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The Narrative Program

By Louis Hébert

Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski

louis_hebert@uqar.ca

1. ABSTRACT

Greimas

Algirdas Julien Greimas

The narrative program (NP), developed by Greimas, is an abstract formula used to represent an action. An utterance of doing (an action) consists of a temporal succession from one state to the opposite state, effected by an agent of some kind (S1: the subject of doing). A state may be broken down into a subject of state (S2) and an object of state (O), and the junction between them, which is either a conjunction (n: the subject with the object) or a disjunction (u: the subject without the object). The long formula of the narrative program is:

NP = F {S1 —Fleche [(S2 u O) —Fleche (S2 n O)]} (the conjunctive NP)
or
NP = F {S1 —Fleche [(S2 n O) —Fleche (S2 u O)]} (the disjunctive NP).

For example, in the fable "The Crow and the Fox", we have:

NP = F {Fox —Fleche [(Fox u Cheese) —Fleche (Fox n Cheese)]}.

The abbreviated formula, which is the most commonly used, gives only the second state:

NP = F {S1 —Fleche (S2 n O)} (the conjunctive NP)
or
NP = F {S1 —Fleche (S2 u O)} (the disjunctive NP).

This would give us, for example:

NP = F {Fox —Fleche (Fox n Cheese)}.

An array of NPs is composed of at least two NPs between which at least one temporal relationship (succession, simultaneity) or one logical relationship (presupposition, mutual exclusion, etc.) is described. For example, the previous NP describing appropriation by the Fox and the (short form) NP of dispossession, NP = F {Fox —Fleche (Crow u Cheese)}, presuppose each other reciprocally, in that one does not exist without the other; the temporal relationship is simultaneity.

This text can be found in extended version in this book:
Louis Hébert, Dispositifs pour l'analyse des textes et des images, Limoges, Presses de l'Université de Limoges, 2007.

Click here to obtain the English translation of this book.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Louis Hébert (2006), « The Narrative Program », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec), http://www.signosemio.com/greimas/narrative-program.asp.

2.THEORY

2.1 ELEMENTS OF THE NARRATIVE PROGRAM

A product of Greimas' semiotics, (see Courtés 1991 for a summary), the narrative program (NP) is an abstract formula used to represent an action. An utterance of doing (an action) consists of a temporal succession from one state to the opposite state, effected by any agent (S1: the subject of doing) and experienced by any patient (S2: the subject of state).

A state may be broken down into a subject of state (S2) and an object of state (O), and the junction between them, which is either a conjunction (n: the subject with the object) or a disjunction (u: the subject without the object). The two opposite states of a single action include the same subject and the same object; the opposition consists solely of the difference in the junction between them (conjunction becomes disjunction or the reverse).

NOTE: EXAMPLES OF CASES WHERE THERE IS NO ACTION

According to the principle that action requires only a change in junction, there is no action, strictly speaking, directed toward the object involved in the following "stories" (which does not mean that other actions do not occur relative to other objects and subjects in the same story): Paul n Illness → Paul n Illness (an identical junction); Paul u Money → Paul n Illness (a different object); Paul n Illness → André u Illness (a different subject). Also, note that in the actantial model, the subject, the object and their junction correspond to the second state of the NP.

2.2 THE FORMULAS OF THE NARRATIVE PROGRAM

The narrative program proper is presented as a long formula or a short formula. The formula for the narrative program, long or short, can be verbalized or explained thusly: the function by which a subject 1 (subject of doing) causes a subject 2 (subject of state) to be conjoined with (or disjoined from) an object (object of state).

The long formula of the narrative program is:

NP = F {S1 —Fleche [(S2 u O) —Fleche (S2 n O)]} (the conjunctive NP)
or
NP = F {S1 —Fleche [(S2 n O) —Fleche (S2 u O)]} (the disjunctive NP).

