Oral Literary Genres and Narrative Theory
Personal narratives are so common that for a long time researchers overlooked them as a subject of study. And yet they represent a genre that demands creativity and skill in composition and performance and a sensitive interpretive competency in response. In fact, while the personal narrative as a folklore genre builds upon traditional resources, any given example of the genre is by definition a creative text. The experiences at the base of personal narratives and the values that are expressed through them are original elements the tellers add to the tradition of the genre when they create their stories. And, as we shall see, the allusions to common or private reality listeners hear when such stories are told are the building blocks of literary folkloristic interpretation. Together the tradition of oral genres and the process of interpretation constitute a fundamental narrative theory, a commentary on the nature of oral literature. In chapter 3 we shall consider how the listener interprets. In this chapter we shall consider the literary tradition of the personal narrative, the formal, thematic, and functional aspects of the genre itself.
The personal narrative is a prose narrative relating a personal experience; it is usually told in the first person, and its content is nontraditional. This definition of the personal narrative is one I offered several years ago (Stahl 1977a), in an article focusing on the place of such stories in the context of established folklore genres. This and similar definitions suggested by other researchers have been dissected, contested, reassembled, sometimes even accepted wholeheartedly over the past decade. Most recently, the definition was taken up again and left at least two-thirds intact by Linda Dégh (1985) in her plenary session paper at the Eighth International Congress for Folk Narrative Research, in Bergen, 1984. The two questions I thought most pressing when that definition was first formulated are implicit in the particular aspects chosen for emphasis in that working description: that is, is the personal narrative an autonomous genre, and is it folklore? Interestingly, though the first question has been answered positively and with relative ease by a large number of researchers, the second question meets with a certain underplayed ambivalence in the discipline.
Can something be an oral literary genre and yet not be folklore? Normally, one would expect a folk narrative genre to exhibit traditional content—not simply an oral presentation mode or a traditional style, or even simply an established niche in the teller’s personal repertoire—points I presented earlier (1977b) in defending the folkloric status of the genre despite its nontraditional content. My argument was that even though the narrative content of such stories could not be corroborated precisely (as traditional plots or motifs), still the values or attitudes reflected in the stories are culturally shared and thus traditional. However, claiming that embedded or even generative values are traditional is not the same as identifying as folklore the stories that reflect those values. From a conservative perspective on “What is folklore?” the stories themselves would not be folklore so long as their plots were idiosyncratic. A narrative based on a teller’s personal experience is not a narrative taken from oral tradition and retold by the storyteller, nor is it a folklore item whose plot or major motif can be corroborated by a folklorist, no matter how alert and patient.
My own perspective is more flexible on this point, but I can appreciate why the lack of traditional content in personal narratives would be disturbing, especially to those who consider a more obvious collectivity central to the definition of folklore. Ironically, from an emic perspective there is ample evidence for the folkloric nature of personal narratives. Fieldworkers such as Joe Graham (1981) and Keith Basso (1984) and theorists such as Paul Helas (1981) have demonstrated that, at least within specific cultures, native taxonomies recognize the collectivity of personal experience stories. But the field of folkloristics has tended to cling to an etic, cross-cultural perspective that requires satisfying first the demands of the analytical framework of the discipline. The personal narrative, in other words, must be seen as exhibiting the essential features of a folklore genre to qualify as folklore.
Many studies have identified such features, either in a comprehensive look at the genre or in a narrower consideration, usually, of function.1 Because much of this research presupposes that the precise distinctions typical of etic classifications are in order, there is often some discussion of differences between narratives dealing with belief (memorates) and the secular personal narrative, or between the longer life-history account and the single-episode, anecdotal form. My own emphasis in this study is on the secular, single-episode personal experience story. While I am prepared to argue that this genre is a natural or emic category at least in American culture, I do not feel that its separation from such close relatives as the memorate, the local character anecdote, the fuller life history, the family story, and the local history event is clear-cut or always desirable.2 However, within an etic system, the personal narrative is easily distinguishable as a particular kind of oral narrative. As a formal, “literary” category, the personal narrative meets at least those requirements essential to its identification as a genre.
As I mentioned in the last chapter, the question of etic versus emic genres can be very inhibiting if taken too seriously (i.e., if it seems to impose an ideology). Dan Ben-Amos (1969), in his influential article distinguishing “Analytical Categories and Ethnic Genres,” does, I think, suggest that attention to ethnic (emic) genres represents both a more enlightened and an ethically superior concern than does attention to genres imposed as supposedly universal categories by the scholar (see as well Harris 1968:568-604). The point is well taken, at least insofar as it makes researchers aware of their own ethnocentrism. Beyond that, however, one must simply admit that genre recognition, and especially genre description, is an analytical activity. The scholar’s audience is always the larger academic community, and the analyses offered by “natives” will have to be made meaningful in analytical terms the academic community will understand. For example, Joe Graham has written about the caso, an emic genre similar to what I have etically identified as a personal narrative. The designation is culture-specific, as is the particular genre conceptualization itself (i.e., the term refers specifically to “the point” of the story, not the recognized plot). Similarly, Richard Bauman (1972b) has identified an emic genre of personal narrative called the yarn among Nova Scotian fishermen.
