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Throughout this semester I’ve been trying to think through narratives, whether that is through different mediums, their constructs, or their application to certain genres. Historical narratives, especially historical fiction, are particularly interesting to me because they instill imagination and, in some cases, wish fulfillment, but also include real facts and can perpetuate knowledge of humans passed through generations. However, one of the major takeaways of this study has been that narrative itself is just a form, a method that can be transposed through different structures and modalities. It can be broken down much like linguistics or semiotics; there is a formula, or at least different variations on the formula. First I’m going to discuss narrative more generally, and the basic tenets of narrative, but I’m also going to look at narrative through the lens of the example of The Great Gatsby where it applies, but definitely in the context of a historical narrative and as an example of narrative remediation.
There are a couple of markers that denote that something is a narrative, depending, of course, on who you ask. One of the biggest markers of a narrative is the structure of having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Another big overlapping tenet is that narratives should impart some sort of meaning, as opposed to just chronologically telling a story. Chatman describes narrative in the structuralist vein by describing it as having two parts: story and discourse. The story is the chain of events, plus the existents, which are the characters, setting, or time period among other attributes. The discourse would be the means in which the content is communicated. Chatman described is as the “what” versus the “how” (Chatman). Another big tenet of narration, at least from Chatman’s perspective, is the importance of eventhood, characterhood, or settinghood to color in a narrative beyond just a meaningless string of occurrences. He describes it by showing a cartoon of just dots and lines that are animated, but when placed within a setting they are given more meaning and don’t need overt vocal narration to be understood. In his view, the structure provided the narration.
Another big commonality between the different thinkers on narration is the importance of a sense of time. Bordwell wrote that the narrative process is “the activity of selecting, arranging, and rendering story material in order to achieve specific time-bound effects on a perceiver” (xi). In this theory, narrative would be a chain of events with cause and effect relationships within a certain time and place (Bordwell and Thompson). Here, story and plot are separated similarly to how Chatman described the difference between story and discourse. However, taking it a step further, film narration also typically includes actions that happen offscreen or which are not explicitly explained within the film. A story would contain all of the sets of events in a narrative, whether or not they are explicitly presented or if they are inferred. But the plot is only what is visibly and audibly present the film, during the actual time period one physically watches the film. So what you see with your eyes is the plot, but the story might extend beyond that.
An example of the type of action that might happen offscreen is most apparent in a story about murder mystery. Typically the actual crime isn’t shown, the effects of it are shown and the film is about trying to solve the mystery or to figure out what happened. The Great Gatsby has a lot of examples of action that happened offscreen, and is dealt with in different ways depending on the adaptation. But one of the bigger mysteries is Gatsby’s background, which in some ways gets filled in for the audience, but in others is inferred. Also, Gatsby and Daisy’s past happen “offscreen” so to speak. This is a good example of a narrative not happening chronologically, which is another big tenet of narration. The use of flashbacks or inferred events differentiate a narration from a mere plot or chronicle, as it would be described in historical accounts. Therefore, if a person wanted to describe the plot of a movie, they would describe what happened on screen. To describe the story, however, they would describe any important tidbits that happened offscreen but were described or inferred – even from a time period before the story started.
Mediation and Audience Participation
Beyond the inferred off-screen action, there are other components to mediated stories that are external to the plot itself. Bordwell and Thompson refer to them as nondigetic elements, which include things like the credits, editing, or even music. The digesis, in this format, is the recounted story or story as a whole (Bordwell and Thompson). In the world of comics, the role of the audience is also included in inferring what happens “offscreen” through what McCloud calls “closure”. This means that the reader puts together what happens between different frames by extrapolating the action for themselves. McCloud talks a lot about the role of audience participation as sort of an integral part of narration, which seems to be an important question that is discussed with mediation. He says that in comics, the writer depends on the reader to decide for him or herself what happens between frames, and almost encourage different creative licensing to take place with the reader. He wants you to decide for yourself how some action happened, so he will just tell you what happened, but not necessarily how. From McCloud’s perspective, if you asked creators if they thought their stories were being interpreted exactly as they intended, only about 20% of creators would say yes. A lot of this comes from the way that different people would interpret the closure within a story; everyone fills in those gaps differently. Joanna Drucker explained what happened on the page itself as depiction, compared to what the audience perceives or fills in themselves, which she called representation (Drucker).
In comics and graphic novels, the sense of time is shown through the use of the gutter, or white space between blocks, as well as with the actual size of the boxes or through negative space. The dialogue itself sort of sets a tempo for the timing of the story because the time it would take to speak the words is generally how long a box with dialogue should last. But Scott McCloud wrote that it is easy for the reader to know where in time they are because the past and future are basically visible through their peripheral vision (McCloud). Unlike in a film or television show, the past isn’t reliant on audience memory; it’s right there on the page (104).
