The narrative is a story that can be conveyed through pictures, songs, poetry, speech, fiction, and non-fiction. When in the writing mode, its telling is relegated to a particular person; it becomes a technique used by that person. The consigned person is the narrator, and his perspective serves as a prism through which ideas are transmitted to the readers.
There are different types of narration, i.e., different ways of presenting a story. Traditionally, a broad division is made between third-person and first-person narratives. The third-person narrative is further divided into subclasses according to the degree and kind of freedom or limitation the author assumes in getting the story across. In a third-person narrative, the narrator is someone outside the story proper who refers to all the characters in the story by name, or as “he,” “she,” “they.” In a first-person narrative, the narrator speaks as “I” and is himself to a greater or lesser degree a participant in the story.
Narrative Techniques in Novels
The narrator knows everything about the agents, actions, and events. He also knows the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and motives. He is free to move at will in time and place, to shift from character to character, and to report (or conceal) their speech, doings, and states of consciousness.
The intrusive narrator reports and comments on and evaluates the actions and motives of the characters. He sometimes expresses personal views about human life in general. The omniscient narrator’s descriptions and judgments serve to establish the facts and values within the fictional world. Many of the greatest novelists, including Fielding, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy, have written in this fashion. On the other hand, the omniscient narrator may choose to be unintrusive.
The narrator tells the story in the third person, but tells only what is experienced, thought, and felt by a single character within the story. Henry James described such a selected character as his “focus,” or “mirror,” or “center of consciousness.” In several of James’s later works, all the events and actions are represented as they unfold through the particular perceptions and awareness of one of his characters; for example, Strether in The Ambassadors (1903) or Maisie in What Maisie Knew (1897). A short and artfully sustained example of this limited narration is Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss” (1920).
In stream-of-consciousness narration, we are presented with outer observations only as they impinge on the continuous current of thought, memory, feelings, and associations. This type of “objective narration” is widely used by Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and others.
Read About: Elements of Novel in English Literature
This mode limits the narrative’s matter to what the first-person narrator knows, experiences, infers or can find out by talking to other characters. The first-person narrator can be a fortuitous witness and auditor of the matters he relates (Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). He can be a minor participant in the story (Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Nick in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). Or he can be the central character in the story (Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye).
Many of the techniques the novel developed over the past 100 years can be understood as the result of competition with the new mass media: film, comics, and the World Wide Web. Shot and sequence, focus, and perspective have moved from film editing to literary composition. Experimental 20th-century fiction is, at the same time, influenced by literary theory. Literary theory, arising in the 20th century, questioned vital factors that had been matters of agreement in 19th-century literary criticism: the author wrote the text, he was influenced by his period, by an intellectual climate the nation provided, and by his personality. The literary theorists argued that the literary criticism of the 19th century had not indeed seen the text. It had concentrated on the author, his/her period, the culture that surrounded him/her, his/her psyche – factors outside the text that had allegedly shaped it. The methods of analysis changed with each of these schools. All assumed that the text had its purpose, independent of all authorial intentions and period backgrounds.
The “stream of consciousness” replaced the authorial voice. The characters endowed with these new voices had no firm ground from which to narrate. Their audiences had to re-create what was purposefully broken. One of the aims was to represent the reality of thoughts, sensations, and conflicting perspectives. William Faulkner was mainly concerned with recreating real life.
Postmodern authors subverted the serious debate with playfulness. The new theorists claim that art could never be original. It always played with existing materials, that language recalled itself had been an accepted truth in the world of trivial literature. A postmodernist could reread trivial literature as the essential cultural production. The creative avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s “closed the gap” and widespread recycled knowledge, conspiracy theories, comics, and films to recombine these materials in what was to become the art of entirely new qualities.
Literary critics and theorists become the privileged first readers that the new texts need to unfold. James Joyce is said to have said this about the reception he designed for his Ulysses (1922): “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
While the postmodern movement has been criticized at times as theoretical if not escapist, it successfully unfolded itself in several films of the 1990s and 2000s: Pulp Fiction (1994), Memento (2000), and The Matrix (1999–2003) can be read as new textual constructs designed to prove that we are surrounded by virtual realities and by realities alone we construct out of circulating fragments, of images, concepts, a language of cultural materials the new filmmakers explore.
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