Narratology as a subset of Structuralism from Tyson

last updated 3/8/10

In a nutshell, many narratologists want to find an underlying structure of narrative that basically follows grammar (because grammar is the smallest unit of meaning). Thus you could say theorists like Greimas and Todorov are looking at the underlying grammar of narrative (and so is the semiotic Barthes when he is being more of a narratologist in books like S/Z).

A. J. Greimas is also considered to be a semiotician in the broad sense (though his project is, I would say, very different than the semiotic Roland Barthes, especially after post-structuralism), but we could more specifically call him a narratologist since his focus is on narrative, or on limiting the arbitrariness of signification via the absolutes of grammatical structure. According to Narrotology at Purdue, Greimas was influenced by theorists like Levi-Strauss (which you can see in his focus on what I might call uber-mythemes).

Like Saussure (who is kind of the father of all this structuralist theory), Greimas also said humans make meaning in terms of groups of opposites, but also in terms of negatives. Love is the opposite of Hate, but not-love and not-hate are also invoked, (his semiotic square from Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Greimas: On the Semiotic Square." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory).

One semiotic square can also invoke multiple other semiotic squares or binary/contradictory/implicatory sets. When trying to boil a specific text's plot fomulae (conflicts etc.) down to one fundamental conflict like, for example, the contrary of life vs. death, Greimas also finds Joy and Pain, and Boredom and Disgust (as Greimas notes when studying Georges Bernanos):

Life = joy + pain (contradictories) vs. Death = boredom + disgust (contradictories)

Or as my possible semiotic square of Greimas might "diagram" it (if you can say pain is the negative of joy, or boredom is the negative of disgust, which they aren't, precisely, thus there is some ambiguity in the connections):

Donna Harroway uses Greimas' semiotic square notion to think of real space vs. outer space, and virtual space vs. inner space in order to talk about "what may count as nature in certain local/global struggles," nature being something that has been classified as Other by eurocentric colonialism, as "something we cannot do without, but can never 'have'" in order to hopefully find an "elsewhere" that might make political reconciliations possible (in "The Promise of Monsters"; she calls us all "planetary fetuses gestating in the amniotic efffluvia of terminal industrialism" with the chance, it seems, of being "born" into something more reconciliatory).

But returning to Greimas, in a narrative he focuses on binary plot formulas (that would, based on the semiotic square idea, have to invoke their oppositional contraries and their implications?; 225):

These plot formula opposits are carried out by 6 "actants" (character functions/langue, or the positions filled by actual characters which are parole) like hero's helper, quester, or characters who are symbols of something more general like corruption, but ultimately there are only six fundamental actants in three binaries:

These actants can (must) invoke their opposits (since these theorists are hot about oppositions). Thus a subject might suggest a non-subject, the object the non-object etc. (thus the semiotic square is in play, which hypercomplexifies all of this; see the Narratology at Purdue web site).

The forwarding of a plot binary happens when a quality or object is transfered from one actant to another (225), as when Daisy is "transfered" from Tom to Gatsby, and, as Tyson states, as Gatsby's disillusionment is tranfered to Nick. And, as Tyson says, "narrative's fundamental structure is the fundamental structure of language" (parts of speech and rules of combination; see "narrative program" from Greimas at Signo).

  Fundamental Actants Subject Verb Object
Stories of Quest/Desire


subject searchs for object (Daisy, Holly Grail, Golden Fleece)
Stories of Communication sender-receiver (sender--perhaps the object, perhaps a King or God--sends) subject in search of the object (which the receiver eventually receives--this might end up being the subject, or something that saves humanity; Helen of Troy, of course, didn't save anyone)
Subplots of Quest/Communication helper-opponent

(helper aids) subject

(opponent hinders) subject

in search of object

To clarify this, you could say that the "sender-receiver" + "helper-opponent" narrative grammar (which contains the more basic "subject-object" quest) is much like Campbells's monomyth, and thus helps us think more fully about epics, for instance, like Homer's stories of the Trojan War (where initially Gods, but then Kings are the senders, the subjects are the warriors, and the objects are Helen of Troy but also Troy itself which is eventually "received" by the King). You could also say that a lot of contemporary narrative might stick closer to the basic "subject-object" quest/desire structure and may or may not involve "helper-opponents" especially in shorter stories and some postmodern stories that question the desire for grand narratives and easy binaries.

You can see some of this in formulaic action at Signo (actantial model; narrative program).


Tzvetan Todorov (who comes from the Russian Formalist tradition, but is a contemporary theorist) has a number of things to say about the structures of "symbolics" as he called it, which involves analyzing the relationships of history (context), discourse, and "enunciation" or the creation of sentences in a specific context--in other words, Todorov is not so fixated on only the study of langue, but suggests parole should also be part of a structuralist field of study (in other words, he looks at both syntagmatic and paradigmatic structures unlike Saussure and Levi-Strauss, for instance).

Still, he is a structuralist, so as narratologist, we shouldn't be surprised when he specifically compares the structural units of narrative (characterization, plot) to the structural units of language (parts of speech and their arrangement or syntax or sentencing/"enunciation"). As Tyson lays it out (226):

Characters Nouns
Character's Actions Verbs
Character's Attributes Adjectives
Propositions Sentences (made by combining character with irriducible action or attribute)

Paragraphs (a string of propositions that make story)

Attribution + Action + New Attribution (the transformation of the first attribution)

A story contains at least one sequence

Once we discover the recurring propositions of a text, we can start to categorize them. A specific text (i. e. Boccaccio's The Decameron) might, for instance, be reducing all attributes to three categories of adjectives (states, qualities, conditions in Boccaccio's example). Or, all actions in a text can be reduced to three verbs (to modify, to transgress, to punish), which is how Tyson analyzes The Great Gatsby with three patterns of verbs (which she notices has a possible seek-find-lose verb pattern).


Gerrard Genette is the theorist who is probably most refered to by narratologists. See my schematic of his naratological terms.