1.6.  Hermeneutic analysis



Mieke Bal proposes an framework of three levels of "vertical" or hermeneutic analysis of the narrative text: as text, as story, and as fabula.  In the case of Robinson Crusoe, the text is the linguistic artifact that we can buy and read, written de facto  by Defoe and supposedly by Robinson; the fabula, which we may also call the action, is whatever happened to Robinson in his travels and his island.  The story is the precise way in which that action is conveyed, the way the fabula is arranged into a specific cognitive structure of information.  In Bal's terms,

A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates a narrative.  A story  is a fabula that is presented in a certain manner.  A fabula  series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors.   (Narratology  5)

In this quotation, each term is defined in a neat analytical way in terms of the next, until we reach the atomic concepts of the theory, which are "to cause", "to experience", "state", "transition", "actor" etc.,  of which more later on.  Apparently, the definition of narrative text should be "a text in which an agent relates a story," in order to preserve the neatness of the conceptual chain.  In an earlier (and theoretically subtler) account of her theory, Bal had defined these concepts as follows:

1.  A  text is a finite and structured set of linguistic signs.

1.1.  A  narrative  text is a text in which an agent relates   a story  . . . .

2.  A story  is the signified of a narrative text.  A story  signifies in its turn a fabula.[1]

We may represent these levels of signification by means of the following diagram[2]:



Context  (including literary and other social codes, discursive practices, modes and instruments of contact)




This diagram merely specifies in the direction of narratological analysis some of the elements in Jakobson's communicative scheme shown above.  The fabula is, according to Bal, a bare scheme of the narrative happenings without taking into account any specific traits which individualize actors or actions into characters and happenings.  In the description of the fabula or action we should also neglect any temporal or perspectival distortions: there are no flashbacks or variations in point of view at this level of analysis.  It is obvious that Bal's conception of the fabula is actually action-scheme: it is an abstraction, not the concrete, full-blown action that we construct when reading or watching a narrative.  It is confusing that this second concept of fabula, the fabula as concrete action, is used by other theorists.  Of course we shall preserve both concepts, since both are analytically significant: we shall oppose the full-blown action to a more abstract and reduced fabula or action scheme.  So a modified diagram would picture the vertical levels of analysis in the following way:






Action Action-scheme (fabula  in Bal)


Of course, we could also provide a scheme of story structures; in the case of the verbal text, the word summary  would seem to be more appropriate to name the equivalent, "reduced" version.  Action-schemes, story-schemes and summaries are continuously being used  as critical tools:


Text                 Summary


Story               Story-scheme (plot)


Action Action-scheme (fabula)


The term "plot" as used in everyday language often designates a  story-scheme or an action-scheme, or a structure in between, mixing traits of both.  Here we shall use the term to refer to a story-scheme which consists of the main macrostructures of action and perception making up the story.   Anyway, "plot" is a tricky word because of its rich meaning, and later we shall have to dissect other phenomena implicit in the everyday use of the word "plot."  

            Let us further specify the concept of story.   A story is a fabula which has been given a presentational shape: a specific point of view and temporal scheme have been introduced.  We could say that a story is an action as it is presented in a text ‹not the fabula as such, therefore. The text is not the story, either: "story" is still an abstraction we effect on the text, taking into account only its narrative aspects, considering the text only insofar as it represents an action.  We may remember that for Aristotle mythos   was merely one of several "aspects" of a literary work.  A text is a piece of language, while a story is a cognitive structure of happenings.  The same story can give rise to a number of texts: for instance, when Kafka wrote The Castle  in the first person and then rewrote it in the third person, the story remained the same, but the text became a different one.   The same story could in principle be told by means of different texts: a film, a comic book or a novel. 

            The story, then, can be looked on as a further structuration of the action.  It can be defined as the result of a series of modifications to which the action is subjected.  These modifications can be relative to time or to informational selection and distribution (mode).  We shall deal with them in section 3.  In section 2 we shall study those structures which occur at action level.

            As often happens with the basic concepts of literary criticism, the basic notion of hermeneutic analysis of a text through a series of levels of abstraction can be traced back to Aristotle's Poetics.   Aristotle is concerned most of all with the structure, the organization of the literary text, not so much with the reactions of the audience to the text or with the creative inspiration of the author.  Concentrating on tragedy as the epitome of a poetical work, Aristotle considers it as a compound formed of six elements: "Every tragedy . . . must have six parts, which parts determine its qualityænamely, story, character, diction, thought, spectacle, song" (51, VI.7). (We translate here mythos  as "story").  A tragedy is not all  story: we might as well say that it is all spectacle or all character.  Therefore, considering the story in a tragedy is considering only a possible aspect of the tragedy.  The difference between "story" and "tragedy" is therefore a difference in level of analysis.  Aristotle defines story as follows: "story is the imitation of the actionæfor by story I here mean the arrangement of the incidents" (51, VI.6); "the structure of the incidents" (52, VI.8).  The story is the tragedy considered insofar as it is the imitation of an action, the tragedy insofar as it consists in a series of incidents. 


