Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Februar 2006

5.1. Innovation and Reproduction in Literature. The Narrative
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Azat Yeghiazaryan (Armenian National Academy of Sciences, Yerewan)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Evolution of the Narrative

Azat Yeghiazaryan (Armenian National Academy of Sciences, Yerewan)



I view the narrative as a variety of speech (in the sense of Bakhtin’s terminology). Compared to other varieties of speech, the narrative has the largest capacity to cover, to picture, the life of man and society. Lyric is also a form of speech, which expresses the inner world of a man. However, this very circumstance restricts the possibilities of lyric; it cannot express the outer world of a human being in space and time. Not only does the narrative present the wide picture of the world, but also it is capable of presenting the inner world of a man in its absolutely profound and sophisticated nature as well as the lyrical ambience of the human soul. Many epic works may include lyric verse to this or that extent, starting from the Armenian medieval epic to the novel "Doctor Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak. Poetry is unable to express the full range of human feelings, all the psychological transformations that can be found in the psychological novel of the 19th century - one of the most sophisticated forms of the narrative - as well as in a number of 20th-century novels.

The comparison between narrative and drama is far more difficult and requires greater attention. But obviously it is the narrative that offers the greater possibilities. A drama is confined to stage actions and speech, whereas narrative, both oral and written, though involving dramatic scenes, is not confined to a stage and can cover unlimited stretches of time and space. Drama is often considered a variety of narrative, but this view blurs the borders of narrative. This report dwells on a narrower conception of narrative.

With its freedom, its unrestricted capacity for portraying life, narrative is one of the most favorite and popular forms of speech. This becomes especially obvious once we consider the oral narrative. Nothing has attracted people more than different stories ranging from epic to fairy tales and jokes, these having been people’s favorite entertainment. Moreover, the most elaborate form of narrative speech - the heroic epic - was almost sanctified. In the period of writing, too, stories in the form of novels made popular reading. This can still be seen today, but I will return to this topic later.

The above said reminds us of one of the main features of the narrative - the vast audience. The narrative is always addressed to a vast audience, whereas poetry is chamber genre, it is intimate (despite the public character of some of its types).

Over the past decades narratology has become an independent discipline. A huge number of narratological studies have been published. Many of these works are confined to a description of purely technical devices of the narrative; the profound contents of the narrative does not become an object of analogous studies. Quite recently Schmid’s Narratology came out in Russian. In a number of aspects it is a very interesting and valuable work - a true encyclopedia of narrative. But in my opinion the book has a very big disadvantage - its author says little about the relation of life and narrative, unlike, for instance, Umberto Eco, who links the changes of literary forms with the changes of the forms of life. I want to mention another work on the narrative, which seems, unfortunately, to start being forgotten. It is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which, in fact, describes how the ways of narrating about life change.

What modern studies of narrative lack is its historical evolution. The narrative reflects changes in consciousness and perception of the world by man better then other forms of literature. Like all other spheres of life and intellectual activities, the narrative is undergoing a fundamental change, particularly in the 20th century. This fact draws the problem of the evolution of the narrative to the foreground.


The origin of this evolution is certainly the oral narrative. It is impossible to form a true and complete picture of the essence of narrative without considering the oral narrative. All of the major elements of the narrative were shaped in that stage of its evolution. Later they underwent certain modifications and became part of the written narrative. These modifications, however, did not make the elements of narrative unrecognizable. For instance, categories such as the narrator, the audience, the possible world of the narrative, the hero, the plot, pass from oral to written narrative. Categories like audience changed fundamentally. The written narrative seems not to require an audience. In fact, however, both the oral and written narratives cannot exist without an audience. Lyrical soliloquy does not directly need an audience. The narrative always directly requires audience, although in the case of the written narrative the audience changes into readers, who distance themselves from the narrator.

Surprisingly, the problem of oral narrative has been left out of many recent secondary works on the narrative, including the above-mentioned book by Schmid. Nevertheless, it is clear that to understand certain nuances and particularities of the modern written narrative, one needs to study thoroughly the oral narrative. Take, for example, the works of the great Armenian poet of the 20th century, Hovanes Toumanyan. His writings are largely based upon the oral narrative traditions. Another instance is Bocaccio’s Decameron, which is narrated in the form of recorded oral stories. This is an important aspect that cannot be overlooked while studying the Decameron. And finally one of the most famous novels of the 20th century, Ulysses by James Joyce is, in fact, a parody of Homer’s Odyssey, which is an interpretation of oral epic stories. Hence, for a clear understanding of Joyce’s novel it is necessary to discern to what extent it hasdeparted from the stories told about Ulysses. I will come back to this point later.


The transition from oral to written narrative is an intricate process, which I do not intend to describe in the present report. The written narrative reaches the height of its development in the 19th-century novel (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Balzac, Dickens, and others). The novel of this period, preserving and developing strategies of the oral narrative, provides a wide and profound picture of the world, an abundance of human characters and interrelations, which have no counterpart either in the previous stages of the narrative or in the 20th century (with a few exceptions). In its perfection the 19th-century novel seems to become equal to the ancient and other epics; Hegel was absolutely right in referring to the novel as the modern epic.

The 19th-century novel possesses a great variety of narrative devices, and it is not accidental that, when speaking about the narrative, we lean heavily on the 19th-century or classical novel.


