Approaching Narrative structure.

Narrative structure has always been an important part of any tale; life itself is in many ways an ongoing narrative and in a novel the narrative structure is the shape of a story. According to William Labov a fully developed natural narrative is made up of several sections namely the abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation result or resolution and the coda also known as the means by which the author give the reader closure. The narrative of any novel is finite in structure: there is a beginning, middle and an end. The narrative structures of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Turn of the Screw and Changing Places are important as they give us an insight into a setting, genre or era which we normally would not have access to. These three novels deal with what are essentially life’s important issues and each serves as a window into a time frame which readers normally only have access to through history texts. There are key points to this form of writing; these are a quest, a journey or a series of trials and forfeits. The characters within these stories usually represent archetypical opposites of good and evil, hero and villain, strong and weak, or wise and foolish. According to Mieke Bal any story is a Fabula that is presented in a way which can be interpreted by the reader and in the case of these three texts the authors approach this with very different techniques.
All narrative structures begin with an ‘abstract’ this is the device which covers the point of the story be it a tragedy, comedy or morality tale. Lodge’s novel is post modernist in structure using a semi cynical approach to writing his subtitle ‘a tale of two campuses’ is a deliberate play on ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Dickens. He uses an irreverent approach to the novel, sculpts and forewarns us about the structure from the first page. ‘Imagine, if you will, that each of these two professors…is connected to his native land…by an infinitely elastic umbilical cord of emotions, attitudes and values’ (Lodge, pp7) is designed to destroy the illusion that most stories create there is no magicians trick here each chapter is clearly labelled to show its intentions he leaves no ambiguity about the written form. This is a classic tool used by post modernists who endeavour to make us see that the world around us is not placed there for us but made and shaped by our own hands and thoughts. Post modernist writers share some of modernisms practices however they reject the order that modernistic writers allude to such as mythology.

Muriel Spark in the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie confronts us early on with what appears to a novel about school life and a rather unusual teacher however we eventually realise that there is far more going on especially in the relationship between Sandy and Miss Brodie. The novel rewards the patient reader who accepts that something momentous is going to occur. The concentration on sandy’s eyes and how she takes in everything which occurs throughout the novel as well as her internal thoughts help us the reader understand why she helps Miss Mackay. She uses clever time-shifts to show us why these things happen. The setting within the school and the flamboyant almost naïve qualities of Miss Brodie give us an insight into the ‘good intentions’ of the characters. Sandy is one of the few characters who evolve and shed the yolk of Brodies’ designs. In many ways Brodie creates her own nemesis through her attempts to be more European and the matter of fact way she has of dismissing the death of a new pupil Joyce Emily who she had encouraged to fight in the Spanish civil war. This and the sight of Miss Brodie with a new ‘set’ of girls is the catalyst for her downfall, while we the readers know who is responsible the character never finds out in many ways confirming the readers omnipresence.