To give an example of a (conjunctive) NP, in the fable "The Crow and the Fox", we have:

NP = F {Fox —Fleche [(Fox u Cheese) —Fleche (Fox n Cheese)]}.

The short formula of the NP, which is more commonly used, gives only the second state. This is based on the idea that only the second state need be mentioned, since the first state is its opposite (only the junction is different):

NP = F {S1 —Fleche (S2 n O)} (the conjunctive NP)
or
NP = F {S1 —Fleche (S2 u O)} (the disjunctive NP).

Here is an example of a (conjunctive) NP:

NP = F {Fox —Fleche (Fox n Cheese)}.

The subject of doing may or may not correspond to the subject of state; in other words, what instigates the action may or may not be what is affected by it. When the subject of doing is identical to the subject of state (SD = SS or S1 = S2), this is known as reflexive action or performance; otherwise, the action is transitive (SD ≠ SS or S1 ≠ S2). For example, if we take the view that the crow is the one who (unintentionally) gives the cheese to the fox, then we have the following transitive action: NP = F {Crow —Fleche (Fox n Cheese)}.

2.3 SIMPLIFIED FORMULAS FOR NARRATIVE PROGRAMS

To make them easier to read, we often make use of formulas in which we replace the variables with the corresponding characters. We also eliminate the parentheses and brackets. For "The Crow and the Fox", this would give us:

Fox —Fleche Fox n Cheese.

We can even reduce the formula to just the second state and use very minimal notations for the actors, for example (F = fox and C = cheese):

F n C.

When doing this, we need to avoid mistaking a state as part of an action if it was not preceded by the opposite state in the story, that is, if it does not result directly from an action, for example: Crow n Ugly (since the crow did not in fact change from beautiful to ugly).

2.4 ARRAYS OF NARRATIVE PROGRAMS

A NP array is composed of at least two NPs between which at least one temporal relationship (succession, simultaneity) or one logical relationship (simple or reciprocal presupposition, mutual exclusion, comparing/compared, etc.) is identified. We will give a few examples.

The following NPs are in reciprocal presupposition, in that one does not exist without the other, and the temporal relationship is simultaneity.

NP1 = F {Fox—Fleche (Fox n Cheese)}
NP2 = F {Fox —Fleche (Crow u Cheese)}

Conversely, the following NPs are in mutual exclusion simultaneously, but not successively, in that they cannot be realised at the same time. (According to the logic of the story, only one of the two protagonists can have the cheese in his possession at a time.):

NP1 = F {Fox —Fleche (Fox n Cheese)}
NP2 = F {Crow —Fleche (Crow n Cheese)}

In the following example, the second narrative program presupposes the first in succession, but not the reverse. (Carrying out an action presupposes the idea of carrying it out, but the idea of carrying it out is not necessarily followed by its realization.)

NP1 = F {Fox —Fleche (Fox n idea of stealing)}
NP2 = F {Fox —Fleche (Fox n cheese stolen)}

NOTE: NARRATIVE ARRAY AND NARRATIVE TRAJECTORY

We use the term "narrative array" rather than "narrative trajectory", since the notion of the narrative trajectory is linked with certain conceptions from the Paris School that we have not adopted. A narrative trajectory is essentially a series of narrative programs that are consecutive in time and joined by simple presupposition. In addition, when we establish temporal relationships, we will not use Greimasian theory's reverse-chronological system, wherein the presupposing NP comes numerically before the presupposed NP. Consider the following sequence (where the arrow indicates that a NP presupposes the one preceding it): NP1: John n job ← NP2: John n wage ← NP3: John n money. In Greimas' notation, our third NP would be number one, and so on.

It can also be helpful or even necessary to specify ontological (factual/possible NPs) and/or veridictory (true/false NPs) status, as well as the points of view that define them. For example, in a dreaming state, a person may mistakenly believe he is conjoined with the object of his desire. We shall come back to this.

