Harrison Middleton University

Defining Narrative

Defining Narrative

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


November 12, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Narrative is a tricky word. Originally, I thought that perhaps we had overloaded the term recently, but even the original Latin term carried a number of connotations. Wheelock’s Latin defines narro as “to tell, report, narrate (narration, narrative, narrator).” This makes me wonder how “tell” is different from “report.” Narrate is a retelling of a story, but with specific requirements stemming from the way we report a story. Narration involves a certain set of details, but not every detail is applicable. For example, if I say that my day was awful, I will only tell you the details that support my narrative. I will likely not include what I ate for breakfast (unless it was bad in some way) because this information does not fit the foundational belief. It is likely that in my “bad day” good things (or at the very least trivial things) also happened. In other words, a narrative must describe an event or phenomena, a feeling or situation, in which only certain details pertain.

According to Merriam-Webster, a narrative can be any of the following:
1a] something that is narrated
1b] a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values
2] the art or practice of narration
3] the representation in art of an event or story

It can also be used as an adjective, in which case, Merriam-Webster defines it as:
1] having the form of a story or representing a story
2] of or relating to the process of telling a story

When I talk about narratives, most people assume I speak in terms of fiction, as in the narrative of a story. This makes sense because we talk of narrators and use narrative as a synonym for story-telling (in fact, the Merriam-Webster definition references “story” multiple times). Yet, narratives are not only pieces of fiction. We live out narratives every single day. Why, for example, would we read stories if these narratives did not vitally connect with a human reality? This does not mean that I identify with the main character (though sometimes I may), but that struggle and hope and achievement are human and these are the things we write about. Reflecting on these definitions, I have begun to believe that our own narratives often function in the background of our lives, hidden even from us. We may read a story and enjoy it, but rarely do we put effort into understanding why. Yet, this is likely the vital work.

In A Pluralistic Universe, William James suggests that humans have the ability to direct attention where they want, and this is their superpower. He claims that any holistic understanding of reality may be out of human reach since we depend entirely on our individual systems and our human perceptions. Though we receive a piecemeal view of the world at best, we are not without means for investigating reality, however. James argues we can explore the empirical world using human resources such as perception and reasoning. One of the tools in our toolkit would undoubtedly be narratives.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko offers an interesting mix of narrative styles which may help to demonstrate how complicated the term narrative can be. The novel begins with Tayo, the main character, feeling ill. He has returned from World War II carrying a great amount of trauma. We meet him in a military hospital in Los Angeles. The sterile, white walls of the hospital do not help him heal. At varying times, he feels lost, invisible, shadowed, split, and physically ill. As Tayo returns home to the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, he revisits memories of the past. He also confronts social criticism. Because Tayo is only half Native American, his own family carries mixed feelings about him, which generates great feelings of shame in Tayo. He believes that he has violated the social fabric of his community. It is not until he meets a medicine man, Betonie, who tells him, “things that don’t shift and grow are dead things,” that Tayo begins to realize his part in society.

In other words, Tayo has always believed that the narratives which swirl around him are true. He believes that being of mixed race is ugly because society tells him so. He believes that he has caused this illness and that he alone must find a cure. In truth, these are the narratives that he was raised with. He is not able to fully question them until he identifies them as a narrative. That appears to be one key to his healing: the ability to name and discern the stories of his life. This, in turn, allows him to insert new details (not false details, but more accurate and appropriate details). He effectually does this through a hero’s journey from pueblo to city to natural environment and back. During his travels, he gains the perspective of place, of self, of voice, and of his community. In the end, he begins to unravel this intricate web from himself and identify which narratives can stay and which can go.

Now, I have used a fictional story to describe narrative even though I said a narrative does not have to be fictional. The point is that Tayo could be any one of us. We all carry stories within us and sometimes we are completely unaware of them. Tayo’s healing only begins when he realizes that his version of the stories does not match what he has been told. We, too, could write an autobiography which describes our personal trials and tribulations. However, in order to consider it a narrative, we must include some background detail. A narrative is not simply that the Laguna people dislike change, for example, but a story which includes the growth and demonstration of that belief. A character like Tayo challenges the community in very specific ways which result from cultural rigidity, a changing environment, the politics of war, etc. The resulting story cannot be minimized. It is an unraveling of great complexity.

Why spend so much time with notions of narrative? Because we each believe in certain narratives and they are useful in uncovering our own biases and cultural heritage. They may make it easier (or more difficult) to connect to others. The next time you confront a situation in which you feel out of place, ask yourself why. It’s likely that there is a narrative hiding just below the surface.

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