Henry James’ piece is a deliberate take on the traditional fireside horror tale. His approach is very traditional for the period as he uses three different narrators in the build up to his tale; it is interesting that he uses the first person point of view with them. He also delays in sharing the tale with us which could be a deliberate device for building suspense. When this novella was first published it was released in serial format and whilst as a novel it could have been re-edited maintaining the cliff-hanger endings of the chapters helps raise our anticipation of what will happen next. We find ourselves wondering about the governess’ motives: was she really seeing ghosts or was she hallucinating for some reason? Also who is the mysterious third narrator? We learn very little about them not even their gender – could it be that it is Henry James acting as guide to Douglas’s story? Adrian Dover suggests that the governess may well have been Henry James he also states that he has used this technique on several occasions .
In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the narrative structure is fascinating; the novel seemingly starts as any story would, however when we finally reach the later segments we discover that it is in reality told almost entirely in flashback. The last few words of the novel are the beginning of a tale being told to a young man. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Turn of the Screw and to a lesser extent Changing Places make use of time-shift this can create a sense of defamiliarization for the reader. In Changing Places David Lodge deliberately uses various writing styles ranging from conventional novel writing, newspaper cuttings, epistolary structure and finishes with a script and he does this because he was writing in a post modernistic style. Each chapter is clearly marked out for us and we have all the conventional stages of narrative including the traditional chase scene. Lodge even manages to play on the traditional approach of history in novels which is normally ‘a distant rumble of gunfire, somewhere offstage’ (Lodge, pp 250) by dedicating an entire chapter to newspaper articles. He titles this ‘Reading’ (Lodge, pp 153), and by the clever use of this style he allows the reader some knowledge of the events which play out in the backgrounds of the primary characters he even alludes to this in the last chapter of his novel.
Like any traditional Victorian ghost story, Henry James starts with a fireside scene: ‘The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome’ (James, pp 7). This would almost be expected by Victorian readers and shares a similarity with a tale by Mrs. Crowe called ‘Round the Fire’ which starts with someone sharing a ghost story with several people. However were this tale deviates from the standard is in the construction of the tale we are led in part to believe that the tale is in some way true that the deceased manservant and previous governess are haunting this place. The source of this information however is the housekeeper who it could be argued delights in terrorizing the new governess with suggestions of impropriety between the children and the previous staff. Were this novel deviates from the norm however is that it never returns to the present the tale within a tale ends ‘We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped’ (James, pp 121). The choice of an unhappy ending was unusual in contemporary Victorian ghost stories many would return to the present if told as a tale or would have good inherently conquer evil somehow.

The complicating action within the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie revolves around Sandy rather than Brodie herself. Sandy finds her eyes opened to the possibilities around her, she acts not to protect herself but future ‘Brodie Sets’. How she goes about it is thematically surprising she takes advantage of Miss Brodie’s fascination with fascism and uses that as the seed which the headmistress Miss Mackay can use to remove her. In The Turn of the Screw the complicating action revolves around the governess’ tale – the surroundings in which her story takes place are only ever revealed to us as each becomes important. We are aware that it is a house with substantial grounds however unlike a realist novel which would generate the scenery first we are instead introduced in a more realistic narrative. Changing Places faces its turning point in a most unusual way – it builds up to it by means of events outside the characters’ lives and when we return to them we find that many things have changed: both Phillip Swallow and Morris Zapp have not only switched continents, they have also become involved in actions which have turned them into figurative heroes and eventually this drives them into the arms of each other’s wives.

Evaluative devices in novels are the tools by which an author informs their audience whether their tale is meant to be terrifying, amusing, horrific and worth sharing with other people. Sometimes a tale can appear to be about one aspect and by the end we realise that it has evolved into something else entirely. The Turn of the Screw would have been classed as a terrifying tale one however several different critics over the years have looked beyond the ghost story to the suggestions that it is about social class and the class war. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on the other hand is more of a ‘coming of age’ and ‘overcoming the monster’ type narrative. Sandy is the hero who must overcome the monster and at the same time come of age; her transcendence into Sister Helena marks her rebirth and passage into adulthood. Miss Brodie’s ideologies are the monster which must be overcome. This dualistic theme is common within Scottish tales; pairing two persons together, one of whom is on the outside of accepted society and one who is within. Examples of this include Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and here Miss Brodie and Sandy. The characters in Changing Places are in many ways not as important as the shape of the novel. Lodge puts great influence on place names as well as personal names – Phillip Swallow and Morris Zapp conjure very different images, as do places such as Plotinus and Rummidge. This play on names is a recurring theme in Lodge’s work.

