to the author of
a text, and consequently that there is no access to a final, correct, reading of any
text. Barthes writes: ‘a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological”
meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in
which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash’ (Barthes
1977a: 146). Barthes’ suggestion, which can be regarded as a challenge to a
version of narratology which sees narrative structures as generating meaning, has
become a widely accepted aspect of literary criticism. What Barthes makes very
clear is the fact that, as a site of communication, narrative demands participation
from the reader, and the more complex suggestion that narratives function in
relation to one another. See also Michel Foucault’s ‘What is an Author’ (1977)


and Maurice Blanchot’s ‘Literature and the Right to Death’ (1981) for further
consideration of the author.
Critical attention has also been focused on the other extreme of this
communication model in what is known as reader theory. Reader theory can be
characterized as having two movements or phases. The first is reception theory,
advanced by a predominantly German group of theorists whose members
included Hans Robert Jauss, Karl-Heinz Stierle and Wolfgang Iser. Iser’s The
Act of Reading (1978) and Jauss’s Towards an Aesthetic of Reception (1982) might
be seen as its core works. Reception theory draws heavily on phenomenology, and
is concerned with the ways in which texts are apprehended in the reader’s
consciousness. According to this approach, texts are partially open, containing
‘textual indeterminacies’ which the reader interprets/completes through the
process of ‘actualization’. Reader-response theory, and particularly that of
Stanley Fish (see Is There a Text in This Class?, 1980), both develops and responds
to reception theory, placing more emphasis on what the text does to the reader,
thereby opening the text up to apparently limitless interpretations. As with
biographical criticism, placing the origins of meaning outside the text can be seen
as a challenge to narratology’s text-centred approach.
This challenge becomes greater still when narratology encounters modern
technologies such as the internet (see, for example, Janet Murray, Hamlet on the
Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, 1997) and computer games (see
Barry Atkins’ More Than A Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form, 2003).
When narratives are stored as hypertext, in which readers have a degree of
control of what is read and in what order and in what detail, or as games in which
the reader/player has an active role in shaping a narrative’s quality and success,
the boundary between author and reader becomes increasingly problematic. A
further implication of both hypertext and game fictions is that the predominant
Aristotelian concept of plot as linear and necessarily complete is challenged by a
refigured notion of plot that brings into question the status of beginnings and
endings, as well as the idea that these new ‘texts’ can in any way be considered
fixed or complete. Formulating a response to the questions posed by these
technologically advanced, and advancing, texts is just one of the challenges facing
narrative theory today.

Diagrams like Chatman’s fail to account for the ways in which texts can relate to
themselves (and to other texts), relationships that can be discussed in terms of
narrative levels. Accordingly, discussions of narrative time, or the relation
between narrator and story, can readily be mapped in terms of level, a tendency
that leads, not always entirely productively, to the possibility of representing
textual structure in diagrammatic form.
For example, a text may have more than one ‘level’ of story. A character in one
level may appear as the narrator of another. In other words, texts can contain


stories within stories. These two narrative levels are typically referred to as
‘narrative’ and ‘metanarrative’: ‘the metanarrative is a narrative within the
narrative’ (Genette 1980: 228). Once these narrative levels have been identified
it becomes possible to locate the narrators and characters within the text. For
example, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902) contains two readily
identifiable levels of narrative. In the first narrative level a group of old friends
are gathered together aboard a ship on the Thames listening to Marlow tell a
story about a journey he made as a youth. That story, in which the young Marlow
sails his steamer up the Congo in search of Mr Kurtz, is the metanarrative. By
identifying these two levels it becomes possible to locate Marlow as a character of
the first narrative (who does little but narrate), as the narrator of the
metanarrative and as a character of that metanarrative.
Commonly, the co-existence of different narrative levels manifests itself in the
appearance of the narrating voice, so, to continue to use the example of Heart of
Darkness, the older narrating Marlow is able to remark on his own storytelling
technique: ‘it seems to me that I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain
attempt because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation’ (Conrad
1983: 57).
The kind of self-awareness exhibited by Marlow in relation to the story in
which he is simultaneously a character and a narrator is described as metafiction,
‘writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as
an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and
reality’ (Waugh 1984: 2). Metafictional narratives, which have a tendency to take
their own fictionality and the problems of representation as the subject of story,
are often associated with the postmodern and are evident in the works of authors
such as Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie and Kurt Vonnegut. However, metafiction is not the sole purview of twentieth-century writers. Laurence Sterne’s The
Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1760–7) is a prime example of a metafictional text – as is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote [Don Quijote de la
Mancha] (1605–15). The connection between metafiction and postmodernism is
readily apparent in, for example, Jean François Lyotard’s The Postmodern
Condition (1984), where postmodernism is identified as being characterized by
an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (Lyotard 1984: xxiv). Whilst Lyotard’s
use of ‘metanarrative’ differs from, say, Genette’s, the central questions of
narratology are asked repeatedly, in differing forms, by postmodern theory.