Drucker echoes some of McCloud’s theories on the role of the audience to impart messaging with graphic novels. She says that “We know that a lot of slippage occurs between the telling and the told. Not only is there not a one-to-one relation of signifier to signified in any sight system…but much of what occurs within the materiality of graphic works cannot be simply perceived as a mechanical device for unfolding a story” (40).
The role of mediation in regards to narrative is interesting because throughout the course of the semester I found that mediums themselves don’t change any sort of narrative structures. However, how narrations might be perceived or compared to one another can change with mediation. One of the primary ways that this is demonstrated is through the notion of immersion. With immersion, the audience becomes part of the story as much as possible. The goal is to have the medium fade into the background as much as possible. Digital media is thought to provide this in a more seamless way, then say, film, which was more seamless than, say, a book. Drucker said that film theorists posited that the primary identification with viewing a film was the situation of the viewing with the content coming in second. However, with modern movies and computer technology becoming so prevalanetly used in their creation, it’s easier for the audience to become immersed in a film. Drucker said, ”When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely ‘suspend’ a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience” (110). She continued, “We bring our own cognitive, cultural, and psychological templates to every story as we assess the characters and anticipate the way the story is likely to go” (110).
With film, the technology is improving the amount of immersion. As Bolter and Grusin put it, “Filmmakers routinely spend tens of millions of dollars to film on location or to recreate period costumes and places in order to make their viewers feel as if they were ‘really’ there” (5). Murray shows that this kind of technology might even be better suited to portray narratives. “Decades before the invention of the motion picture camera, the prose fiction of the nineteenth century began to experiment with filmic techniques. We can catch glimpses of the coming cinema in Emily Bronte’s complex use of flashback, in Dickens’ crosscuts between intersecting stories, and in Tolstoy’s battlefield panoramas that dissolve into close-up vignettes of a single soldier. Though still bound to the printed page, storytellers were already striving toward juxtapositions that were easier to manage with images than with words” (29). Murray felt that older forms of media were already primed for current forms. But she continued, “Eventually all successful storytelling technologies become ‘transparent’: we lose consciousness of the medium and see neither print nor film but only the power of the story itself. If digital art reaches the same level of expressiveness as these older media, we will no longer concern ourselves with how we are receiving the information. We will only think about what truth it has told us about our lives” (26).
Narration and History
Hayden White writes about narration and history, and offered a lot of insight into what makes a historical account a narrative. Because in his view historians are under no obligation to write history as a narrative, and most don’t. In order to make a history into a narrative, there has be meaning, a beginning, middle, and end, and some cause and effect. Cause and effect are other major components to narrative theory. In some cases, an outside force might wreak havoc on the characters, which would then provide something for characters, who possess specific traits, to react to and to show how they might respond under certain circumstances.
To think through some of the ideas of narration with history, and the structure as a whole, I want to go through the example of The Great Gatsby. This is by no means a special case, but a historical story that has been mediated through multiple forms and adaptations and that shines some light on some of these narration theories.
I recently watched the newest movie version, which Baz Luhrmann adapted this year. One of the first things that I noticed was the change in the way the narrator is inserted into the story. Nick Carraway, the narrator, is a part of the novel, as well, actively participating in the events. But in the movie, it starts with him in a sanitarium telling a doctor the entire story as a flashback. Another change in the basic structure is that a lot of the inferred information that the reader was meant to “close” for themselves in the novel was explicitly explained in the movie. This is true of some actual action and background information for the characters, and also for some of the symbolism of the book.
One of the most glaring attributes in the newest movie version is that it is a mediated version of the story, meant to almost reference the medium itself. The original movie version, filmed in the 1970s, was basically a straightforward film adaptation where jazz music played and the visual nature of the film was pretty static. In Luhrmann’s version, footage of the 1920s in black and white are shown alongside CGI shots of New York City; hip hop music replaces jazz music, but with all references still being to “jazz” while Jay-Z plays in the background.
Bolter and Grusin said “Sometimes hypermediacy has adopted a playful or subversive attitude, both acknowledging and undercutting the desire for immediacy” (34). In a lot of cases, this adaptation was overtly referencing what came before, sometimes with a kind of wink and a nudge that alludes to the mediation itself.
Bolter and Grusin talked about historical fiction films made in the 1990s which didn’t reference the books which they were adapting. Jane Austen film adaptations are still popular, and often follow the book and are costumed in historical costumes in realistic settings with no mention of the book on which it was based. In some views, that would ruin the immediacy. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby seemed to be overtly referencing the book, acknowledging that it’s a remake and that it’s pulling from other source material while sort of putting a new spin on the story. The most obvious way that this is portrayed is at the end of the film where it’s shown that Nick Carraway was writing the story as he told his therapist and signs the entire account as “The Great Gatsby by Nick Carraway”. I thought this was an interesting addition because it overtly references the book, which isn’t typical, but then it also attributes a different writer to the story. It calls out the narrator, as well, which is atypical of other narrative structures. Probably the most glaring example of referencing the source novel was that at certain points, usually for really iconic quotes from the novel, the text from the novel are shown on the screen as Nick narrates, pulling Fitzgerald’s actual words onto the screen.