            So far we have two levels of analysis: on one hand, the whole thing, the tragedy; on the other, the various aspects under which it can be examined.  From a narratological point of view this amounts to a difference between the story and the text:


1st level:                      tragedy (narrative text)


2nd level                     mythos   (story)


But let us look closer at the Aristotelian definition of mythos  or story, "the imitation of an action."  Tragedy as a whole (the narrative text) is also described by Aristotle as "the imitation of an action" (51, VI.5).  Aristotle seems to mean that a tragedy is the imitation of an action insofar as it tells a story.  Be as it may, it is clear that the dynamic element at the bottom of the narrative, the source of narrative movement is action, and it is different from story.  The story is not the action itself, it is only the representation, the "imitation" of an action.  We are here close to Bal's model of three levels of analysis:


1st level:                      tragedy (narrative text)


2nd level:                    mythos  (story, plot)


3rd level:                     action (or fabula)


Aristotle says that the story is a part   of the tragedy,  while he does not say that action is a part of the story.  The relationship between the action and the story is not one of part to whole, but one of imitation  (mimesis):  the story is the imitation of an action. 


            But this imitation is not natural in any simple way: it is a construction, something which has to be carefully crafted by the poet.  Two opposite perspectives, literature-as-reality and literature-as-construction can thus be traced back to Aristotle's Poetics.  Some ages have stressed the first, others the second.  Now we seem to be in an age in which careful construction is more appreciated than the aim to represent reality in a faithful way.  Nowadays we do not believe in faithful representations of things as they are: when we watch a documentary on mountain climbing, we tend to ask "where is the camera? how did they get to film this?"  Our contemporary culture, which has invented the discipline of semiotics, is interested in the structure of representation, and will not be content if it is given merely the represented object.  It is perhaps because of this that narratology has developed more during our century than for ages before.  Contemporary critics see narrative as a rhetorical construct whose strategies can be uncovered and examined.  But we should remember that these theories are themselves perspectives on reality, interpretations.  And it is the fate of all interpretations to be interpreted again.  


            Story is the approximate equivalent of Aristotle's mythos  (1450a).[3] It is the action as it is presented through the narrative discourse.  In order to make this presentation possible, the action is submitted to the processes of selection  and combination.  The action was four-dimensional and massive: a story is two-dimensional and linear. The difference between action and story can be conceived of as a reduction effected through several devices, sucha as:

Anachronies, or chronological alterations (Genette 1972), which can but need not be motivated by other structural levels (narrative voice, point of view, action).

Perspective, the introduction of a specific point of view, which amounts to a filtering of the story through a focus or focalizer.[4] The focalizer is in principle a conceptual entity, a role which in practice is assumed by a character or by the narrator (a narrator-focalizer).  The focal character can also be called a reflector.[5]  Insomuch as the reader is the receiver of the narrative, he shares the focalizer's perspective and performs the role of a spectator . 

            A story, like a narrated action, is an abstract entity, a theoretical construct.  The same action and the same story can be embodied in different semiotic representations (e.g., a film, a novel).  Therefore, a story is no more linguistic than an action. It too has a schematic nature.  However,  a story can also be signified by means of a reduced version, a story scheme  (the plot, for instance),  and this can be formulated linguistically in a text (which is not the story, but the verbal version of the story scheme).  Story schemes have the same relationship to conceptual schemata that we have commented on the subject of action schemes.

            Discourse  is the use of language for communicative purposes in specific contextual and generic situations, called discourse situations.  These can be described at different levels of specificity: written discourse may be called a discourse situation, but so can written fictional   discourse.  Further specification would be possible taking into account historical or generic considerations.  Of the infinite discourse situations which could be defined in this way, we shall focus on a few: the writing of narrative discourse which is intended to be read as literature, the "naive" reading of the same, and the critical (mainly academic) discourse on literature.

            Discourse involves the use of language (speech), the linguistic utterance of a sender. In the case of literary narrative, the sender is the author ; when we interpret a critical text, the sender is the critic ).  The sender's utterance requires the interpretation of a receiver (a reader  or another critic).   The product of a linguistic utterance is a text, not a sum of isolated sentences.  The text cannot be reduced to its linguistic codification.  There are many cultural codes, apart from the Saussurean langue , structuring the text.  The author uses a multiplicity of codes in giving shape to the text (with various degrees of deliberateness or consciousness).   Many of these must be recognized and used by the receiver in interpreting the text, if his interpretation is to be sharable and acceptable to other receivers.  Again, this retrieval of the author's meaning can happen at various degrees of awareness.  Presumably, there are many codes organizing the meaning of texts which have not yet been identified by theorists, although readers can be conceived to use them intuitively.  Not all the codes used by the author need to be identified or retrieved, not even in this intuitive way.  A reasonable portion of the meaning of the text is usually enough for the purposes of most readers and critics.  The reader or critic may, moreover, interpret the text according to codes which were not used by the author, and create in this way new meanings.  The legitimacy of these meanings is defined in a specific discourse situation‹it cannot be determined a priori . 