As the relation between metafiction and postmodernism might indicate, narrative theory plays an important part in a great many areas of contemporary
cultural and critical theory. Narrative is, as was suggested in the introduction to
this chapter, a central part of the way in which we live our lives and so it is to be
expected that narrative theory finds application in many areas of critical theory.
Psychoanalytic criticism is one area in which aspects of narrative theory are


readily apparent. Psychoanalysis, the ‘talking cure’, concerns itself with the
telling and interpretation of stories. The possible application of aspects of
narrative theory should be evident: for example, Freud’s notion that dreams have
both manifest (surface) and latent (underlying) meanings lends itself to the type
of theory that concerns itself with the relation between plot and story. French
psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–81) pursues the idea of the subject as
being inscribed in a pre-existing system of signs, and his suggestion that the
unconscious is structured in a similar way to language shares many of the concerns of narratology, in particular in its deployment of linguistic theory.
The relationship between psychoanalytic theory and narratology is not, as this
might imply, one-way. For example, Freud’s death-drive, or Thanatos, which he
describes in ‘The Ego and the Id’ (1923) as a desire to ‘re-establish a state of
things that was disturbed by the emergence of life’ (Freud 1991b: 381), has been
used to good effect by Peter Brooks to investigate the dynamics of plot in terms of
the drive towards ending in Reading for the Plot (1984).
The writing of history is another such instance. Distinguishing between the
poet and the historian, Aristotle writes: ‘Where the historian really differs from
the poet is in his describing what has happened, while the other describes the kind
of thing that might happen’ (Aristotle 1963: 17). It is not, according to Aristotle, a
question of the form this description takes, but of its object. However, this
conception of the historian’s task conceals the level of invention that it entails. A
much quoted passage from German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel makes this clear:
‘The term History, unites the objective with the subjective side, and denotes . . .
not less what has happened, than the narration of what has happened’ (Hegel
1991: 60). History is not discovered but constructed; in other words, facts do not
speak for themselves – the historian selects and interprets facts. Accordingly,
histories are always composed, created and situated narratives, and it follows that
they should be approached as such. This understanding of history as narrative
informs the work of American historian and theorist Hayden White whose
Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) has
been highly influential. White’s work, which is self-consciously formalist in
approach, identifies the structural components of historical accounts,
distinguishing between what he calls ‘different levels of conceptualization in the
historical work: (1) chronicle; (2) story; (3) mode of emplotment; (4) mode of
argument; and (5) mode of ideological implication’ (White 1973: 5). White’s
historiography is, then, a historical narratology and his wide frame of reference
includes writers associated with literary/narratological study such as Erich
Auerbach, Roland Barthes, Northrop Frye and Roman Jakobson.
Attempts to bring narratology into inherently political and ideological
theories, such as feminism, gender and race, have met with mixed success. The
difficulties of such a move are exemplified by the challenges suggested by Susan
S. Lanser in ‘Towards a Feminist Narratology’ (1986), which is anthologized
alongside Nilli Diengott’s response, ‘Narratology and Feminism’ (1988) in
Martin McQuillan’s The Narrative Reader. Lanser identifies ‘three crucial issues