2.4.1 A SIMPLE EXAMPLE OF A NARRATIVE ARRAY

In order to represent temporal succession and simultaneity, we propose using the rows and columns of a table. The following table represents one of the NP arrays that may be used to describe this story: Paul, who is an expert swimmer, rescues Andy from drowning, and then Bernard. (While rescuing Bernard, Paul thinks about the most beautiful moment of his life.) He does not get to Sasha in time to save him.

A simple example of a narrative array

 

T1 (NP1)

T2 (NP2)

T3 (NP3)

A

P —Fleche A n rescue

P —Fleche B n rescue

(P —Fleche S n rescue)

B

 

P —Fleche P n thought

 

We will use alphanumeric codes for the NPs to make them easier to find on the chart. (For example, P —Fleche P n thought is designated as NP2b.) The parentheses around NP3a indicate that it was possible, but did not become factual; it was not realized. (Later we will come back to the possible/factual status of NPs.) Amongst the NPs we have selected, there is no specific logical relationship on the axis of succession, such as presupposition (simple or reciprocal) or mutual exclusion; on the axis of simultaneity, there is a relationship of mutual exclusion, in that any one of the three rescue NPs excludes the other two (the expert swimmer can only save one person at a time).

2.5 ONTOLOGY AND VERIDICTION IN NARRATIVE PROGRAMS

A NP is marked for certain categories, whether implicit or explicit.

2.5.1 VIRTUALIZED / ACTUALIZED / REALIZED NARRATIVE PROGRAMS

A NP is marked implicitly or explicitly for ontological status (status with respect to existence). Greimasian semiotics distinguishes between the following modes of existence (however, "ontological status" is not the term he uses):

A NP is virtualized if there is the idea of or the desire for the action (for instance, the idea of stealing something);
A NP is actualized if the action is under way (for instance, the robbery in progress);
A NP is realized if the action has been completed (for instance, the robbery has been carried out).

The ontological status of a NP tends to change as a function of time in the story. So a NP may be:

  1. nonexistent, that is, completely irrelevant at T1 (for example, an honest citizen who has never thought of stealing until T2);
  2. virtualized at T2;
  3. actualized at T3;
  4. realized at T4.

Obviously, not all virtualized NPs will be actualized, and not all actualized NPs will be realized. The description is generally formulated from the perspective of the last time segment of the story, thus emphasizing NPs that have been realized. However, in some cases it becomes important to account for unrealized NPs, whether virtualized or actualized.

NOTE: VIRTUALIZATION AND ACTUALIZATION IN ISOTOPIC ANALYSIS

The terms "virtualization" and "actualization" do not have the same meaning in NP analysis that they have in isotopic analysis (as in Rastier's interpretive semantics, for example).

2.5.2 FACTUAL/POSSIBLE NARRATIVE PROGRAMS

Drawing from Rastier's dialogics (1997), we propose the following distinctions in ontological status:

A NP is factual if it has been realized;
A NP is possible (the status of what could be or could have been), if it may be realized later in the story (a possible future NP) or if it may have been realized at some later moment, but was not (a possible NP that never came to pass).

2.5.3 TRUE/FALSE NARRATIVE PROGRAMS

A NP is marked implicitly or explicitly for one of the veridictory categories (true or false).

Whether ontological or veridictory, the categories tend to differ according to the viewpoints of the various observing subjects, for example, from one character to another; they also tend to change over time, as we have mentioned.

We can distinguish the reference categories and observing subjects (which correspond to the truth of the text) from what we call the assumptive categories and observing subjects (which are subject to contradiction by the truth of the text). The narrator is generally the reference observing subject, and s/he defines the reference modalities.

For example, during his sleep, a character may mistakenly believe that he has attained the object of his desire; upon awakening, he understands his mistake: the conjunction has not really occurred, and it may never. The NP Dreamer n Object of desire is:

a factual true NP according to the dreamer at time 1 (sleeping)
a factual false NP according to the dreamer at time 2 (awakening)
a factual false NP according to the narrator from time 1 to time 2.

