Reflections on “Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative” by Mieke Bal

At base, narratology “is the theory of narratives, narrative texts, images, spectacles, events; cultural artifacts that ‘tell a story'” (3). What Mieke Bal offers, then, is a basically a method for describing narrative. It is divided into three, large chapters: “Text: Words,” which focuses on how to describe various levels of texts; “Story: Aspects,” which focuses on various aspects of a narrative fit together; “Fabula: Elements,” which focuses on how chronology works in a narrative. Each chapter is full of helpful terminology, fleshed out with thorough discussion, which can easily be utilized for describing narratives in Near Eastern and Biblical texts. In this reflection, though, I will only focus on a few things which stood out to me.

First, Bal describes the levels of narration (pp. 44-56). Here, she describes various ways in which levels of narration may be understood depending on the particular text. In terms of my own work, this is interesting on one front. As is any literature, the Hebrew Bible is teeming with levels of narrative. The most basic example appears at the beginning of much prophetic literature, such as Micah:

(1) The word of Yahweh came to Micah, a Mosharite, in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, when he had a vision concerning Shomron and Jerusalem. (2) “Listen, all you peoples // Pay attention, Oh land and all within it…”

In this text, the speaker of vs. 1 is clearly distinct from vs. 2. Whereas vs. 1 is spoken by an external narrator, vs. 2 is spoken by the character. One way we can identify this is because the shift from a 3MS verb (the word came) to a 2MP and 2FS verb (Listen… Pay attention). Now, although this is a very basic example, the same narratological technique is used through the Hebrew Bible and all literature. I am  pointing it out because attentiveness to various layers of narrative can clarify confusing or problematic elements of texts.

Second, the issue of levels in narration is interesting for grammar, as a few scholars as discussed the issue of embedded text in light of the Hebrew verbal system (cf. Pardee, 2012). In 1 Sam. 1:20, for example, a waw-retentive PC can introduce a circumstantial clause which is embedded into the narrative line (Pardee 2012, pg. 303). This use of a waw-retentive PC in BH is common. Thus, it appears that analysis in terms of morphosyntax of biblical Hebrew can overlap with narratological concerns. And while they should not be conflated into one thing as analytical categories, it appears to me that narratology is a fundamental aspect of any language, BH included.

So, in Bal’s discussion on what marks personal and impersonal language she distinguishes between I/you and first and second person (personal) and he/she and third person (impersonal). Although these are only the first two distinctions she provides, it stands that narratology is (may be?) a fundamental aspect of BH, for BH uses grammatical person markers. The implication is that BH has narratological components built into it.

Third,  Bal’s description of how one defines an “event” was interesting in light of the Hebrew verbal system. According to Bal, an event is “the transition from one state to another state, caused or experienced by actors” (182). She continue on by describing three criterion for defining an event. What I am interested in seeing flesh out, though, is how her understanding of “event” does (or does not) fit with the H stem in BH. Roughly defined, the H stem expresses is causative. Drawing from my memory (I don’t have access to the three major grammars at the moment), I wonder how often the causative notion connotes an event (i.e. the transition from one state to another state as part of the fabula in a narrative) as opposed to a mere process, unimportant to a fabula.

These are just musings. I am still working them out in my head. So, if you are unsure of what I am saying, don’t worry. I am also not sure what I am saying.

Cheers!