            The identity of the literary text is not established by defining it in terms of all the codes which constitute it.  The text is defined linguistically, even if its interpretation is not merely linguistic.  A novel is in principle the sum of such and such words,  printed in such and such order.  The text as a linguistic construct is eminently sharable: this sharability is presupposed to a great extent even by critics who disagree as to the meaning or the significance of the text. 

            The literary text is conventionally designed as an autonomous entity.  To interpret it we do not require a knowledge of the precise context  in which it was written, because its generic conventions (the rules of the discourse situation or language game of which the text is an instance) demand that it be interpreted in its immanent context.  The work defines its own context.  Of course, this is only a way of speaking: we  define the context of the work, but we do it to a great extent by relying on our knowledge of discursive conventions and the cultural assumptions we share with the author.  "Immanent" cannot mean anything other than "extrinsic according to certain rules"; the point is that not just any kind of extrinsic assumption will count as playing the game that the text proposes.

            The intrinsic context of the work is a communicative context.  It can be conceived as a virtual communicative situation, in which a textual author  communicates with a textual reader.  The concepts of "textual author" and "textual reader" derive from Russian and German formalism,[6] and more directly from Walker Gibson's "mock reader" (1950) and Wayne Booth's "implied author" and "mock reader" (1961, 75, 138).  Gibson and Booth do not make sufficiently clear the difference between the textual author / reader and the narrator / narratee. Genette (1972, 265) develops the latter pair but ignores the former.  I prefer the term "textual" because in many cases the authorial voice is also in most respects the explicit narrative voice, and cannot said to be "implied."  I shall use either term whenever they are convenient. 

         The difference between the author and the textual author has the advantage, in view of the concerns of this study, of being shared both by intentionalist and anti-intentionalist critics. Hirsch notes that the speaking subject in a literary work is not author; like Booth, Hirsch defines the textual author as a small part of the author (1967, 242).  Wimsatt, too, observes that relationship between the author and his persona is a complex one, and not a simple matter of identity or difference (Wimsatt 1976, 122).

            Both the textual author and the textual reader are constructed by the actual reader, who relies on his schemata of literary genres and discursive activities in general.  From the perspective of the author, we get the mirror-image of the interpretive act.  The author projects a virtual image of his attitudes (the textual author) and defines likewise a virtual receiver, the textual reader, in view of the actual audience he presumes for his work.  The textual reader need not coincide with the author's conception of his audience: he may be a rhetorical strategy, a role which he wishes his audience to assume (or even to reject).  Needless to say, the reader's textual author and the author's textual author need not coincide any more than the meaning of the work for author and reader.  But if communication is to occur this figure must be shared in some measure.

            The levels of analysis just mentioned can be conceived as a series of semiotic strata, in which each level is the result of the application of a set of transformational rules to the previous level.  The degree of sharability of a natural language allows us to consider the text as a given, and to construct therefrom the other sub-levels of discourse analysis, as well as the narrative.  In its turn, the action is constructed on the basis of the narrative, by "undoing" the transformations which gave rise to the latter. 

            This "giving rise" is a purely heuristic construct, which does not need any real counterpart in the actual composition of the narrative‹an indication of the degree in which fictional narrative is a second-degree discourse activity, whose understanding presupposes the understanding of more primitive, or literal discourse situations from which it derives.  In the early classifications of speech acts there is no place for fictional narrative.  This is not surprising, since these classifications were not really concerned with actual speech acts, but with idealized or normative speech act types.  That is why Austin or Searle could afford to posit a sentence-grammar as the basis of their studies of speech activity.  The study of the real use of speech acts, however, will necessitate a textual grammar, and will yield somewhat less clear-cut results.  Writing a novel is surely some kind of speech act, but its specificity has to be captured by a theory of discourse which takes into account the real circumstances and contexts in which novels are written.  Writing a novel, or writing fiction, is not a "statement," though it is a derived act of a kind which has statements as its remote ancestor in a structuralist / genetic conception of speech activity.  For practical purposes of analysis, writing a novel is that kind of speech act called "writing a novel": linguistics at this point shades off into the literary theory of genres. Between the linguistic speech act called "statement" and the literary speech act "novel-writing" there could be distinguished several conceptual steps: two of them are the fictional statement  as a derived statement and the narrative act  as an extended statement. 

