Representation, Big and Small

It’s been a while since I posted anything about my current research project in narrative analysis. The approach I’m using looks at a narrative from three aspects: the synthetic, the mimetic, and the thematic. The synthetic aspect asks “How is this narrative composed?”; the mimetic aspect asks “What does it represent?”; and the thematic aspect asks “What does it mean?” All three aspects are simultaneous and interconnected: every narrative is composed, every narrative represents something, and every narrative means something. Much of the work I’ve been doing over the last ten years or so has concentrated on the synthetic aspect, for two reasons: first, I think this aspect has not received the attention it deserves, and second, I have a natural propensity to think about how texts are composed. But since all three aspects are simultaneous and interconnected, the analysis of any one aspect will involve the other two, even if only implicitly. Recently I’ve been shifting my attention to the mimetic aspect, the world represented in a narrative, but I will continue to pay some attention to the synthetic and the thematic as well.

Some critics use the term “mimetic” to refer primarily to “realistic” representations, or to the representation of “reality”. This bias towards realism can be seen in the history of the term “mimesis”, but the history of the term also includes a wider understanding of mimesis, an understanding which includes the representation of non-realism, and that’s the understanding I use. Realism can be a useful starting point, but lots of narratives are not realistic, and we need a term which will include non-realistic as well as realistic worlds. Even realism is not simply real; there are different kinds of realism. We need an approach that will consider the various kinds of realism as well as the various kinds of non-realism.

What kinds of things do we want to include in our analysis of narrative representation? The simple answer is Everything — everything that narratives represent. But everything is too much; we need to chop that everything up into manageable chunks. So here is a rough and ready segmentation of everything, with an eye towards how everything gets expressed in narrative. The joints of the segments are pretty fuzzy, and the various kinds of segments interact with each other. I wouldn’t take this list too seriously, but it may at least give us a start.

We can start with physical objects of various sorts: things you can hold in your hand and carry around; things that are too large to move around, such as the furniture in a room; rooms in a building; a whole building, such as a house; the grounds in which a house is situated; a town or a city; a landscape. Non-realistic stories can include magical things.

Next on the list might be characters. Some narratives use character types; the analysis of types goes back at least to the classical Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371–c. 287 BC), who wrote an interesting book titled The Characters, which includes thirty sketches of character types, such as The Flatterer, The Talkative Man, The Boor, The Tightwad, The Buffoon, and so on. Modern writers tend to avoid character types, or tend to claim that they avoid types, in favor of more complex characters, but types still show up often as secondary characters, and sometimes a combination of types forms the basis of a complex character. The characters in a story are not just a random selection: they come in sets, and there are different sets for different kinds of stories; I’ve written about character sets in Narrative Structures and the Language of the Self. A character may be associated with particular physical objects, such as characteristic clothing. A narrative can include animal characters, and non-realistic narratives can include fabulous beasts or aliens.

A narrative by definition represents actions and happenings. One partial approach to the analysis of narrative actions might be a typology of plots. Different kinds of stories admit different kinds of actions and happenings, so the actions and happenings in an adventure story will likely be different from those possible in a romance. Modern fictions allow for the description of actions which were forbidden in earlier times. 

Narrative representation can also include the description of social structure and status; social structure is often associated with the physical layout of a town or city, and status is often associated with particular kinds of objects, including types of clothing. In some stories, all the characters are of the same social class, but in other stories class differences can be important elements of the narrative conflicts.

A narrative by definition unfolds in time and in space. Narrative time in general is to be measured not by clocks but by the quality of experience. Narrative time is human time. In some narratives time is concentrated in a brief span—a few hours or a day—while some others experience time over the span of a lifetime or several generations. Narrative space is also measured by human experience, and space, like time, can be relatively concentrated or extended. Non-realistic narratives can violate our usual understandings of time and place, through time travel, for example, or by building parallel worlds.

This list is one way of thinking about representation in a narrative. Another way divides the things represented into two general groups, which I call Small Representation and Big Representation. Perhaps these two points are the extremes of a graded spectrum, from Small to Middle to Big, with as many points on the spectrum as needed. Small representation includes all the hundreds of little things represented, sometimes in just a sentence or even a phrase, such as the things in a room, things glanced at in the narration and then forgotten. Big representation is the world of the story as a whole, or at least of large sections of a story. Big and Small are not measures of importance. Big Representation is usually composed of many bits of Small Representation; without Small Representation there would be no Big Representation.

Examples may help. One of the novels I’m going to look at over the next set of posts is The Diary of a Good Neighbour, one of two novels in a set written by Doris Lessing (under the pseudonym Jane Somers). The book is full of descriptions at the level of Small Representation. Lessing’s narrator, Jane (or Janna) Somers is, for instance, very interested in clothing, and she often gives extensive descriptions of what people are wearing. Here is a description of one of the two principal characters, Maudie Fowler, a poor old woman who is befriended by the narrator. In this passage Maudie goes to see her sister, who is rather better off than Maudie.

“It was a warm November day. Maudie had on a best dress of dark blue silk with grey and pink roses on it. It was given to her by her actress friend from Hammersmith soon after the Second World War. She wore a black coat with it, and a black straw hat with black satin ribbon and a little bunch of roses; she bought it forty years ago, for a wedding. When I went in to pick her up, I thought she could be Liza’s mother in My Fair Lady: a shabby poverty, but gallant. But there was, too, something sprightly, even rakish about her, and thus it was that Maudie, visiting her relatives, whom she had not seen for years, presented herself to them as they think of her, an eccentric, gone-to-nothing poor relation whom they wish they could forget.” (pp. 215–16).

This passage is a description of things — of clothing in particular — but it also shows that things are not just things, they have histories, and they are, or can be, connected to people in various complicated ways. This Small Representation is also one piece of the Big Representation of the novel.

This novel creates a world of aging and poverty—and friendship within that world. Much of the story takes place in Maudie’s squalid apartment, where she barely manages to maintain herself, and the story ends with Maudie’s death in what we might call a long-term care facility. The world of aging and death in poverty has not often been represented in such detail. This Big Representation is at the heart of the novel: the mimetic aspect is part of the thematic aspect. In my next few posts I will concentrate on the mimetic aspect of narrative, but the thematic aspect will always be at least implicit in the mimetic.

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