The discovery of such terms is very valuable, as are the culture-specific studies from which they derive, but most scholars, especially those outside the field of folklore, want as well the cross-cultural advantage of etic terms. The genre they will recognize must present itself in the analytical trappings the academic community has come to expect in the description of a genre—the conventional features of style, content, form, and function. These analytical terms grow out of literary theory and anthropological functionalism. More recently the field of semiotics has developed a more comprehensive but less widely known terminology for a “poetics of folk literature,” including rules of presentation, textual patterns, plot structure, and semantic patterns (see Jason 1975; Greimas and Courtés 1979 ). The semiotic and literary critical systems are not directly analogous; however, their similarity is sufficient to warrant choosing the literary-anthropological terminology since it is more widely known.
These four conventional aspects of genre description—style, content, form, and function—are all themselves conceptual constructs, and they inevitably overlap. Bennison Gray (1969) laments the ambiguity of the concept of literary style. For some, style might be what Alan Dundes (1964b) calls the “texture” of the text; Henry Glassie (1968:185) argues that style represents the choice made from among alternative content possibilities. Often style simply implies a characteristic way of manipulating content. On the other hand, content is typically considered either the Rohstuff that exists prior to the production or performance (see Weisstein 1968:135-36) or the specific motifs chosen to “fill in” the narrative structure (see Dundes 1962). Structure (or form) is usually recognized as the essential feature identifying any text as an example of a literary genre. Typically, however, prose structure is described in terms so abstract that the genres so defined tend toward large universal categories, even simply the category of narrative itself (see, e.g., Dundes 1963; or among literary critics, Frye 1957 or Kermode 1966). When genre-specific structures are identified, they tend to reflect culturespecific functions, as in Dundes’s (1971) study of African friendship-breaking tales.3 And finally, since function is a scholarly interpretation of an item’s role in its specific cultural context, the analysis of function brings us back to the discussion of context and its effect upon performance style, especially style as abstracted into such levels as cultural, regional, family-based, generic, or personal.4
Defining the Personal Narrative
The features typically used in the description of a genre are inextricably interrelated; their separation or articulation is always arbitrary. Furthermore, a consequence of looking to all four features is an overwhelming inclusiveness—the description of the genre would seem to survey all of the “cultural resources” used by a performer (Abrahams 1969a) and audience. Charles T. Scott (1965) has suggested that a solution to this too-encompassing aspect of genre description is to instead define the genre by identifying only that combination of features that is distinctive for the specific genre. In this case I would argue that three features combine to define the personal narrative, and these three features draw upon all four conventional aspects of genre description—no one aspect is exclusively essential. The three features are (1) dramatic narrative structure, (2) a consistently implied assertion that the narrative is true, and (3) the self-same identity of the teller and the story’s main character (the Ich-Bericht form).5
Structure is one feature of narrative that has received considerable attention, especially as an argument for traditionality in oral literary genres. One of the most impressive such arguments I have seen is a study in which Robert Georges (1972) demonstrates the actual transmission of abstract narrative structure in the absence of content transmission in an oral storytelling tradition. In this instance, the narratives are of the genre that would normally be called Märchen or fairy tales—except that individual recorded texts do not represent indexed (traditional) tale types (plots). Rather, the stories contain traditional motifs in ever-new combinations, but those combinations always maintain the “required” traditional abstract structure of the genre. In that particular culture (Balkan), convention demands that the genre be maintained, while the specific content (the plots created using the generic structure) must vary from one teller to the next. As with personal narratives, the genre is itself the primary traditional aspect of the storytelling.
In rare instances, one can see the obvious power of traditional structure in the personal narrative. The rarity of these instances is tied to the second essential feature of the genre listed above—the implied assertion that the narrative is true. Typically one cannot check on the truthfulness of a storyteller’s account of a personal experience. And of course it would be an ungracious listener who would openly challenge any story that seems reasonable. Nevertheless, people will sometimes admit to “making the story better,” and in some cases that literary enhancement is not simply a matter of exaggeration or enrichment through fabricated details. Instead it may take the form of actual imposition of a dramatic structure over the otherwise unimpressive sequence of facts. For example, consider the following story told by Larry Scheiber, a native of Huntington, Indiana:6
The Christmas Eve Drunk (my title)
Larry: Me and Dudu, anyway, used to go Christmas caroling. And one night I come home—and this was when I was first married, see? My wife still loved me and everything. And I came home so drunk and full of mud and shit from falling down in people’s yards. It was one of those drooly winters, you know, not much snow, just shit. And we were covered with mud and everything else. And I smelled like a—oh, Lord—a distillery! You know how rank guys are when they’re drunk—.
