You are on page 1of 4

C5

A SOCIOLINGUISTIC MODEL OF NARRATIVE


This unit makes some practical suggestions for exploring further the structure of narrative. It draws
upon one particular model of narrative: the framework of natural narrative developed by the
sociolinguist William Labov. Labovs concept of narrative structure, which has already featured in this
strand (A5), has proved a productive model of analysis in stylistics. After a brief sketch of the model,
some narrative texts will be introduced and some practical activities developed around them.
Labovs narrative model
The enduring appeal of Labovs model of natural narrative is largely because its origins are situated in
the everyday discourse practices of real speakers in real social contexts. Working from a corpus of
hundreds of stories told in the course of casual conversation by informants from many different
backgrounds, Labov isolates the core, recurrent features that underpin a fully formed natural narrative.
Six key categories are rendered down from this body of data (Labov 1972:35960). Each of these
categories serves to address a hypothetical question about narrative structure (What is this story
about?, Where did it take place? and so on) so each category fulfils a different function in a story.
Table C5.1 lists the six categories, the hypothetical questions they address and their respective
narrative functions. The table also provides information on the sort of linguistic forms that each
component typically takes. With the exception of Evaluation, the categories listed on the Table are
arranged

Table C5.1 Labovs model of natural narrative


Narrative Narrative Narrative function Linguistic form
category question
ABSTRACT What was this Signals that the story is A short summarising
about? about to begin and statement, provided before
draws attention from the narrative commences.
the listener.
ORIENTATION Who or what are Helps the listener to Characterised by past
involved in the identify the time, continuous verbs; and
story, and when place, persons, activity Adjuncts (see A3) of time,
and where did it and situation of the manner and place.
take place? story.
COMPLICATING Then what The core narrative Temporally ordered
ACTION happened? category providing the narrative clauses with a
what happened verb in the simple past or
element of the story. present
RESOLUTION What finally Recapitulates the final Expressed as the last of the
happened? key event of a story. narrative clauses that
began the Complicating
Action.
EVALUATION So what? Functions to make the Includes: intensifiers;
point of the story clear. modal verbs; negatives;
repetition; evaluative
commentary; embedded
speech; comparisons with
unrealised events.
CODA How does it all Signals that a story has Often a generalised
end? ended and brings statement which is
listener back to the timeless in feel.
point at which s/he
entered the narrative.
in the sequence in which they would occur in a typical oral narrative. Evaluation tends
to sit outside the central pattern because it can be inserted at virtually any stage during
a narrative. Evaluation is also the most fluid of the narrative categories stylistically: it
may take a variety of linguistic forms depending on what particular evaluative job it is
doing. However, the insertion of evaluative devices is generally very important as it
helps explain the relevance of the central, reportable events of a story. A fully formed
narrative will realise all six categories, although many narratives may lack one or
more components.

Putting the model to work: a natural narrative


Activity
Below you will find a transcription of a story recorded during linguistic fieldwork in Northern Ireland.
Although narrative analysis was not the primary aim of the fieldwork, the resulting interviews often
involved informants telling of amusing episodes that had happened to them. This story, which took
well under a minute to tell, is a fairly compact example of a natural narrative even if the storyteller
has a somewhat sniffy attitude to the events described. In the transcription, pauses are indicated by
three dots while other relevant glosses are placed in square brackets. Beside each chunk of the story are
five boxes, corresponding to five of Labovs categories. Evaluation has not been included because, as
noted above, this component tends to permeate the other categories and can occur throughout a
narrative. Read the story through now and identify which category is which by writing (if this is your
book) the name of the component in the box to the right of the relevant piece of text:

Now go through the story again, this time underlining the Evaluation devices the
narrator uses. How much variety is there in the linguistic forms that are used for
narrative Evaluation? And what would be lost from this story if Evaluation was not
there?
Stylistics and natural narrative
Stylisticians have made much of the Labovian model, not least because it enables
rigorous comparisons to be drawn between literary narrative on the one hand and the
social stories told in everyday interaction on the other. However, the models simple
six-part structure tends to make it best suited to literary narratives that are (literally)
short, which is why stylistic applications have tended to concentrate either on
narrative texts of only a hundred words or so (eg. Simpson 1992a) or on narra-tives
within narratives such as the sorts of stories told by individual characters within a
longer novel or play (eg. Toolan 2001:1509). Although the general application of the
Labovian model to a full-length novel is theoretically viable (see Pratt 1977:3878),
the replication of its six basic components, sometimes over many hundreds of pages
of text, means that the results of a direct analysis can be less than exhilarating.
However, the seeking out of shorter literary texts for natural narrative analysis is, it
has to be said, rather like the drunk man who loses his keys on the way home one
evening and who, on retracing his steps, looks for them only under lamplight. So with
a theoretical disclaimer duly delivered, what follows is a practical narrative exercise
based around a short narrative within a narrative.

Activity
The passage below is from Eugene Ionescos absurdist play The Bald Prima Donna, a
play which satirises, after a fashion, its authors perception of the social and
intellectual sterility of the English middle classes (see Burton 1980:24). In this
episode, two couples, Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr and Mrs Martin, engage in a bizarre
story telling round in which Mrs Martin is encouraged to recount a narrative of
personal experience about something interesting that befell her. Read the passage
through, concentrating particularly on the story told, across several speaker turns, by
Mrs Martin:
MR MARTIN: [to his wife] Tell them, darling, what you saw today.
MRS MARTIN: Oh no, I couldnt. Theyd never believe me.
MR SMITH:You dont think wed doubt your word! [. . .]
MRS MARTIN: [graciously] Well, then! Today I witnessed the most extraordinary
incident. It was absolutely incredible [] As I was going to the market to buy some
vegetables, which are still going up and up in price
MRS SMITH:Yes, where on earths it going to end!
MR SMITH: You mustnt interrupt, my dear. Naughty girl!
MRS MARTIN: In the street, outside a restaurant, was a gentleman, respectably
dressed and about fifty years old, perhaps less, who was Well, I know youll say
that Im making it up: he was kneeling on the ground and leaning forward.
MR MARTIN:
MRS SMITH: Oh!
MR SMITH:

MRS MARTIN: Yes! Leaning forward!


MR MARTIN: It cant be true!
MRS SMITH:
MR SMITH:
MRS MARTIN: Yes! Leaning forward he was! I went right up to him to see what he
was doing
MR MARTIN: What ? What?
MRS SMITH:
MR SMITH:
MRS MARTIN: His shoelaces had come undone and he was tying them up!
MR MARTIN: Fantastic!
MRS SMITH:
MR SMITH:
MR SMITH: If Id heard that from anyone else, Id never have believed it.
(Ionesco 1963 [1958]: 989)

Activity
Now work through the following tasks which relate to the delivery, content and
reception of Mrs Martins shoelaces story.
What elements of the six-part Labovian model can you identify in Mrs Martins
story?
Labov notes that it is understood among interactants that a narrative of personal
experience must have a central reportable event. What is the central reportable
event of Mrs Martins story?
To what extent does the category of Evaluation feature in Mrs Martins story? In
other words, what tactics does she use to ward off the so what question? How
many (and what sort of) Evaluation devices can you identify?
With reference to the reaction her story draws from her interlocutors, is Mrs
Martins story successful within the interactive world of the play? That is, does it
work at the diegetic (see A7) level?
Going on your own reactions to it, to what extent is Mrs Martins story successful
outside the world of the play? In other words, does it work at the extradiegetic
level?
Following from the previous point, would you expect an audience (or readers of the
play) to react in the same way as Mrs Martins co-conversationalists to the story?
How have the requirements for successful story-telling in the real world been
transformed in the world of the absurd? Accepting that you may not have found it
especially funny, can this piece of dialogues potential for humour be explained by
reference to this transformation?
Ionescos professed aim in this play is to break down the clich-ridden and formulaic social
language that typifies polite bourgeois society (Ionesco 1964). How successful is this sort of dialogue
in accomplishing this aim?
Drama dialogue is explored in depth across thread 9, where a range of stylistic issues
and interests are covered. In the next three units the attention shifts away from the
more structural aspects of narrative to consider models for the analysis of narrative as discourse.
Transitivity is the first of those models.