The Structure of Narrative
In ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives', Barthes explores the structure of narrative, or storytelling, from a structuralist perspective. Narrative consists of a wide variety of genres applied to a wide variety of substances - for example, theatre, film, novels, news stories, mimes, and even some paintings. We can see what Barthes terms ‘narrative' whenever something is used to tell a story. People using this theory will often refer to the way people live their lives as narratives, and some will talk about a right to tell our own story.
Narrative is taken to be humanly universal - every social group has its own narratives. Barthes models the analysis of narrative on structuralist linguistics. The structure or organisation is what is most essential in any system of meaning.
The construction of a narrative from different statements is similar to the construction of a sentence from phonemes. Barthes argues that there are three levels of narrative: functions, actions, and narration. Each has meaning only in relation to the next level.
Functions refer to statements in narratives. Every statement or sentence in a novel, for example, has at least one function. Barthes gives examples like: ‘James Bond saw a man of about fifty' and ‘Bond picked up one of the four receivers'.
For Barthes, every statement has a particular role in the narrative - there are no useless statements, no ‘noise' in the information-theory sense.
But statements vary in their importance to the narrative, in how closely or loosely it is tied to the story. Some are functions in the full sense, playing a direct role in the story. For instance, a character buys a gun so s/he can use it later in the story. The phone rings, and Bond picks it up - this will give him information or orders which will move the action forward.
Others are ‘indices' - they index something which establishes the context of the story. They might, for instance, convey a certain atmosphere. Or they might say something about the psychology or ‘character' of an actor in the story. The ‘four receivers' show that Bond is in a big, bureaucratic organisation, which shows that he is on the side of order. The ‘man of about fifty' indicates an atmosphere of suspicion: Bond needs to establish who he is and which side he is on.
Among the former - the true functions - these can be central aspects of the narrative, on which it hinges (‘cardinal points' or ‘nuclei'), or they can be complementary (catalysers). To be cardinal, a function needs to open or close a choice on which the development of the story depends. The phone ringing and Bond answering are cardinal, because the story would go differently if the phone didn't ring or Bond didn't answer.
But if Bond ‘moved towards the desk and answered the phone', the phrase ‘moved towards the desk' is a catalyser, because it does not affect the story whether he did this or not. Stories often contain catalysers to provide moments of rest from the risky decision-points.
Barthes sees true functions as forming pairs: one initiates a choice and the other closes it. These pairs can be close together, or spread out across a story. The choice is opened by the phone ringing, and closed by Bond answering it.
Indices are also divided into true indices, which index things like an actor's character or an atmosphere, and informants, which simply identify something or situate it in time and space. A character's age is an example of an informant. True indices are more important to the story than informants.
All moments of a narrative are functional, but some more so than others. Functions and indices are functional in different ways. Cardinal functions and true indices have greater functionality than catalysers and informants. At root, however, a narrative is structured through its nuclei. The other functional elements are always expansions on the nuclei. It is possible, as in folk-tales, to create a narrative consisting almost entirely of nuclei.
Functions are arranged into narratives by being attached to agents - characters in the story who engage in actions. Every narrative necessarily has agents. The actions of an agent connect