Carol: I sointainly do!
Larry: I couldn’t even stand myself! Aww, God, but I come in there, “Well, hi, lovey-poo!” and it was two o’clock in the morning. And she just said, “Snoot!” [puts nose in air], and went into the back bedroom all by herself with the kids and would not sleep with me.
Carol: Oh, you poor baby!
Larry: Yes! and I was feeling amorous. Here I had about half a hard on. . . . But anyway, I got to laying there in the bed all by myself, and you know, the room starts tilting and all this shit, and you start going ohm-papa, ohm-papa [makes motion of up-and-down ride on merry-go-round with hand]. And I started getting sick, you know, and you can feel it coming. And I staggered out of bed—and I had my combat boots on in bed—there was mud all over the damn sheets and everything! And—at the same time I had to puke, she was laying in there thinking, “It’s no time to be mean to Hubby at Christmas time, I’m going back in there and sleep with him.”
So she’s coming down the hallway in order to make amends, and I’m running down the hallway in order to puke. [Laughter] And I smash into her [smacks fist into hand]—she weighs about a hundred and five soakin’ wet—and I knocked her right on her ass and puked all over her. [Laughter] She—honest to God—she didn’t speak to me till Easter! She’s a witch, boy, when she gets mad, and I ain’t shittin’ you, that made her mad!
The incident at the base of the story had happened about ten years earlier (from this recorded telling). Some years after the incident, Larry was divorced from his first wife—thus the line “My wife still loved me and everything” in the story. Larry is not suggesting that this incident brought on his divorce, and though in a poignant way the story does reflect a certain self-awareness, it is told primarily for its comic effect. Basically Larry’s story is a bemused indictment of his own behavior, and more clearly so when we realize that—except for the fact that Larry once came home very drunk shortly after he was married—the story is almost entirely a fabrication. Larry’s ex-wife has consistently maintained that the incident never happened as Larry describes it; rather, she insists that though he spent too much time with “the boys,” he very rarely got drunk, and he most certainly did not ever throw up all over her (or even in front of her). Though on the surface we simply have a case of conflicting stories, I am willing to accept as accurate the testimony of Larry’s ex-wife. One would not forget being “puked on,” especially in a situation so dramatic as Larry’s story suggests it was. Instead, I think we can assume that Larry did come home drunk from a Christmas celebration. Very likely he was in fact sick at some point during the night, and very likely his amorous attempts were ineffectual (“about half a hard on” is probably all too true). He probably surmised his wife’s irritation with him accurately enough. To some extent, the story serves to steer attention away from the real source of irritation—his tardiness and neglect of his wife and family—to the more “forgivable” sin of drunkenness. But the amazing plot of this short story did not happen; it was created by Larry in part as a response to the demands of the genre of the personal narrative.
Larry is a master of the genre. Whatever his personal motivation for any particular story, his literary or artistic motivation is always to use the genre as a fine instrument, one whose capabilities he knows and utilizes fully. A personal narrative must have a dramatic plot. How can the theme of drunken and inconsiderate behavior be wedded most effectively to a dramatic structure? In this case, Larry chose to build up a dramatic plot by casting his ex-wife as the protagonist and himself as the antagonist in a typical conflict situation. As in Freytag’s ideal “pyramid,” the rising action, or complication, begins soon after the initial situation leading to conflict is described:7
a) Larry’s wife is waiting (until 2:00 A.M.) for him to come home from a night of carousing with the boys (she is home with the children).
b) Larry comes home late; he is drunk and covered with mud.
a) Larry’s drunken behavior offends his wife, especially his implied interest in sexual intimacy despite his present unsavory appearance and smell and his understandably reduced capabilities.
b) Larry’s wife responds by refusing to sleep with him; she goes instead to the children’s room.
a) Larry’s wife regrets “being mean” to Larry (i.e., she repents from withholding sexual intimacy as a punishment of her husband).
b) Larry realizes that he is nauseated and is going to have to vomit. The scene is set, then, for the climax in the structure (and the motivational crisis).
a) Larry runs down the hall toward the bathroom.
b) Larry’s wife walks toward the bedroom to join her husband.
c) Larry runs into his wife, knocks her down, and throws up on her.
a) Larry realizes that he is sick; his actions are “out of control”; he cannot be responsible for his own behavior.
b) Larry’s wife loses her own control over the action of the plot as Larry’s drunkenness and nausea become the directors of the action.
c) Ironically, “drunken Larry,” as the antagonist, triumphs over his wife (the protagonist) only in his own mind; his wife’s motivations were all, of course, only his own projections (even in the fabricated story); “sober Larry” (the source of these projections and the real protagonist) would welcome his wife’s attention and condemns “drunken Larry’s” behavior since it shuts him off from his wife’s affection.