Bolter and Grusin put it this way, “The digital medium can be more aggressive in its remediation. It can try to refashion the older medium or media entirely, while still marking the presence of the older media and therefore maintaining a sense of multiplicity or hypermediacy” (46).
Between the narrator change and the use of modern music with the historical setting, costuming, and references, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is an epitomization of remix culture. As Bolter and Grusin say it, “This tearing out of context makes us aware of the artificiality of both the digital version and the original clip. The work becomes a mosaic in which we are simultaneously aware of the individual pieces and their new, inappropriate setting” (47). They felt that through hypermediacy, creators can make the audience delight in the juxtaposition of old and new and to acknowledge the medium as the medium. It would be difficult for the audience to forget the medium while watching Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby. It is more than just a film version; it’s certainly the digital version of the story. While the immersion is still likely there, it is impossible to not notice all the different forms of media and the different ways the story is being remixed with modern social and economic opinions, current music, computer graphical editing and imagery, old clips, and typed out quotes from the novel. As Bolter and Grusin say, “No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces” (15).
One of the big themes of The Great Gatsby is morality and the effect that all of this wealth had on society in the 1920s. The hero of the story, Gatsby, is shown to be a fraud and not always the best person, but he’s so focused on his wild daydream to reunite with Daisy that he becomes sympathetic and the audience wants to follow him on his quest.
Hayden White says that any historical narrative has the desire to moralize the events that it describes. “And this suggests that narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling and probably in fictional storytelling as well, is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine” (18).
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the characters of The Great Gatsby in the time period in which he lived, so it’s difficult to see if he was meditating on the morality of his own crowd. I think that he was. The “eyes” in the Valley of Ashes were constantly referred to in Luhrmann’s version as the eyes of God and that everything was seen by them. This was alluded to in the book, but really hammered home in the film. Luhrmann’s version seems like a hyperbolic reference to the morality of the historical account, with the lens of looking through time and seeing it in hindsight. White commented a lot about the use of historical narrative to provide meaning to the past, or to be a form of wish fulfillment showing that it all mattered in an existential type of way. He viewed it as a way to merge the imaginary with the real, and usually in order to make sense of the world or to give life meaning. He also viewed this as as easier and probably less problematic with fiction than with fact, which is why The Great Gatsby is an interesting case. While it is set in a historical time period, the characters themselves are fictional, which allowed Fitzgerald, and later Luhrmann, the opportunity to meditate on the meaning of the time without attributing it to real people.
White talked about the different kinds of historical accounts that historians can write, namely the difference between annals, chronicles, and history proper (White). Annals lack any narrative component and is basically just a list of events in chronological order. A chronicle, in his view, wants to tell a story and usually starts to tell one, but falls short but ending abruptly, or failing to achieve narrative closure. Historical narratives, by comparison, take into account what came before. They ponder the meaning of the events that are chosen to be included. And, most importantly, they have an ending. The ending is one of the biggest keys mainly because history continues on forever, so the narrativization of a story must include picking out that period with which the story can begin and end – a key tenet of narrative. White admits that not all histories are suitable for narrative and don’t need to be put into that form. He said, “But real events should not speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be: they can perfectly well serve as the referents of a discourse, can be spoken about, but they should not pose as the tellers of a narrative” (8).
In White’s perspective, a historical narrative should attempt to fill in the blanks that an annal would leave between mere mentions of events that occurred. It would give them meaning and a moral center. “The historical narrative, as against the chronicle, reveals to us a world that is putatively ‘finished,’ done with, over, and yet not dissolved, not falling apart. In this world, reality wears the mask of a meaning, the completeness and fullness of which we can only imagine, never experience. Insofar as historical stories can be completed, can be given narrative closure, can be shown to have had a plot all along, they give to reality the odor of the ideal” (23).