In the 19th century the narrative reached its peak. It was impossible to go higher. The 20th century had to introduce new techniques. In fact, the 20th century became a period of the fundamental reconstruction of the narrative, fundamental to such an extent that it is impossible to speak about the narrative proper. But before dwelling on this basic change, it should be noted that several novels created in the 20th century carried on the traditions of the 19th century. These novels became isolated islands in the ocean of the 20th century. I mean The Peaceful Don by Sholokhov, The Forsyte Saga by Galsworthy, and several others. And if Sholokhov’s novel was recognized and won a Nobel Prize, Galsworthy’s novel "was unnoticed" in English literature. Yet another novel written in the traditions of the classical novel - M. Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind - was despised by American literary critics. That is to say, the spiritual atmosphere of the 20th century required something else.

Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, a follower of classical traditions, said three authors influenced the 20th century literature most of all. They are James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust. The list could be continued, but the important thing was the innovations these authors brought into literature. It is impossible to disagree with Akhmatova. These three became the symbols of the 20th century; they changed the prose and the narrative to an extent that it is becoming difficult to consider the latter.

Since time is short, I will restrict myself to describing briefly and schematically just one of the above-mentioned novels.

Joyce’s novel repeats the structure of Homer’s work, but its content is directly opposed to it. Homer’s personages travel in the world, across seas and oceans, visit islands, etc. Joyce’s characters travel along the unpleasant streets of a contemporary bourgeois city. Homer’s heroes are free and strong people who rebel against their gods. Joyce’s personages are petty, poor children of the bourgeois city. Consequently, the essence of the speech changes. Homer’s speech, especially in this comparison, is that of a perfect, classical narrative. Joyce’s language is everything but narrative. Homer has something to narrate - the adventures of Ulysses and his friends. Joyce’s subject is not suitable for narrating: in the streets of Dublin, Bloom and the others do not encounter any adventures, unless we consider the story of Bloom going to toilet as an adventure. Molly is no Penelope, who remains faithful to her husband and looks for ways to get rid of her suitors. Molly is an ordinary unfaithful wife of the 20th-century city who devotes much time to erotic reveries …

This comparison is made in the light of the classical narrative. Joyce’s novel is truly one of the most significant phenomena of 20th-century literature; after all, the stream of consciousness was invented by Joyce (independent of what his predecessors had done before him). Joyce certainly invented new ways of illuminating the inner world and nature of people. But the truth is that one has to pay for everything. What Joyce did caused prose to distance itself from narrative. The stream of consciousness is not narrative. The classical narrative is based on a principle that sounds like a man is his doings. From today’s point of view, this principle simplifies the character of man but preserves it as a whole. The stream of consciousness is a device of picturing a split person, one torn to pieces. In the classical novel - at least in Tolstoy’s novels - regardless of how sophisticated a character is, he or she remained faithful to a degree of integrity. This feature contributes to the charm of Tolstoy’s novels. The stream of consciousness diminishes the role of the plot in the narrative.

Certainly, Joyce was the speaker of his time. The man of the 20th century differed essentially from man of the 19th century, and Joyce’s merit was his sensitivity to his time.

But the new novel is losing most of its audience or readers. The 20th-century novel no longer possesses a large audience and does not even seek it. Joyce’s novel is for a restricted circle of readers. The mass of readers is looking for unusual situations, unusual characters, in brief, an unusual plot. In one of his studies Eco touches upon the "appeal of the plot", which is probably one of the most curious aspects of human nature. People like to listen to tales. However, in the 20th century, tales and audience stand far apart. Ulysses remains a reading for a small number of educated readers, and the others spend hours and months on soap operas and cheap adventure books, which have only one merit - an entertaining plot.


Finally, I would like to dwell on the tendencies in Armenian prose of the second half of the 20th century, manifestations of the tendencies which had come about earlier in European literature.

The most famous writer of that period was Hrant Matevossian. His novels and short stories brought him fame not only in Armenia, but also throughout the Soviet Union and some European countries. Matevossian realized the value of the narrative (he considered narrative as food for readers) and pursued the fundamental reconstruction of the narrative. If the main feature of the novel by Joyce was the stream of consciousness, the main component of Matevossian’s works is the inner speech. In the novelAutumn Sun a peasant woman is preparing for the marriage of her son who lives in Yerevan. The novel pictures the one or two hours when the woman is packing her things to go to Yerevan. And in this short period she recalls all of her life, not in a chronological and plot sequence but in the rhythm of her intense reflections. In this novel there are no developments, there is no plot in the usual sense of the word. Or the plot is the inner speech of the peasant woman, the fragments of memory that come to her mind, as she is trying to understand her life. Aghun (the woman's name) seems to be fighting with someone all the time, although there is no one beside her. Everything is in her intense, irritated speech. It is not easy to distinguish the inner speech from the outer speech. This quality of the word is Matevossian's invention, which led him to a great many achievements. But he had to pay the same price - the loss of a wide circle of readers. Individuals, literary critics, students of literature make up the readers of his works. His own characters would hardly be interested in his kind of literature …

Another type of prose was introduced into the Armenian literature by Perdj Zeytuntsian. He also departs, though more abruptly, from classical prose, from classical narrative. At one time I called his works an intellectual game, which was very popular in European literatures. The writer no longer sets out to narrate about something but treats this or that episode of life in various ways to cause the reader to draw this or that conclusion. He is writing a novel about the American pilot who bombed the Japanese cities. He does not tell the story of one episode of the pilot’s life or of another but offers some thoughts, fragments that when put together express the feeling of absurdity, the emptiness of what happened. The absurdity of the 20th-century reality imposes this path on the writer.

The classical narrative is thus changing in contemporary Armenian literature. These alterations are the Armenian manifestations of European tendencies.

© Azat Yeghiazaryan (Armenian National Academy of Sciences, Yerewan)

5.1. Innovation and Reproduction in Literature. The Narrative

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Azat Yeghiazaryan (Armenian National Academy of Sciences, Yerewan): The Evolution of the Narrative. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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