Finally, the story closes with the wife’s bitter response to “her” humiliation—she refused to speak with Larry for three months (till Easter—hyperbole, to be sure).
a) Larry’s wife refuses to speak to him.
b) Implied: Larry accepts this punishment as just, given the reprehensible behavior of “drunken Larry.”
It is appropriate that his wife’s response is a refusal to communicate verbally, just as her earlier response was a refusal to communicate sexually. For Larry—who is both exaggerating his behavior and condemning its implications at a symbolic level, since the events did not really happen—the lack of affection from his wife is ultimately seen as something he has brought upon himself. And he asserts this notion dramatically; he creates a personal narrative from the barest of facts. Nothing in the incident itself demands the dramatic structure Larry has given it. Instead Larry has used the genre of the personal narrative as a directing literary strategy.
Though dramatic structure is easily demonstrable in “The Christmas Eve Drunk,” it is the inaccuracy of the report itself that allows me to infer some stronger directing power in the genre that encourages such manipulation of the facts toward a literary ideal. Increasingly among literary theorists, there is disagreement and confusion on the issue of fiction as an essential feature of literature. In a larger sense, the argument is moot, since all literary products are the result of artistic manipulation. Still, on a relative scale it would seem that a narrative based on a real incident should not be considered fictional in the same sense that narratives obviously created from the imagination of the author are considered fiction. On the other hand, speech-act theorists argue from the other direction that all fiction is referential with respect to real interactions and events and, therefore, that all such literature is based on real events. More problematic in folklore studies is the reception of narrative material by the audience. That is, as Tamotsu Shibutani (1966:7) suggests in relation to rumor study, it is necessary to distinguish between the problem of accuracy and that of credibility . It would seem that even fairly drastic manipulation of the raw material, as in Larry’s Christmas Eve story, may positively affect the credibility of the narrative by increasing the pattern and familiarity or universality of the experience for both the teller and the listener.
The personal narrative always involves some manipulation of the truth of the experience. Such manipulation involves a degree of falsification, but generally only so much as to produce appropriate story material. This relatively minor degree of falsification occurs at three levels: (1) in the teller’s perception of the experience, (2) in the initial telling of the personal narrative, and (3) in the readaptations of the story to the varying contexts of retelling. Falsification that occurs at the level of perception is reflective of patterns established either through archetypes or universally known structures or through previous personal experience. In the first instance, as C. G. Jung (1958:112-13) suggests, an archetypal or universally shared pattern or theme might create a corresponding vision of the experience in the individual’s initial perception, even though in reality the experience does not illustrate the universal theme exactly.8 And in the second instance, any new experience is comprehended through reference to past personal experience if no collective perceptual pattern presents itself. Thus, the experience is filtered through preexistent patterns even before it is articulated as a story, and these patterns represent both personal and cultural conventions that serve to generalize actions and events into manageable perceptual units (cf. Allport and Postman 1947 and Adams 1971).
With the initial telling of the personal narrative, the teller adapts the perceived experience to the demands of the genre and the specific situation. Many incidents are recognized as “story-worthy” by the teller simply because his perception of the incident and his general sense of the genre fit together easily. Other times a bit more work is involved: the teller must negotiate between accuracy and the demands of the genre in order to enhance the credibility or “tellability” of the material (see Shibutani 1966:27, and cf. distortion of initial testimony as discussed by Vansina 1965:76). As Polly Stewart (1975) suggests of the oral legend, personal narratives are “told convincingly rather than fictively.” Manipulation of the reality involved is for the sake of rhetoric—to persuade the listener toward an appreciation of the cultural truths represented by the story. While it is not important that every detail of the story be accurate or even believed, it is important that the listener know that the story is not intended as a piece of fiction; it is not a first-person joke or a tall tale (or lie), genres which, to be effective, ultimately require the listener’s recognition of fictionality.9 For the personal narrative genre to function properly in any storytelling situation, both the teller and the listener must understand that the story—no matter how rhetorically enhanced— is to be accepted as true.
