Notes on Narratology

In this handout, you will find excerpts and key terms.

Roland Barthes, “Structural Analysis of Narratives” in Image / Music / Text
A. J. Greimas, J. Courtes, Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary
Gerard Genette, Narrative Discourse



As we know, [the discipline of linguistics] stops [its analysis] at the sentence, the last unit which it considers to fall within its scope. If the sentence, being an order and not a series, cannot be reduced to the sum of the words w hich compose it and constitutes thereby a specific unit, a piece of discourse, on the contrary, is [according to linguists] no more than the succession of the sentences composing it. . . .

And yet it is evident that discourse itself (as a set of sentences) is organized and that, through this organization, it can be seen as the message of another language, one operating at a higher level than the language of the linguists. Discourse has its units, its rules, its 'grammar'. . . . A discourse is a long 'sentence' (the units of which are not necessarily sentences), just as a sentence, allowing for certain specifications, is a short 'discourse'. . . . Structurally, narrative shares the characteristics of the sentence without ever being reducible to the simple sum of its sentences: a narrative is a long sentence, just as every constative sentence is in a way the rough outline of a short narrative.

Aside -- According to Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, a story has the following elements:

  1. Participants
  2. Settings
  3. Scenes
  4. Stages (Preconditions, Beginning, Middle, End)

Barthes says even constative statements, statements of fact, contain stories. Can you find those story parts in this constative statement / statement of fact?

In 1969, Neil Armstrong made history by becoming the first man to walk on the moon, uttering the immortal phrase, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Is everything in a narrative functional? Does everything, down to the slightest detail, have a meaning? Can narrative be divided up entirely into functional units? [Yes.] [I]n the realm of discourse, what is noted is by definition notable. Even were a detail to appear irretrievable insignficant, resistant to all functionality, it would nonetheless end up with precisely the meaning of absurdity or uselessness: everything has a meaning, or nothing has. To put it another way, one could say that art is without noise (as that term is employed in information theory): art is a system which is pure, no unit ever goes wasted . . . .

[We will analyze] the functional nature of the segments under consideration [by] recogniz[ing] in advance that they will not necessarily coincide with the forms into which we traditionally cast the various parts of narrative discouse (actions, scenes, paragraphs, dialogues, interior monologues, etc.) still less with 'psychological' divisions (modes of behavior, feelings, intentions, motivations, rationalizations of characters). . . . When we are told in Goldfinger that -- the telephone ringing during night duty at Secret Service headquarters -- Bond picked up one of the four receivers, the word four in itself constitutes a functional unit, referring as it does to a concept necessary to the story (that of a highly developed bureaucratic technology). . . . The term 'functions' will be reserved for [units that have correlates:] the purchase of a revolver has for correlate the moment when it will be used (and if not used, the notation is reversed into a sign of indecision; picking up the telephone has for correlated the moment when it will be put down . . . .

[While everything in a narrative is functional, it is useful to separate functions from] 'indices,' the unit . . . referring . . . not to a consequential act but to a more or less diffuse concept which is nevertheless necessary to the meaning of the story: psychological indices concerning the characters, data regarding their identity, notations of 'atmosphere,' and so on . . . . : the power of the administrative machine behind Bond, indexed by the number of telephones, has no bearing on the sequence of actions in which Bond is involved by answering the call . . . .

Some narratives are highly functional (such as folktales), while others on the contrary are heavily indicial (such as 'psychological' novels) . . . . Returning to the class of functions, its units are not all of the same 'importance': some consitute real hinge-points of the narrative (or of a fragment of narrative); others merely 'fill in' the narrative space spearating the hinge functions. Let us call the former cardinal functions (or nuclei) and the latter . . . catalysers. For a function to be cardinal, it is enough that the action to which it refers open (or continue, or close) an alternative that is of direct consequence for the subsequent development of the story, in short that it inaugurate or conclude an uncertainty. If, in a fragment of narrative, the telephone rings, it is equally possible to answer or not answer, two acts which will unfailingly carry the narrative along different paths. Between two cardinal functions however, it is always possible to set out subsidiary notations which cluster around one or other nucleus withouth modifying its alternative nature: the space separating the telephone rang from Bond answered can be saturated with a host of trivial incidents or descriptions -- Bond moved towards the desk, picked up one of the receivers, put down his cigarette, etc. These catalysers are still functional, insofar as they enter into correlation with a nucleus, but their functionality is attenuated . . . Catalysers are only consecutive units, cardinal functions are both consecutive and consequential. Everything suggests, indeed, that the mainspring of narrative is precisely the confusion of consecution and consequence, what comes after being read in narrative as what is caused by; in which case narrative would be a systematic application of the logical fallacy . . . post hoc, ergo propter hoc ['after this, therefore, because of this'] -- a good motto for Destiny, of which narrative all things considered is no more than the 'language.'

