2.2 Narrative events
Any narrative is made up of a series of events or incidents, arranged in a particular way. This can be defined as the plot of the story. Consider, as an example, Ernest Hemingway’s appropriately entitled ‘A Very Short Story’ (Hemingway, 1944, pp. 135–6). Different readers will summarise the story in different ways, allocating different levels of significance to various narrative events. If you can access a copy of the story, you might like to try and summarise it yourself and compare it with my summary in the box below. When preparing that summary, I had to think about the crucial narrative events and how they are arranged, so the box includes at least some of the key events. You or other readers might include others.
In reading any story we have to evaluate for ourselves which are the key moments. There are many events I have left out of my summary: the opening, in which the soldier is carried onto the roof to look out over the town; the couple praying in the Duomo; the fact that it was agreed that he would not drink or see his friends in America; the loneliness of Luz’s life in Pordenone. I have omitted these events or descriptions because it could be argued that they are not crucial to the main narrative incidents. In that case, why would the author have included them?
An unnamed soldier, hospitalised with an unspecified injury meets and falls in love with a nurse called Luz. They try to marry before he returns to the front but are unable to do so. Luz writes to the soldier frequently to declare her continuing love for him. After the armistice they decide that the soldier should return home to get a job and that Luz will then join him and they will marry. However, they quarrel before parting. After the soldier returns home Luz meets and falls in love with an Italian major who promises to marry her. She writes to the soldier to end their affair. He does not reply, and she does not marry the Italian major. The story ends with the soldier contracting a sexually transmitted disease from a casual fling.
If you have read the story, you may disagree with the choices I’ve made. Nevertheless, whether or not another reader agrees with my analysis of the main events in this narrative, I hope you can see that it is possible to differentiate between the major and minor incidents in any story. What we judge as major or minor affects our interpretation of the narrative. As Seymour Chatman has argued ‘narrative events have not only a logic of connection, but also a logic of hierarchy’ (1978, p. 53, Chatman's italics). Certain narrative incidents have a direct influence on the direction of events. They are crucial to the maintenance of narrative logic. Others can be deleted from the narrative without affecting the outcome. What did you decide was the purpose of such narrative moments? Chatman contends that such events perform the function of ‘filling in, elaborating […]; they form the flesh on the skeleton’ (p. 54). Narratives without such elements would be much less interesting to read, indeed, would give us little incentive to read on.
Narrative events are arranged in such a way as to encourage us to read on to find out what happens next.
Attached are the openings of three novels. Please read them now.
How do these three openings try to convince us to read on? Which of the three would you be most likely to want to read further and why? Take a few moments to think about your response to these questions.
Your own predilections will dictate which of the three extracts you found most compelling (if any). But I think you'll agree that all three take very different approaches to ‘hooking’ the reader's interest.
The first extract, from the start of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) begins with a somewhat mundane descriptive detail – ‘It was a bright cold day in April’ – which in itself is hardly likely to set our pulses racing, but is immediately followed by a disconcerting piece of information: ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’. What did you make of this? It's an attention-grabbing device, isn't it? Straightaway we are presented with something unfamiliar and disturbing or unrealistic, perhaps. This moment of defamiliarisation gives way to the introduction of a character with an ordinary, almost reassuring name. Winston Smith's appearance in the story at this early stage suggests that he is likely to be significant. The description of his first actions, struggling for shelter through a ‘vile wind’, trailing ‘a swirl of gritty dust’ in his wake, is a return to the kind of image we can identify as ‘realistic’. But that odd detail, clocks striking thirteen still lingers, maybe suggesting a futuristic element? Did it make you want to read on?
What about the second extract? How would you characterise the narrative voice? Unlike the neutral, distanced tone of Orwell's third-person narrative voice, there's something insistent and conversational about the first-person narrator of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981). Did you note also the perhaps parodying use of that familiar story-opener ‘once upon a time’ – undercut straightaway by the narrator's change of mind: ‘No, that won't do’. We are then given a very specific setting, not just Bombay – a city perhaps exotic and unfamiliar to many readers – but also the name of the Nursing Home and an actual date and time: midnight on August 15th, 1947. The narrator tells us that the time ‘matters, too.’ Is the implied significance of time and date enough to make you want to continue reading? You may or may not already realise the momentousness of that exact point in history, but in any event Rushdie soon reveals it. The narrative continues:
Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world.
The fact that the narrator was born at such a time surely suggests to us that the story he will tell is likely to have some cultural, historical and maybe even political significance. Depending on your own concerns and interests, even your own background, this could well be enough of a motivation to keep on reading.
The third extract, like the opening of Rushdie's novel, introduces us to what will be for many of us an unfamiliar setting, but perhaps also intrigues us in another way, with its deliberate vagueness about time – ‘Lifetimes ago’ – and the juxtaposition of unlikely symbols, a banyan tree and a satellite dish. The astrologer's prophecy about the protagonist's ‘widowhood and exile’ raises initial expectations about the likely direction of the narrative, in spite of the narrator's fervent denial. In fact, the novel, Jasmine (1989), by Bharati Mukherjee does chart the events the old man foretells here. The narrator, Jasmine Vijh, is widowed and flees India for America, changing her name and identity at various points in her odyssey across the United States.
You might well say that a few lines from the opening of a novel are insufficient to sway our judgement one way or another as to whether we want to engage with the story it has to tell us, and I think I'd agree, though novelists invariably do want to grab our attention as early as possible. In the next section I want to discuss three longer openings from famous novels, with attention not so much to what is being told as to who is doing the telling; the narrative perspective, or point of view.