In effect, then, the implied assertion that a personal narrative is true is maintained despite the seemingly contradictory demand that the story exhibit an aesthetically acceptable dramatic structure. Enmeshed in this web of contradictory demands is also the third generic feature—the self-same identity of the teller and the story’s main character. The teller’s identification with the story character is the primary means of certifying the truth of the incident upon which the story is based. That is, the teller offers the authority of his or her own integrity and personal experience as the basis for the truthfulness of the story. On the other hand, the teller is easily implicated in the “literariness” of the interaction (storytelling) since he or she is the one who has given a piece of reality its dramatic structure and has as well transformed a subjective “self’ into a dramatic “character.” On a narrative level, the “I” of the story is simply the main character or, structurally in Propp’s (1928) terms, the “hero,” the person from whose point of view the actions of all other dramatis personae are to be defined and evaluated. However, because the teller identifies in actuality with the character, the “I” of the story brings with it a complexity far beyond that defined internally by the actions in the story.
I shall consider the complexity of the teller’s identity in some detail later in this chapter. For now, the Ich-Bericht form is simply one of the three essential features in the definition of the genre. A fourth feature is equally essential but speaks not to the question of genre but rather to that more problematic query—whether the personal narrative is or is not folklore. I have described the personal narrative as secular in contrast to the memorate—a personal account of a supernatural or psychic experience. However, the modifier secular is heuristic, reflecting more upon academic prejudice about the concept of “belief” than upon any real differences between memorates and personal narratives—a point David Hufford (1977) discusses very effectively in considcring stories involving “modern” beliefs.
Nevertheless, it is instructive to adopt the distinction between memorate and personal narrative if only for the sake of the methodological aid it provides. Lauri Honko (1964) has suggested that folk beliefs play a significant generative role in memorates; that is, the belief usually precedes the experience and thus influences the storyteller’s perception of the incident that forms the core of the memorate. If the personal narrative is the secular equivalent of the memorate, then the secular beliefs represented by such academic terms as values, attitudes, or Alan Dundes’s (1972) term folk ideas would form the core of these secular narratives. I would identify such “nonverbalized folklore” as the folkloric content of personal narratives. The folklore, in this case, is neither verbal nor material, nor even customary in the sense of recognized behavior patterns. Instead it is the nonverbalized, tacit knowledge that collectively makes up an individual’s world view.
Strictly speaking, personal narratives are not folklore, but they are a primary means by which a special kind of folklore is expressed. Nonverbalized folklore—attitudes, values, prejudices, tastes—would be present but “covert” in any kind of folk narrative. As with “unrecognized symbols” in anthropological research, the problem lies in scholarly attempts to identify values the storytellers themselves would not ordinarily verbalize (see Hanson 1975:96-99). The advantage of the personal narrative is that the storyteller chooses the specific situation (plot) that aptly expresses a covertly held value. Milton Rokeach’s (1968) comment on the nature of attitudes is useful here: any one attitude, he argues, actually represents two interrelated attitudes—an attitude toward an object or person and an attitude toward that person in a specific situation. By describing a personal experience, a storyteller identifies a specific situation he or she considers a significant showcase for his or her own actions. Why that situation or plot is significant is still a matter for interpretation, but the folklorist can at least be assured that the individual storyteller considers the plot of her story significant—precisely because, to reverse Raymond Firth’s (1953) definition, behavior is a way of talking about values. The well-structured plots of personal narratives serve both the teller and listener as vehicles for expressing and learning values.
Describing and Classifying Personal Narratives
Narrative Structure and Function
Structure, then, is an essential feature in our conceptualization of the personal narrative genre. Before structuralism gave way to poststructuralism in critical theory, folkloristics enjoyed a brief day in the sun reminiscent of the earlier influence of the Grimms on philological and comparative literary theory. Both Propp and Lévi-Strauss used folklore materials in their structural schemes, and scholars interested in narrative theory soon gained an incidental familiarity with the structures and content of folk narratives (see Scholes and Kellogg 1966; Scholes 1974; Lévi-Strauss 1963; and Propp 1928). What literary theorists found problematic in structural methodology was the notion of “function.” While it was clear that structuralism could explain how a unit of narrative functioned within the literary landscape of the text, it was not so evident how this notion was related to the realities of social life reflected in the text. Alan Dundes’s (1962; 1963) substitution of terms derived from linguistics— motifeme for the structural slots or functions and allomotif for the narrative content that would fill them—removed some of the ambiguity surrounding Propp’s function. Nevertheless, inherent in Propp’s term and methodology and certainly in the “paradigmatic” structuralism of Lévi-Strauss was the tie to anthropological functionalism.10 More recently, Dundes (1980b) has also reemphasized the connection between the functional substitutes represented in the recognition of allomotifs as interchangeable “symbolic equivalents.” To be informative methodologies, most structural schemes have reincorporated the less precise functional units that offer some explanation of how narrative content reflects real social functions in the lives of the people who tell and listen to the stories.