about which feminism and narratology might differ: the role of gender in the
construction of narrative theory, the status of narrative as mimesis or semiosis,
and the importance of context for determining meaning in narrative’ (McQuillan
2000: 198). To summarize: the first implies that narratology has been based on a
masculinist canon; the second that narrative, being largely concerned with
linguistic signs, has little to say about the relation between the text and reality;
and Lanser’s third suggestion is that narratology, unlike feminism, is unconcerned with contexts, focusing its attention on the text in isolation. Lanser goes on
to suggest the need for a feminist narratology to emerge. Diengott refutes this
claim, suggesting that whilst Lanser is correct in identifying the divergences
between feminism and narrative theory the notion of an interpretative feminist
narratology is a misunderstanding of the nature of narratology, which she regards
as a purely theoretical poetics. This suggestion that narratology is, and must
remain, a sterile theoretical tool is misleading, and whilst narratology may be
largely neutral in political terms it can be, and has been, readily applied to a wide
range of critical positions. Overtly political questions such as ‘Who speaks?’,
‘How is it possible to speak?’, ‘How does what is said reflect and construct what
is?’ are all posed by narrative theory.
Postcolonial theory asks exactly these questions. For example, Edward W.
Said’s Orientalism offers a consideration of the version of North Africa and the
Middle East, ‘the Orient’, that was constructed by the Western colonial powers
(Britain and France) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
According to Said, the Orient is a fabrication of the West, an image that may or
may not have any basis in reality but which has, regardless of this fact, real effects
in the real world. In other words, orientalism is a narrative written from a
particular perspective. Orientalism, in common with other forms of narrative,
comments on its subject, its writers and its readers. The question of who controls,
or is controlled by, language is explored by Kenyan novelist and playwright
Ngũgi˜ wa Thiong’o (1938–) in Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in
African Culture (1986) where he writes, ‘Language, any language, has a dual
~ ~
character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture’ (Ngu
1986: 13). Bengali cultural and literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942–)
takes up the question of who is permitted to speak in her challenging and
thought-provoking essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (1988). In the context of
subaltern studies, subaltern designates non-elite, subordinated social groups
such as the colonized illiterate peasantry, tribals and the lower strata of the urban
sub-proletariat: groups that are the subjects of discourse and whose identities are
constructed from positions that they themselves do not control. Spivak’s question
comes to address both the space inhabited by the female subaltern and the
historiographical practices of the Subaltern Studies group itself.
Whilst few contemporary critics call themselves narratologists, or perhaps
even think of their critical practice in terms of narratology, narrative theory plays
a significant role in critical theory. Narrative theory has found useful application
to the examples of psychoanalysis, historiography and postcolonial theory in


various theoretical areas including, among others, postmodernism, Marxism,
deconstruction, feminism, gender, phenomenology and film theory. As Lyotard
remarks, ‘Narration is the quintessential form of customary knowledge’ (Lyotard
1984: 19), and, as such, understanding the ways in which it functions is a crucial
part of critical theory.

Brooks, Peter (1984) Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
This extremely lucid work engages with the dynamics of narrative plotting through a
series of close readings of literary texts.
Chatman, Seymour (1980) Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film,
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Chatman’s book offers a very clear description of narrative theory, and is particularly
strong on the relations between author, text and reader.
Genette, Gérard (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane. E. Lewin,
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
One of narratology’s central texts. Very thorough on the interaction between narrative, story and narrating, and particularly clear on the function of time in narrative.
McQuillan, Martin, ed. (2000) The Narrative Reader, London: Routledge.
An extremely useful collection of extracts from key narratological texts.
Prince, Gerald (2004) A Dictionary of Narratology, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
An accessible dictionary with clear and straightforward definitions of key narratological terms.
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith (1983) Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, London:
A valuable introduction to narratology that maintains a focus on literary fiction.



