2.3. Semantic analysis


The unfolding of an action takes us from an initial situation to a final situation.  Any synchronic cut along this temporal unfolding would describe one of many intermediary situations.  A situation differs from the preceding one and from the next because some event has taken place.  We have, then, three basic concepts with which to start narrative analysis: action, situation, and event.  These are intuitively manageable concepts, but we can continue the analytical breakup until we achieve yet more basic units of analysis: semantic traits.  An action is a dynamic semantic complex, made up of minor semantic complexes which are defined statically: situations.  A situation can be defined as a static matrix of traits, and an event as the addition, suppression or change of at least one of the traits which characterise the situation.  A minimal action could be represented as a sequence of two propositions, in which the second proposition involves change in one of the semantic traits implied in the first one.

            But the definition of a situation as a system of semantic traits is too clumsy: it must be further specified.  If the situation is such a system, then it is articulated into several sub-systems.  Some of these are intuitively immediate to the reader as existents,  either  actors  or settings.  Both characters and settings can be described as matrixes of semantic traits whose composition evolves as the action develops. A situation could be described through a set of static statements, each attributing a trait to each of the actors or setting-features.  Any event could be metalinguistically represented through an active statement  which adds, substracts or substitutes a semantic trait.[1]    Reading narrative could be defined as the reader's construction of ordered semantic blocks, trait complexes which are virtually present through the unfolding of the action, and which are transformid through this unfolding. Each event, major or insignificant, involves a play, addition or substraction, of semantic traits.  Any text presupposes an orderly system of contents which are modified by the text.  In fictional narrative, these contents are largely established by the text itself, either before the transforming action takes place or simultaneously with it.  In some narratives we may therefore define a relatively stable initial situation, a dynamic transformation which is the core of the action itself, and another, final, static situation.  This is the pattern in many traditional narratives, where the beginning coincides with the exposition, the middle part with the conflict, and the end of the narrative with the closure of the action.

            Analysis must take into consideration the precise semantic traits which are involved in the action.  Several basic schemes may be distinguished in this respect. 

              An entirely new trait or set of traits may be introduced or suppressed.

              The action may be triggered by the appearance of a trait, and return to stability as the trait disappears.  Many narratives are centered around a lack, a need, which appears and must be finally overcome: poverty, injustice, solitude, etc.

              The traits which provide semantic mobility may be originally present in the semantic structure of the narrated world, but with a different distribution.  They may be distributed in different, oppositional semantic complexes, the action consisting in a transference of traits from one complex to the other. This case can also be conceived dialectically, as the synthesis of two oppositional principles.  This is what happens in novels like Scott'sWaverley  or Ivanhoe,  in which there are two different sets of characters standing for opposing values (tradition vs. the new order, Scotland vs. England, Saxons vs. Normans), the outcome of the action being a synthesis of both principles.  In these novels we may observe another common action device: the final synthesis is already prefigured in one of the characters (Waverley, Ivanhoe) who from the start stands midway between the two opposing semantic fields, partaking of both.

            Semantic complexes, whether actual existents or abstract complexes, enter into a network of relationships with other complexes and events, a network which defines their structural position within the narrative.           All semantic traits are not equally significant.  Analysis must aim at discovering which traits are fundamental and which are accessory, for instance in the definition of a character or a place.  Also, analysis must evaluate the different semantic relationships established between complexes, detemining the most important relationships and otherwise studying the structure they build. These relationships may be classified according to several principles:

  They may be either simultaneous  (due to the simultaneous virtual existence of characters or settings in the narrated world) or successive,  the result of the action temporal unfolding.

  They may be based on the common presence of a semantic trait.  For instance, a character may be associated with an element, fire or earth, through adjectives or images which establish a common semantic trait between the setting and the character in question.  The "pathetic fallacy" or humanisation of nature in descriptions, whereby a character's emotional state is projected on the landscape, is another instance of this particular semantic relationship.  Similarity is not the only possible kind of semantic relationship: there may be also be relations of opposition, or of qualitative or quantitative hierarchy between different complexes. 

            Each character, each place, is defined by a web of relationships and associations, which relate it to its associates, its contraries, its neighbours, etc.  And this web is not a static picture: it is more like a film, where each of the elements is in constant movement and transformation.  There are traits which are intrinsically more dynamic than others, although genre considerations are foremost here as elsewhere in narrative analysis.  In a realist novel, we may expect a character to change some of his/her attitudes or to enter into new relationships or social roles, but the basic physical features of the character will realistically remain the same, and the name of the character will not change arbitrarily.  Quite the contrary may happen in an experimental novel.  In any case, some traits will remain constant throughout the narrative, while others will suffer transformation.  Yet another consideration refers to the level of reception.  Though the action has its own definable structure, the process of reading, determined by story construction and surface narrative structures, builds up a series of action patterns as the reading unfolds; these may or may not be coincide with the provisional patterns of the unfolding of the action.  The reader gradually constructs characters and settings, and establishes tentative semantic structures and hierarchies of data which are in constant revision.  A trait which is central to one character may not become so until the reading process is well under way; a mystery may not be revealed until the last page of the book.  We shall return on these phenomena later: here it will suffice to say that the structure of the action is in tension with the structure of the narrative which transmits it, and that this tension we call the story.    The significance of all these semantic tensions and variations must be assessed by the analyst, taking into consideration the generic and historical considerations which seem relevant to the critical aim. 

            As narrative is concerned primarily with human action, settings will usually be subordinated to characters: they will be structured and read in their relationship to the characters.  We shall therefore give some guidelines for the semantic analysis of characters.[2]






[1]          See Greimas and Courtés 134, Chatman, Story and Discourse 31-41.

[2]          Good structuralist works on the subject are Hamon's "Pour un statut sémiologique du personnage" and Frankenberg's "Ein Beitrag zur Strukturalen Narrativik: Sprache - Märchen - Mythos."