Why is narration so universal? What psychological or social functions do stories serve? Why is our need for stories never satisfied? And why do we need the "same" story over and over again? (J. Hillis Miller, in Critical Terms for Literary Study.)
In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that plot is the most important feature of a narrative. A good story has a beginning, middle, and end, making a shapely whole with no extraneous elements. Aristotle also addressed the social and psychological role of narration. He described tragic drama as the purging or catharsis of the undesirable emotions of pity and fear by first arousing them and then clearing them away.
A large contemporary literature has explored diverse theories of narrative, including Russian formalist theories (Propp, Sklovskij, Eichenbaum); Bakhtinian, or dialogical theories (Mikhail Bakhtin); New Critical theories (R.P. Blackmur); Chicago school, or neo-Aristotelian , theories (R.S. Crane, Wayne Booth); psychoanalytic theories (Freud, Kenneth Burke, Lacan, N. Abraham); hermeneutic and phenomenological theories (R. Ingarden, P. Ricoeur, Georges Poulet); structuralist, semiotic, and tropological theories (C. Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, A.J. Greimas, Gérard Genette, Hayden White); Marxist and sociological theories (Georg Lukacs, Frederic Jameson); reader-response theories (Wolfgang Iser, Hans Robert Jauss); and poststructuralist and deconstructionist theories (Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man) .
Some general features of this literature include the idea that there are typical formal elements or "deep structures" to narratives, a position most extremely stated by the Structuralists, and that there is a complex interaction between the telling of stories and what is told in them, especially their performative dimension.
According to J. Hillis Miller, we need narratives in order to give sense to our world, and the shape of that sense is a fundamental carrier of the sense. We need the "same" stories over and over, as a powerful way to assert the basic ideology of our culture. Miller also suggests that in some way these stories do not satisfy. In this respect, he comes close to Paul de Man's description of texts. According to de Man, "The paradigm for all texts consists of a figure (or a system of figures) and its deconstruction. But since this model cannot be closed off by a final reading, it engenders, in its turn, a supplementary figural superposition which narrates the unreadibility of the prior narration." (Allegories of Reading, p.205)
The extensions of narrative inquiry as ways of describing both history writing and psychoanalysis have called into question the precise nature of their respective claims to truth.
While Freud never explicity discussed the narrative character of the analytic experience, later writers such as Sherwood and Spence have pointed to its central importance and have shown the ways in which the psychoanalytic dialogue seeks to uncover the analysand's efforts to maintain a certain kind of narrative discontinuity. To remember, then is precisely not to recall events as isolated; it is to become capable of forming meaningful narrative sequences. (Connerton)
In Narrative Truth and Historical Truth, Donald Spence suggests that psychoanalytic narratives should be thought of more as construction than as reconstruction, that psychoanalysts give up the archaological model and think of interpretation as a pragmatic statement with no necessary referent in the past -- in short that narrative truth replace historical truth. The test of this truth is a therapeutic one, and Spence notes that Freud came to take the position that "an assured conviction of the truth of the construction ... achieves the same therapeutic result as a recaptured memory . Spence compares this construction to an artistic and rhetorical product.
This pragmatic approach to the truth has exposed a vulnerability in the Freudian structure that critics have been quick to exploit, especially in relation to Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory. (see unconscious ) The extravagant claims of recovered memories of child abuse and of consequent multiple personality disorder are but the counterpart of this attack on Freud.
The threat of relativism that historians have percieved as the result of the focus on narrative in history writing is most closely identified with the writings of Hayden White. Roger Chartier, who situates history "between Narrative and Knowledge," asks why history was so long unaware that it belonged to the class of narrative. He points out that "Narrative was necessarily hidden in all the regimes of historicity that postulated a close coincidence between historical events and the discourses whose task it was to render an account of them." (On the Edge of the Cliff, p.7) It was only when the "epistemology of coincidence" was cast into doubt that historians became aware of the gap that exists between the past and its representation.
Chartier opposes Hayden White's view of historical discourse as a free play of rhetorical figures (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony) and as one mode of fictional invention among others. He insists that history is commanded by an intention of a principle of truth. He sides with authors such as Lynn Hunt who plead for a "new theory of objectivity" which is "an interactive relationship between an inquiring subject and an external object." (p8) For Chartier, the challenge facing historians today is "to link the discursive construction of the social to the social construction of discourse." (p.25 )