But another big part of his argument is that considering historical narratives should be a way to sort of erase reality and show the wish fulfillment of a storied version of the past. The Great Gatsby is a great example of this construct. Fitzgerald seems to be yearning to find meaning within the novel; or at least his characters are struggling to make sense of the world that they inhabit, along with the economic and social constructs that entails. But the author must choose the way to conclude the story, though history moved on. As White put it, “I cannot think of any other way of ‘concluding’ an account of real events; for we cannot say, surely, that any sequence of real events actually comes to an end, that reality itself disappears, that events of the order of the real have ceased to happen. Such events could only have seemed to have ceased to happen when meaning is shifted, and shifted by narrative means, from one physical or social space to another” (26). But he continued that by fantasizing about the past, in much of the ways that The Great Gatsby does, certainly in the newest adaptation, that the construct of a formal story real events are skewed to become wish-fulfilling mechanisms. White said, “In the enigma of this wish, this desire, we catch a glimpse of the cultural function of narrativizing discourse in general, an intimation of the psychological impulse behind the apparently universal need not only to narrate but to give to events an aspect of narrativity” (8).
Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was a visually pleasing daydream into what it was like to live in the 1920s for a certain population of people. He moralized the ways which their wealth affected them, as well as the ways that they might have given up ethics and morals to get that money, while providing the lush landscape and historical references. He also moralized what people will do when they are in love and what fuels human behavior, essentially. By filling in these gaps with his imaginary characters, borrowed from Fitzgerald of course, he could paint a picture of the time period. It is certainly a narrative version of the time. White said, “The presence of these blank years in the annalist’s account permits us to perceive, by way of contrast, the extent to which narrative strains to produce the effect of having filled in all the gaps, to put an image of continuity, coherency, and meaning in place of the fantasies of emptiness, need, and frustrated desire that inhabit our nightmares about the destructive power of time” (15).
The short clips of the 1920s that are used in the mediated version would be closer representations of the chronicle where newspaper images are used to show that the stock market was booming and that Prohibition had sent people to secret parties and clubs to continue drinking. It is through the characters of Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick Carraway that the audience can start to fill in those morals for themselves. The closure of the historical narrative comes from personal knowledge of events mixed with the characterization and setting that the author provides. Off-screen action is referred to implicitly since it is set in a known time period, so the time mechanisms of the narrative are just as important. But as White summed up, “…this value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries” (27).
Narratives are everywhere. The more I read about the structure of the narrative, the more I realized how often they are used in our day-to-day lives. Friends tell their stories through narratives. Advertisements sell products by telling a story. Culturally, they have become expected across the world and have been shown to be a way to connect with others in a universal way. Drucker said, “Production, distribution, audience and reader expectations, as well as differences of cultural positioning, all help give graphic novels their identity” (41). I think that the concept of expectations and cultural positioning definitely go beyond just graphic novels. Different mediums are viewed differently depending on the culture. And The Great Gatsby is an interesting version of that, especially with the critical reviews that came from the remediated version that Luhrmann created. Audience participation is different with certain mediums, and immersion can range, as well. But it is also what the audience expects, what they already know of a story, and what they already know of a history that can all become parts of the way that they digest the narrative.
I studied narratology this semester, which is the ensemble of theories of narratives, narrative texts, images, events, cultural artifacts that tell a “story”. I wanted to learn how to understand, analyze, and evaluate narratives. I think that these readings certainly forwarded this desire along. I thought that the mediation aspect actually made a bigger effect than I thought that it would. I had been curious about the importance of the audience while considering different media forms and the intentions of the creator. I’ve learned that it kind of does matter which medium is used in that sense. Certain media produce certain means of increasing audience participation. Graphic novelists can choose to draw their characters in more simplistic versions so the reader will extrapolate themselves onto the narrator. Digital media can force the audience to participate in the narrative itself. It will be really interesting to see how much further this can go. Because while virtual reality could insert the audience into the story itself, there are still the same structures of the beginning, middle, and end. There are the moral implications, the necessity to fill in the gaps between events. There is the need for characterization and for setting. And those components seem to repeat regardless of the media form, and regardless of the time period. Narratizing history has those same elements, as well, and it’s up to the author if they want to consider the social implications of a time period and if they want to determine story, pulled from a list of events. But it does seem that narrative histories are separate from histories themselves, or the history proper that White refers to. These narratives seem to exist to give the past some meaning and to reassure those in the present, which isn’t a bad reason to create art.
Overall, White sums it up nicely by saying, “So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent – absent or, as in some domains of contemporary Western intellectual and artistic culture, programmatically refused” (5).
References and Works Cited
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Third Edition. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2009.
Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction (with Tutorial CD-ROM). 8th ed. New York, NY and London, UK: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.
Drucker, Johanna. “Graphic Devices: Narration and Navigation.” Narrative 16, no. 2 (2008): 121–139.
Drucker, Johanna. “What Is Graphic About Graphic Novels?” English Language Notes, Special Issue: Graphia: The Graphic Novel and Literary Criticism, 46, no. 2 (2008): 39–XI.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Reprint. William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.
White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore, MD: John’s Hopkins University Press, 1973.
White, Hayden. “On Narrative.” Critical Inquiry, 7, no. 1 (Autumn, 1980): 4-27.