[C]ardinal functions are the risky moments of a narrative. Between these points of alternative, these 'dispatchers,' the catalysers lay out areas of safety, rests, luxuries. Luxuries which are not, however, useless . . . . A nucleus cannot be dleted without altering the story, but neither can a catalyst without altering the [narrative] discourse.

As for the other main class of units, . . . .[a] distinction can be made between indices proper, referring to the character of a narrative agent, a feeling, an atmosphere (for example suspicion) or a philosophy, and informants, serving to identify, to locate in ttime and space. Informants . . . are pure data.

Nuclei and catalysers, indices and informants . . . , these are the initial classes into which the functional level units can be divided. This classification must be completed by two remarks. First, a unit can at the same time belong to two different classes: to drink a whisky (in an airport lounge) is an action which can act as a catalyser to the (cardinal) notation of waiting, but it s also, and simultaneously, the indice of a certain atmosphere (modernity, relaxation, reminiscence, etc.). In other words, certain units can be mixed, giving a play of possibilities in the narrative economy. In the novel Goldfinger, Bond, having to search hs adversary's bedroom, is given a master-key by his associate: the notation is a pure (cardinal) function. In the film, this detail is altered and Bond laughingly takes a set of keys from a willing chamber-maid: the notation is no longer simply functional but also indicial, referring to Bond's character (his easy charm and success with women). . . .

Key Terms


Barthes defines discourse (82-83) as "a set of sentences."  A discourse is a stream of sentences; a piece of discourse is something is a unit of some kind -- anything ranging from a newspaper article to all 100 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica and even on up to the whole discipline of English literature (that could count as a discourse, comprised of all the articles and books listed in  MLA).

Later in his essay, Barthes distinguishes discourse from story (95). In this sense,

"discourse" = the way in which the narrated (or for Barthes, the story) is presented Greimas 79).  In this sense the discourse (also one could call it the “narrative discourse” is similar to, in Genette’s definition --


narrative refer[s] to the narrative statement, the oral or written discourse that undertakes to tell of an event or series of events . . . .” In contrast, the story is “the succession of events, real or fictitious, that are the subjects of this discourse” (Genette 25). narrative [is] the signifier, statement, discourse or narrative text itself”; “story [is] the signified narrative content”; “narrating [is] the producing narrative action; the event that consists of someone recounting something” (Genette 26-27).


functions = operations (93) – i.e., what happens.

Barthes follows V. Propp in defining “the function as ‘an act of character, defined from the point of view of the significance for the course of the action,’ Morphology of the Folktale, Austin and London 1968, p. 21” (Barthes p. 89, n. 1).

There are two types of functions:

functional sequences are made up of nuclei or functions –

Hand held out, hand shaken, hand released is a sequence called “greeting”; approach, interpellation [calling someone by a name], greeting, installation [?] constitutes a sequence called “meeting”; surveillance, capture, and punishment constitutes a functional sequence called “aid” (Barthes 103).

functions are to be distinguished from Indices and Informants:

"In his concept of narrative, R. Barthes has proposed an opposition of index and informant. While the informant is a ‘realistic operator,’ which serves to authentify the referent's reality (for example, the exact age of a person), the index is constituted by a set of notations (for example, the notations relative to a personality type, to a sentiment) which, rather than being immediately signifying data (as in the case of the informant), have only ‘implicit signifieds.’ Thus, for example, the description of a landscape, of an object, is sometimes used to inform us indirectly concerning the psychology or the destiny of a character” (Greimas 154). 

Informants are the factual pieces of information that might be presented in a narrative.  They are cut-and-dried statements about things that are fact.  These are things that help the reader relate to the narrative because informants make the narrative feel realistic to the audience.  What Barthes is saying is that it's the informants that allow us to read fiction and feel as though what we are reading is real on some level: they “serv[e] to identify [a character,] to locate [him or her] in time and space” (Barthes 96).

Indices, on the other hand, as mentioned before, are what create a mood, without directly describing a feeling.  It is a sort of indirect gesture in narration.  The first thing that came to mind when I read this is that foreshadowing falls under indices.  A mood is created indirectly that hints at what will happen next, but there is no outright, factual declaration of anything.

Functions versus Indices:

Functions describe actions. Indices refer “to the character of a narrative agent” – e.g., to the personality of a character in a story – “a feeling, an atmosphere” (Barthes 96). They are about mood, ambiance, psychology.

= Functions correspond to “a functionality of doing,” indices correspond to “a functionality of being” (Barthes 93).

“Some narratives are heavily functional (such as folktales), while others on the contrary are heavily indicial (such as ‘psychological novels’)” (Barthes 93).

Try out your knowledge of these terms

BACK to Narrative as Technology