Monday, October 1, 2012

Crash Course in Narratology, With a Summary of Kōda Rohan’s “Encounter With Skull” (1890)

This just in from Swarthyface:
Last week I said that you should always provide a brief summary of the story when writing a critical essay. But before you can do this, you will first need to know how to distinguish between what’s essential to a story and what’s not, i.e. between constitutive events and supplementary events.
 Before we begin our activity, let’s review some of the important narratological terms, starting with narrative. What’s a narrative? Well, a narrative is a linguistic representation of an event or a series of events. And narratives can be divided into three components.
 1. Component 1: The Story/Fabula 
The first component of narrative is the story. The story is also occasionally called the fabula, the word used by the Russian Formalists who first theorized on the differences between story and narrative. The story/fabula can be defined as the events or actions of a narrative. The story/fabula is made up of all the things that happen within the storyworld (also occasionally called the narrative world).
 The story/fabula can be further divided into three parts: events, entities, and setting.
The events are all the things that happen in the story. There are two kinds of events: constitutive and supplementary.  Constitutive events are actions or events things that absolutely must be there for the story to be itself. In other words, the constitutive events are what define a particular story. Supplementary events are all other non-essential events and actions in the story. When writing a plot summary at the beginning of an essay, you should include only the constitutive events of the story.   
Entities, also called existents, are the characters that appear in the story. Entities may be human, animal, or even inanimate objects or abstract ideas. If invested with enough descriptive character traits, a river or city can be considered an entity. (Example: Nagai Kafu’s Sumidagawa, where the Sumida River is described and behaves in quasi-human terms.)
 The setting is, of course, where the story takes place. It hosts or contains all of the events and entities of the narrative. It is also occasionally referred to as the storyworld or narrative world. 
Component 2: The Narrative Discourse/Sjuzet 
The second component of narrative is the narrative discourse. This is also referred to as sjuzet (the Russian Formalists’ term), plot, or mythos. The narrative discourse can be defined as the actions or events represented linguistically. In other words, it is what the story appears as after it has been rendered into language. Some theorists divide narrative discourse into two groups: style and plot/sjuzet. Others claim that style and plot are too interrelated to be neatly separated. 
Component 3: The World of Production 
Finally, there is the world of production. The world of production refers to everything that goes into producing the narrative—i.e. the pens, brushes, papers, cameras and sets (in the case of film), even the author or director himself. Laying bare this world of production is a favorite technique of avant-garde or metafiction novelists and cinéma vérité directors. Two common examples of the world of production being exposed—a technique referred to as narrative metalepsis—are when the author herself describes the act of writing, or when a film director includes in her film various elements (cameras, props, grip boys, equipment, etc.) used in the making of that film.
So these, then, are the three components of a narrative. We should keep in mind that, as readers, we only have direct access to Component Two, the narrative discourse. Our access to Component One, the story/fabula, is possible only through the mediation of Component Two. In other words, the story is inaccessible and unknowable except when it is “emplotted” into a narrative sequence by an author.
 Another thing to remember is that the story/fabula is open to an infinite possibility of adaptations and renderings, just as long as each rendering retains all the sine qua non constitutive events of that particular story. 
Now that we understand the basic terms of narratology, we will now proceed to write a summary of Kōda Rohan’s story, “Encounter With Skull.” Be sure to include in your summary only the constitute events. Supplementary events—regardless of how anecdotally interesting they may be—should be left out in a summary. (They can, of course, be included in the body of your essay, insofar as they are relevant to whatever point you are making.) And remember, if it’s not causally related to anything else, it’s probably not a constitutive event.
 After you write your summary of the story, you can check it against mine, which goes as follows: 
Rohan, a self-assured young man “driven by the desire to see as much of the world as [he] could,” goes on a journey through the northern provinces. After losing his way, he comes upon an isolated hut in which a beautiful young woman named Tae lives. Taking pity upon him, the woman invites him in, offers him a hot bath, clean clothes, and dinner. She encourages him to stay the night. After eventually agreeing to her request, Rohan proceeds to fall asleep.
After several hours, he wakes up realizing that she has given him her only bedding. The two argue over who will sleep on the floor. She surprises him with an invitation to share the bed with her. Rohan considers her offer, but ultimately refuses for fear that he will be overcome by his desire for her. To help ease his mind, he asks her to tell him the story of her life.
Tae, we learn, was born into a wealthy family. Her father died when she was fourteen, her mother when she was eighteen. Before her mother died, she left Tae with instructions never to marry. Despite a very attractive marriage offer from a young nobleman, Tae obeys her mother’s wish—and as a result, the rejected nobleman dies of a broken heart. Wracked by guilt, Tae follows the young man’s dead spirit into the mountains where she meets a wise priest who teaches her to live life with a sense of detachment, compassion, and grace. As she finishes her story, the sun begins to rise, and both she and the house vanish; only a bleached skull remains at Rohan’s feet. Upon reaching the neighboring village, Rohan learns that a hideous, leprous woman had disappeared into the mountains a year ago, never to be seen again.

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