Personal narratives represent a particularly useful case when addressing problems surrounding narrative function, structure, form, and content. By definition, the teller of a personal narrative and the structural “hero” or primary character are one and the same. This fact alone forces a researcher to reconsider the relationships to be analyzed in a structural or functional essay. Typically the object of analysis is a text in folkloristics, but, as Henry Glassie has pointed out, the aim of structural or functional analysis is to relate the object to culture, particularly the culture of the individual presenting or using the folklore item (the object). “A complete statement of an object’s functional potential requires a definition of the functional field,” says Glassie. The most directly communicative model, he suggests, would be one “which sets the expressing person . . . at the center, and draws in the major lines that relate the person through the object. . . to his context” (Glassie 1973:335). If the “expressing person” is also the main character of the narrative, any structural scheme that focuses upon the relationship between the “hero” and the primary functions in the narrative will inevitably expose certain relationships between the teller and the teller’s culture or frames of reference.
Such a structural scheme does not share the subjective paradigm of poststructuralist studies. As Elliott Oring (1976) has suggested in regard to functionalism generally, any function is an abstraction offered as an explanation by the researcher. Even when it is identified as an internal evaluation in the story—as in Labov and Waletzky’s (1967) analysis of personal narratives—it still represents the researcher’s own abstraction of the unit considered functionally significant. A consistent direction for such functional analysis to take in personal narrative research is one addressing the narrative as a vehicle for personal values or world view. Some researchers follow Labov in suggesting that such values are expressed directly in the text (see especially Robinson 1981). Others move to a psychological analysis which draws an analogy between the literary creation and the personal psychology of the teller, or they “expand” the text (as discussed in chapter 1) to include the teller’s biography and/or world view (see Langness 1965; Pentikainen 1977 and 1978; Agar 1980; and Burns 1984). My own contention is that the expression of personal values is indeed the hidden agenda in any such storytelling, and the most effective way to identify those values is to employ a literary folkloristic methodology.
In terms of William Bascom’s (1965) classic formulation of the four functions of folklore, the assertion that personal narratives function as vehicles for personal values is too restrictive; it does not speak to functions beyond that of the rhetorical intent of the storyteller. Bascom identified the basic functions of folklore as (1) entertainment, (2) validating culture, (3) education, and (4) maintaining conformity. Oring (1976) telescoped numbers 2 and 4 and claimed that there are but three basic functions, but in either case the explanations (functions) are propounded with regard to the entire group (the culture) rather than the individual storyteller or listener. The overall function under which all functions could be grouped is, according to Bascom, that of “maintaining the stability of culture” (297). In researching the personal narrative, we have moved not only to items that are limited in circulation but also to items that serve primarily to express and maintain the stability of an individual personality rather than an entire culture. The overall function of the personal narrative is to allow for the discovery of the teller’s identity (especially in terms of values and character traits) and to maintain the stability of that identity for both the teller and listener.
Stable Content: Character, Values, and Event
To speak of stability is to invoke as well its conceptual opposite—the possibility of change over time. In personal narratives, the “stability of identity” grows out of implications in the teller’s use of the pronoun I. Time is a factor, as is the notion of identity itself, but whereas time is assumed to be a variable in regard to the speaker’s use of I, identity is assumed to be a stable entity. Consider, for example, my mother’s story of “The Barber Shop.” The setting for the incident in this story is Huntington, Indiana, in 1942; my father (Charles Dolby) worked as a barber in a small shop downtown. My mother was thirty-one years old when the incident occurred, but my recording of the story was made when she was in her sixties. Superficially, her use of the pronoun I in the story is simply to identify herself as the speaker. In other words, the person who is telling the story is using the word I as she normally would in everyday conversation. Typically we give little thought to this casual use of first-person singular; it is simply a part of our grammar. The referentiality involved is assumed to be very straightforward; that is, the speaker refers to herself, and that self is visible before us. Of course, it really is not so simple as that. The complexity in the assumed frame of reference is apparent when we ask who “I” really is, who the listener is, and what is the relationship between them.
In the case of “The Barber Shop,” the character “I” is my mother, I am the listener, and our relationship is that of mother and daughter. When my mother uses the pronoun I in her story, I “hear” and refer mentally to my current sense of her personality, a sense developed through a long and intimate association. It is, of course, a subjective belief on my part that makes my sense of her personality a real configuration for me. It is amazing how tenuous is the basis for our knowledge of another person. Even in regard to someone I know so well as my own mother, the process by which I come to hold a stable sense of her self as an autonomous personality remains a mystery. Nevertheless, it is that mysterious self that constitutes one aspect of the character “I” as I hear the story.