            The complexity of this structure can be exploited for the aims of literature.  A variety of displacements are possible.  The subject required by the narrative act, the narrator, need not coincide with the subject of the fictional statement, the textual author.  The narrator may be an entirely fictional figure, as in most first-person novels, or he may coincide formally though not ideologically with the textual author‹an unreliable third-person narrator.  Infinite combinations are possible, and the differences between the different textual subjects may be clear-cut or extremely shady.  This is to be expected, since the textual author, like the narrator, is not a substance but a discursive role.  Through the use of irony, a textual author creates a provisional, evanescent enunciator which does not coincide with him.  More sustained irony will produce something like a hypothetical character, and by pushing this a bit further we shall create a fictional narrator, who can then speak in the first or in the third person.[7]   The narrator's utterance is addressed at a hearer located on the same structural level: the narratee.[8]  Just like the kinds of fictional narrators merge  gradually into the pole of the textual author, the varieties of narratees shade into  the area of the textual reader.  This means that in some tales the differences between the narratee and the implied reader are crucial and clear-cut, while in others they are above all of methodological interest.

            So far we have identified a variety of textual figures, roles or subject-positions.  They each perform an activity which has a direct object (if it is transitive) and an addressee[9]  (Figure 1):



Subject                      Activity (Verb)       Direct object           Addressee (Indirect object)


Author                       Writing   Lit. work.                 Reader


Textual    Literary

author                        enunciation             Lit. text  Textual reader


Narrator  Narration                  Narrative                  Narratee


Focaliser                  Focalisation            Focalised                 Implied spectator



Agent                        Action                       Narr. world              (Agent)


            We can also represent the structure of fictional narrative diagrammatically (figure 2).


Figure 2

author's context


                        Literary text

                                               Textual author






                                               Agents, action and world






                                               Textual reader




Reader's context


            The non-coincidence of the author's and the reader's context should remind us that this diagram does not represent the process of interpretation as experienced from the reader's position, but rather a bird's eye view of the structure of narrative communication.  The reader has access only to  the  bottom  part of the external squares‹those that  fall  within  his own context. In the upper half of the diagram, the greatest sharability occurs not in the "surface" or the most external box (which would be that part of the author's context which is irrelevant to the reader) but at the level of the text as a linguistic construct.  Construction, therefore, takes place in two different directions.  The narrative text, at its utmost givenness, occupies somewhat of a middle place in the overall structure of narrative communication.   From this surface level we must construct two kinds of deep structures: the discursive deep structures (the fictional speech situation, the textual senders and receivers)  and the narrative deep structures (the narrative and the story).  An interpreter will usually end by constructing some kind of literary statement or interpretation, the meaning or significance of the story.  

            Figure 3 represents in a schematical way this process of construction:


                                                                                                                                  Figure 3



The vertical and slanting double arrows indicate that the process of interpretation is not linear, it does not go neatly from one level of the textual structure to the next.  Instead, there is a constant feedback between the interpretation of the action, of the narrative structure and of the textual subjects.  That is why, in interpreting narrative, differences in construction of the implied authorial attitude often result in different constructions of the action.  I have not used double arrows in the first step of the process to emphasize that the first substantial contact of the text is a linguistic one, but it is clear that the verbal meaning of the text itself may be subject to revision once the construction of the deeper levels is under way.  Nothing in the work is fully given from the start: everything is subject to revision and interpretation.









[1]          1.  Un texte est un ensemble fini et structuré de signes linguistiques.  1.1.  Un texte narratif  est un texte dans lequel une instance raconte  un récit . . . .   2.  Un récit  est le signifié d'un texte narratif.  Un récit  signifie à son tour une histoire.  (Mieke Bal, Narratologie  4.  Translation mine)

[2]          A simplified version of the one in Narratologie  33.

[3]          And of other similar distinctions, such as Bal's récit   (1977, 31ff.) and of Emil Volek's version of the Russian Formalists' siuzhet  (1985, 150ff.).

[4]          Bal 1977, 31ff.

[5]          Henry James's term (1986, 354).

[6]          See, f.i., Eichenbaum 1965, 228; Kayser 1977, 72.

[7]          The utterance of the narrator is not the narrative which we have previously defined as a non-linguistic entity, but the narration or narrative text.  Non-technical language is fundamentally ambiguous here, so that it requires a theoretical effort to distinguish narrative (noun) and narrative (adjective) text--that is, a text which, among other characteristics, conveys a narrative.

[8]          On the figure of the narratee, see Genette 1972, 265; 1983, 90; Prince, 1973; 1982, 18ff.

[9]          Cf. Bal's more limited scheme (1977, 32).