The effects that these tales can have on the reader are dependant primarily on how they are interpreted. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for instance has been seen as humorous, tragic and moralistic at the same time. No two readers will have the same reaction to the tale. Some have even expressed revulsion at the character of Miss Brodie and others find Sandy’s motivations questionable, however after reading the novella several times it seems likely that Sandy only fulfils the role that Miss Brodie unwittingly creates for her. In Changing Places there is only an artificial ending we are given no closure on the lives of the four main characters. However this is deliberate on Lodge’s part; he uses this to show that the lives are not as important as the structure of the novel, which is in keeping with a post modernist view on the future of writing at the time. Both modernist and post modernist writers tend to express feelings of anxiety and alienation experienced by individuals living in the 20th century: post modernistic writings tend to be darker, suggesting the meaningless of the human condition. The full effect that Henry James was aiming for in the sudden ending of his tale and the allusions to inappropriateness may well have been diluted for modern readers. It still leaves us wondering about the veracity of the housekeeper’s tales – were they scaremongering or was she being honest and was the governess delusional? We also find ourselves wondering did she smother the boy in fear as she herself was smothered educationally: ‘…that had been one of the teachings of my small, smothered life…’ (James, pp 24) At the time it was published it caused ripples of disgust and horror. In contemporary society perhaps our exposure to shock horror such as Halloween and Saw have unfortunately inured us and made us jaded in outlook.

Every tale has at its heart a ‘coda’ – a device which lets the reader know that the tale is coming to its end. The three novels deal with their endings very differently. David Lodge who had deliberately guided us through the passages of his novel opens the last chapter simply with the heading ‘Ending’. The book even parodies itself in the internal structure by suggesting in a fictional guide to novel writing that there are three forms of ending namely the happy, sad and the non ending. His fictional book suggests that the latter is the worst kind of ending unless you are a creative genius and yet this is precisely how Lodge ends his novel. The last chapter is written as a script and the characters discuss in detail how we know that a novel is coming to an end: ‘…well, that’s something the novelist can’t help giving away, isn’t it, that his book is shortly coming to an end? It may not be a happy ending nowadays but he can’t disguise the tell-tale compression of the pages.’ (Lodge, pp 251). Lodge’s comparison of life to a modern movie is fairly accurate: the ending is unclear and just as suddenly he finishes with a scene freeze and “The End”. All this further confirms the cynicism that exists throughout the novel. Henry James ends his novel abruptly – there is no happy ending or return to the dining room where the tales are being told. James leaves the reader in a state of shock; wondering was it real? Adrian Dover suggests that the post-modernistic view of The Turn of the Screw is that Henry James was deliberately ambiguous throughout the text. In many ways The Turn of the Screw is a modernist tale and its narrative structure fits easily into that style of writing.

In conclusion the narrative structure is highly important to the reading of all three of these pieces. All three authors use their literary skills to portray very different tales however each book manages to make us think to engage with what has been written. Muriel Spark ends with Sandy (who by now has become Sister Helena) recounting how her school days influenced her choices – it ends with a beginning. As for Henry James’ novella, his unusual approach and veiled suggestions changed what was considered the norm in Victorian ghost stories and at the time led to outrage and consternation amongst many readers. David Lodge used his novel to highlight the irony of the written form: how some novel styles were perceived as being out of date, or somewhat silly. For example, his use of ‘Epistolary’ writing. Lodge alludes to what he sees as literary fallacy by creating a fictional text which he uses to highlight what is considered good and bad novel writing. The narrative structure then is important to all three novels – if anything had been written differently or a different character perspective used, then the meaning of the novel as a whole would have changed completely. Sometimes an author will write up or struggle with how they want to portray their characters and the setting in which they live and breathe. For the most part we as the reader can fully appreciate the window into these worlds that have been carefully crafted for us and with a really good novel we can imagine the world, the characters as if we were there with them.


Bal, M. (1997). Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Bradford, R. (1996). Introducing Literary Studies. Hemel Hempstead: Simon & Schuster.
James, H. (1994). The Turn Of The Screw. London: penguin.
Labov, W. (1988). Language in the Inner City . Textbook , 7-11.
Lodge, D. (1975). Changing Places . London: Penguin.
Lodge, D. (1992). The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin.
Ray, R. M. (2009). The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms third edition. Boston: Palgrave Macmillan.
Shwarz, J. C. (1994). Narrative and Culture. Georgia: University of Georgia Press.
Spark, M. (2000). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. London: Penguin.
Various. (1995). Round the Fire. In C. Crowe, Victorian Ghost Stories (pp. 131-144). London: Senate.

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