A second aspect of the character “I” involves my mother’s personality as I construe it for the period during which the incident in the story took place. In this instance, the event took place before I was born (in fact, before either of my two older brothers was born). For me as listener, the jump to this second aspect of the “I” character is one of the most exciting effects of the intimacy created by the storytelling. It is not simply a matter of going back in time, but rather of going back in someone else’s time, and back in the evolution of someone else’s sense of her own self and the life that has created that self. It is perhaps only infrequently that we indulge our own reminiscences and transport ourselves into our own pasts. Rarer still is the opportunity to experience someone else’s past as though it were a present moment. A storyteller gives us a glimpse of someone who was but is now changed, a self that shares some consistencies with the person we now see before us, but a self that could not be known to us save through a story such as this.
In personal narrative, the character “I” always confronts the listener with the task of integrating at least these two referents into a sense of the personality of the teller. That is, as listener I must combine my current sense of my mother’s personality with my understanding of who she was as the “I” character in the story. We can appreciate the significance of this referential complexity by considering our response to the character “I” if she were in fact not the storyteller but rather simply the structural “hero,” the story’s main character. That is, if I were to read the transcript of “The Barber Shop” with all the associative cues taken out (e.g., references to Dad, Carol, and Dick, casual reference to downtown, etc.), I would respond to the story and its main character at that static level usually associated with written short stories. I would view “I” as a static character, the story as a revealing sketch, like the chapters in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. There would be no diachronic sense of a “dynamic character” but rather a fixed characterization. I would recognize a personality, but I would not be shocked into a recognition of the author in the character. However, because I know that the teller is or was the character “I,” my response must integrate at least these two images of the teller, and that integration necessarily creates a dynamic character in my mind. Inevitably, a personal narrative conflates to a Bildungsroman, the more so if I have heard other personal narratives from the storyteller or interacted with her in my daily life.
The third aspect of the “I” character is perhaps the most intriguing, for it can seemingly take effect only when—as in the typical telling of personal narratives—the teller and listener share some relationship defined by their common folk groups. In the case of my listening to “The Barber Shop,” it is significant that I am the storyteller’s daughter. Not only is the storyteller a real person rather than some paper author, but she is a person who is a part of me. As Tennyson says, “I am a part of all that I have met,” and in this case certainly a mother can be found in her daughter. Culture and personal behavior no less than biological genes are conveyed through the family. The “I” of the story evokes a natural identification as no fictional narrative character can. We are very much alike—the teller and I—not so much simply because of the genes we share but because so much of what has taught her to define herself has also taught me to define myself. Even when I listen to Larry’s first-person narratives, I readily identify with those aspects of his personality that reflect our common enculturation. My response to his experience is not entirely vicarious. Not only does the “I” of his stories share some cultural clay with me, but I consciously acknowledge some sense of identification with the “I” through a recognition of our shared folk groups.
Because the “I” of a personal narrative suggests these various meanings, it would not be surprising if the listener could not identify a stable character or world view for the teller as the functional requirement would have it. Nevertheless, the personal narrative does elicit just such a response from the listener. Like the riddle, the personal narrative is a dynamic genre. It requires that the listener discover the values or character traits the teller expresses through the story. Jan Brunvand (1978:70) describes the traditional “question guessing game,” in which an answer is given and the challenge is to formulate a question to which the stated answer would be an appropriate response. Similarly, the personal narrative tells a story which serves as an illustration of a theme, a value, or a character trait. Part of the listener’s task is to formulate the question to which the story is an answer, to ask, “What do I know about this person from hearing this story?” And the major clues provided the listener are found in the structure, form, and content of the stories themselves.
At issue in some studies of personal narrative is the nature of the event recounted in the story. What do such stories teach us about historical experience rather than about individuals? My own earlier use of the term personal narrative is generally restricted to a teller’s own first-person, single-episodic account of a secular experience. I detect in our culture an emic (natural) distinction among personal narratives that are (1) multiepisodic (and thus a form of life history), or again (2) personal narratives (memorates) that recount events generally recognized as supernatural or psychic rather than secular, and finally (3) personal narratives based on an experience the teller or any of his listeners would identify not as supernatural or even “extranormal” but rather as secular. I am referring here not to topical, one-time narratives but rather to the range of personal experience stories that come to be—for a time at least—stable, repeated narratives in the teller’s repertoire. This feature of repetition is an essential, though minimal, requirement in the definition of a folkloristic text. A more compelling question, however, is, How does an experience—be it ever so secular—become an event worthy of literary transformation into a personal narrative? Personal perception is the key to the identification of any event. It might be said generally that an individual’s personal perception creates an event out of the Rohstuff of ongoing life. The telling of a personal narrative merely extends that creative act into the realm of literary expression. The event becomes a story.