Unless there is some indication to the contrary, the categories 'true' and 'factual' are assigned by default to a NP, and this is from the perspective of the reference observing subject. For example, this is the case with the NP: Fox n Cheese (if no other details are given). This is, in fact, the case with most of the NPs we present in this chapter.

3. APPLICATION: A ROBBERY

Consider the following story:

John is rich and happy. Luke asks Peter to rob John for him. Peter trains in preparation for the robbery. The night of the robbery, Peter opens John's safe. Then, like a dentist pulling a healthy tooth, he robs John; at the same time, Luke is eating a piece of cake. Peter could keep the loot, but he gives it to Luke. Luke checks the loot, keeps it and congratulates Peter. The moral of the story? John is no longer rich, but despite what you might expect, he is still happy.

We propose the following representation for the array of narrative programs contained in this narrative:

An example of a more complex array of narrative programs

 

T1 (NP1)

T2 (NP2)

T3 (NP3)

T4 (NP4)

T5 (NP5)

A

L —Fleche P n ask

P —Fleche P n training

P —Fleche P n open safe

P —Fleche P n money

P —Fleche P u money

B

[P—Fleche L n money]

[P—Fleche L n money]

[P —Fleche L n money]

[P —Fleche L n money]

P —Fleche L n money

C

     

P —Fleche J u money

 

D

     

L —Fleche L n cake

 

E

     

(P —Fleche J u happiness)

 

F

     

Dentist —Fleche patient u healthy tooth

 

 

T6 (NP6)

T7 (NP7)

T8 (NP8)

T9 (NP9)

T10 (NP10)

A

L—Fleche L n check loot L —Fleche P n congratulations

 

 

 

B

 

(L —Fleche P n remuneration)

 

 

 

C

 

 

 

 

 

D

 

 

 

 

 

E

 

 

 

 

 

F

 

 

 

 

 

LEGEND: No brackets or parentheses: a factual NP (realized). Parentheses: a possible NP that did not come to pass (a NP that was not realized, although it could have been). Square brackets: a possible NP (an action under way that is not yet factual, not yet realized).

NOTES:
- Other NPs could be added: For instance, J —Fleche J n discovers he has been robbed; this NP is presupposed by the affirmation that John remains happy in spite of it all.
- It may be relevant to formulate other objects (for example, P —Fleche P n money = P —Fleche P n robbery). The names of the actors need not be identical to those used in the text (for instance, the text does not mention money by name).
- Listed here are only a few of the NPs whose ontological status is that of possibility.
- The ontological status of the NP about the dentist is difficult to define, given that it is a comparing action. But since the compared action is realized, we might say that the same applies to the comparing action.

4. LIST OF WORKS CITED

COURTÉS, J., Analyse sémiotique du discours. De l'énoncé à l'énonciation, Paris: Hachette, 1991.
RASTIER, F., Meaning and Textuality, trans. Frank Collins and Paul Perron, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
PECTOR, Norman B., ed., The Complete Fables of Jean de la Fontaine, Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

5. EXERCISE

Bring your childhood memories to life by identifying the narrative programs in the following text and organizing them into one or more arrays (groups) of narrative programs.

"The Crow and the Fox"

At the top of a tree perched Master Crow;
In his beak he was holding a cheese.
Drawn by the smell, Master Fox spoke, below.
The words, more or less, were these:
"Hey, now, Sir Crow! Good day, good day!
How very handsome you do look, how grandly distingué!
No lie, if those songs you sing
Match the plumage of your wing,
You're the phoenix of these woods, our choice."
Hearing this, the Crow was all rapture and wonder.
To show off his handsome voice,
He opened beak wide and let go of his plunder.
The Fox snapped it up and then said, "My Good Sir,
Learn that each flatterer
Lives at the cost of those who heed.
This lesson is well worth the cheese, indeed."
The Crow, ashamed and sick,
Swore, a bit late, not to fall again for that trick.


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