The history of the relationship between critical theory and Marxism has been an
ambiguous one. On the one hand, there have been those who have affirmed an
axiomatic connection: i.e. Marxism as the critical theory of capitalist society. In
this regard Marxism has tended to be viewed as a totalizing discourse under
which all possible forms of social critique can be subsumed (e.g. the problems
of class, race and gender all boil down to capitalist exploitation). On the other
hand, there are those who argue that critical theory represents an evolving
(postmodern) intellectual tradition that, in rejecting all forms of naturalism and
necessity, cannot be reconciled with Marxist thought and, moreover, renders the
latter redundant.
Both positions are equally entrenched. For Jacques Derrida – regarded by
many as the philosophical architect of contemporary critical theory – the boundary
between Marxism and critical theory is considerably overdrawn. Indeed he
maintains that his own highly influential theory of deconstruction is something
that already names a deep connection with Marxist openings: ‘Deconstruction
has never had any sense or interest, in my view at least, except as a radicalization
. . . in a certain spirit of Marxism’ (Derrida 1994: 92).
Despite orthodox interpretation, Marxism has never comprised a unified
position that simply needs to be explained in order to grasp its universal veracity
and import. Marxism is as much a part of history as any other discourse, and as
such continues to undergo processes of innovation and change in order to deal
with the limitations and inconsistencies that would be inevitable with any
historical enterprise.
This chapter begins with an appraisal of some of the central innovations of
Karl Marx’s thought, and in particular the radical new emphasis he gave to the
themes of context and power. From here it moves to a consideration of the
Frankfurt School and their attempts to develop a context-based critical theory as
a way of engaging with modern capitalism and its socio-cultural forms. It then
addresses the type of discourse theory that has evolved precisely as a way of
advancing a more integrated analysis of social reality. While this type of analysis
is commonly associated with the poststructuralist perspectives of thinkers such as
Michel Foucault and Derrida, it has also taken on an increasing importance in the
Marxist and post-Marxist traditions through such theorists as Antonio Gramsci,
Stuart Hall, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Finally it explores certain
aspects of the thought of Slavoj Žižek that, in some sense at least, marks a return
to Marx.


In the language of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière (1999), we might say
that the fundamental and enduring legacy of Marx consists in the fact that he told
the truth about the lie of liberal capitalism. That is to say, the dominant view of
the capitalist economy as a ‘free market’ – where individuals are deemed to be at
liberty to make their own contracts and to sell their services to the highest bidder
– was shown by Marx to be the great liberal myth of the modern age. Originating
with the thought of the Scottish political economist Adam Smith – which is very
much alive today in neo-liberal discourse concerning globalization – this myth
affirms that the free market is the universal formula for achieving a rational,
innovative and harmonious social order (indeed a new world order).
What Marx demonstrated was that far from comprising an open and neutral
environment the capitalist economy is first and foremost a power structure. The
basis of this power structure is class oppression. For Marx, capitalism is a mode of
production that revolves around a basic antagonism between two fundamental
classes: the bourgeoisie and the workers (or proletariat). As the minority ruling
class, the bourgeoisie are defined by their monopolization of the means of
production and subsistence (i.e. all that is necessary to make a living: land, raw
materials, technology and so on). The proletariat, by contrast, comprise the vast
majority and are defined precisely in terms of their lack of access to the means
of production. This is a condition that was created through a power process.
By buying up the old feudal estates, the emergent (industrial) bourgeois class
proceeded to expel the people that lived there and to redirect them to the new
factories in the cities. In this way the latter were transformed from peasants – with
at least some access to productive means (land, livestock and so on) – into
workers without any such access and who were consequently forced to sell their
services (their labour power) in exchange for a wage.
This wage, moreover, is only a fraction of the revenue generated by the
workers’ end product. Workers create ‘surplus value’ (by transforming raw
materials into saleable commodities) for which they are not remunerated and
which in turn becomes the very source of profit for capitalists. Workers are paid
far less than what they are truly owed. Capitalism is characterized by this
systematic ‘theft’ of surplus value from the workers. Wage slavery becomes the
new form of servitude.
Capitalism represents the highest stage of development and civilization – ‘it
[capitalism] has accomplished wonders surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman
aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals’ (Marx and Engels 1977: 111) – and yet its
dynamic of change and progress is ultimately a restricted one. There are two main
aspects here. The first is the tendency towards overpr