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Narrative 13.2 (2005) 195-204

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From Narrative Representation to Narrative Use:

Towards the Limits of Definition

"one will define narrative without difficulty as the representation of an event or sequence of events."
(Genette 127)
"A narration is the symbolic presentation of a sequence of events"
(Scholes 205)
"Narrative has been . . . defined as the representation of at least one event"
(Prince, "Revisiting Narrativity" 43)
"Narrative . . . may be defined as the representation of real or fictive events and situations in a time sequence."
(Prince, Narratology 1)
"narrative is the representation of at least two real or fictive events in a time sequence, neither of which presupposes or entails the other."
(Prince, Narratology 4)
"Any representation of non-contradictory events such that at least one occurs at a time t and another at a time t1 following time t constitutes a narrative (however trivial)."
(Prince, Narratology 145)
"What we get in a narrative text are not events as such, but signs, the representations of events."
(Onega and Landa 5) [End Page 195]
"narrative is a semiotic representation of a series of events."
(Onega and Landa 6)
"A story is a fabula that is presented in a certain manner. A fabula is a series of logically and chronologically related events"
(Bal 5)

Throughout the tradition of narratological scholarship, it has generally been the norm to define narrative along the lines of the above quotations. What these definitions have in common, at a basic level, is the view that what constitutes narrative is the representation of a series or sequence of events. There is, as Brian Richardson points out (169), a certain amount of variation within this representational view: some narratologists accept Genette's suggestion that a narrative needs only one event, whilst others insist on a series of events linked by causality. But on the whole, the term "representation" (or, occasionally, "presentation") is so widely used in defining narratives that this way of understanding narrative is arguably one of the few methodological constants of narratology.1 That the concept of representation should play such an important role in narratology's definition of its subject matter is unsurprising: narratology, so closely bound up with semiotics, is predicated on a view of language as signifiers (sjuzet) and signifieds (fabula), the former conveying a representation of the latter. To disagree with the narratologists therefore raises and begs a great many troublesome questions about the very nature of narrative, and perhaps even about communication itself. Surely, at least at an intuitive level, representing events is simply what narrative does.

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Figure One2
CALVIN AND HOBBES © 1986 Watterson. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. All rights reserved.

However, in the light of the above quotations, consider the two illustrations below: Figure One and Figure Two. They are, respectively, a comic strip from Bill Watterson's widely read Calvin and Hobbes series, and the assembly instructions from a plastic model aeroplane kit. What is striking about these two very different "texts" is the similarity of representational devices they use. Both use a sequence of illustrations to represent a series of events; both use frames to demarcate the different stages of the events depicted; and both sequences are clearly ordered chronologically, with early events leading up to, or in to, later ones. (It can even be seen that [End Page 196] each has a beginning, a middle, and an end). According to the quotations with which this paper began, then, both Figure One and Figure Two conform in more or less equal measure to the criteria for narrative set out by the narratologists, and both can therefore be defined, on these grounds, as narrative.

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Figure Two3

Figure One, it seems fairly clear, is indeed a narrative: it "tells" (if that is the right word for pictorial narratives) a brief but amusing story about a boy who takes a nasty tumble and covers it up by pretending to have executed a deliberate gymnastic maneuver of some kind. But what is the story represented in Figure Two? Certainly...