Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences

By Donald E. Polkinghorne | Go to book overview
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Literature and Narrative

THE previous chapter looked at narrative as it is used by historians to describe human activity and events of the past. This examination demonstrated that narrative provides a special form of discourse for understanding and explaining human actions, a discourse appropriate for the human sciences in their study of human experience and behavior. In the present chapter the focus will be on narrative as a mode of expression. Literary theorists have examined narrative primarily as it is manifested in spoken and written fictional stories. This chapter will investigate the structural components that produce narrative meaning and the functions of author and reader in the transfer of meaning through a message presented in narrative form. Although literary theorists approach narrative as a literary expression, their insights into narrative form and meaning can be applied by the human sciences in their investigations of human experience and understanding.

Interest in narrative on the part of literary theorists has increased considerably during the last two decades, to the point where it is the discipline currently most engaged in the study of narrative. 1 This study has moved through four phases (1) the acceptance of individual novels into the oeuvre worthy of study as literature, (2) the search, begun by Northrup Frye, for common themes in the content of stories, (3) the search by French structuralists for a common deep structure in narrative, and (4) the recent move to study narrative from the perspective of communication models.

The study of narrative by literary theorists has not led to the development of any single or unified theory; it is not a "progressive science" in which old theories are discarded when new ones are developed. Instead, it is a cumulative discipline where new theories are added to the older ones. Wallace Martin writes: "If recent theories are judged on the premise that only one of them can be true, they are likely to prove unsatisfactory. But if judged on the basis of the insights they can provide into particular narratives, their variety is an advantage." 2 In addition to the variety of theoretical approaches, a residue of terms and conceptual schemes derived from earlier traditions of study continues to carry currency in some parts of the discipline. 3

Until relatively recently the approach literary theorists have used to study narrative has been to focus on its various aspects—the story line, deep structures, the craftsmanship of the author, or the reader of the narrative. As late as 1978, Seymour Chatman noted in Story and Discourse that, "Libraries bulge with studies


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Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences


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