What influences the perception of the storyteller such that an experience becomes an event, and that event becomes a story? Scholars of rumor and legend have attributed the creation of memorates to the suggestive power of traditional beliefs or customs. As Lauri Honko (1964) demonstrates, it is the belief in a given supernatural concept (e.g., barn spirits) that allows the storyteller to first perceive a particular coincidence as a supernatural event; it is the tradition of the belief tale that then allows the believer to create a story relating that event. For the secular personal experience story, it is the literary form itself that is primary. The genre of the personal narrative is an established tradition, along with its typical themes. Familiarity with these themes allows the storyteller to perceive an experience both as an event and, more important, as the material for a good story. Much more than the supernatural memorate, the secular personal narrative exists for the sake of its own promotion as a literary form. It reinforces not the traditional beliefs or practices of the teller’s culture but rather the themes of literary expression. Themes are the building blocks of secular narrative events. Through personal narratives, life learns to imitate art, history validates experience.
Thematic/Structural Types of the Personal Narrative
The abstraction of literary themes from narratives—oral or written—is an analytical exercise, but the use of themes constitutes creative expression. Of course, the use of themes is impossible to pinpoint without the analytical exercise, something a researcher might do in a purposeful manner but an activity that may seem to be an entirely unconscious “competency” underlying the storyteller’s performance. In fact, the storyteller is not so innocent of analytical motives as we may suppose. It is, after all, the storyteller himself (herself) who has chosen to create both a story and an event where neither has existed before. There is ample incentive for creating personal narratives, especially in nonauthoritative societies—such as contemporary America—where the individual’s value system is increasingly constructed piecemeal and with a certain amount of existential angst rather than adopted intact from a single authorizing source such as the church or an ideologically rigid state. The individual is not only free to choose his own values, he must choose. Some choose to affirm the values of various cults or religious groups; others struggle to affirm their own volition, their own power to create exemplary acts—the events of personal narratives. By creating a personal narrative, a storyteller articulates and affirms personal values along three thematic lines: (1) character, (2) behavior, and (3) attitude. The storyteller chooses events that illustrate themes of characterization, didactic themes (behavior), and humorous or ironic themes (attitude). The telling is the choosing of the theme and the creation of the event.
The personal narrative is—fortunately—a very malleable form. In fact, it adapts itself structurally to the slightly variable needs of these three thematic lines. We shall see in some detail later how this is accomplished, but for now a working generalization might be that the personal narrative closely resembles the anecdote when its primary thematic concern is characterization, the Witz (or joke) when it is humor or irony, and the exemplum when it is ethical elucidation. The nonsecular memorate , on the other hand, takes the form of the belief tale or legend. These generalizations about the form of the personal narrative can be useful in identifying just which thematic concern is dominant in any given narrative. Often a story will combine elements of all three primary themes—characterization, humor, mild homiletics—but usually one thematic concern will dominate and influence the teller’s unconscious choice of form.
Compare, for example, my grandmother’s “Spelling Bee” story which introduces the Prologue, with Larry Scheiber’s “Tiny Wires and the Chicken Blood” (the text will be presented verbatim in chapter 3). Briefly, in the “Chicken Blood” story, Larry and his friend Tiny are two bachelors sharing a trailer. One time, after fishing for catfish with a special bait, chicken blood, they put the bucket of bait under the trailer and forget about it. Weeks later, the bait begins to smell awful. The rest of the story is a humorous account of how they try to get rid of the stinking bucket of chicken blood—with a humorous/disgusting climax in which Larry spills the bucket all over himself. In comparing these two personal narratives, I would contend that my grandmother’s “Spelling Bee” story embodies a theme of characterization, while Larry’s “Chicken Blood” story involves a humorous theme and illustrates an attitude of mild irony.
There are, of course, elements of both kinds of theme in both stories. There is humor in the “Spelling Bee” story, and the “Chicken Blood” episode does serve to characterize Larry as a basically unruffled, cooperative fellow with a friendly disposition (if questionable housekeeping habits). However, the dominance of the themes of characterization and humor for “Spelling Bee” and “Chicken Blood” respectively can be demonstrated through attention to the structure or form of each story. The theme of characterization generally entails the form of the anecdote. In this case, my grandmother offers a self-characterization through an anecdotal narrative in which her straightforward integrity is highlighted in contrast to the phoniness of the “fine ladies” from the church. There are other traits as well—her competency as a speller, her quiet self-possession, her competitive spirit, even her cleverness in figuring out what the word really was. But it is her integrity—her determination to see that the truth is spoken plainly, that communication between people is as clear as it possibly can be—that is her primary characteristic in this story.
The personal narrative is told for the sake of its literary goal; the event is created to illustrate the chosen theme. In this instance, my grandmother hopes to effectively demonstrate her characteristic personal integrity. This is the literary goal directing her telling of the story. In my own (not necessarily eccentric—I base it on the work of Claude Brémond) view of narrative structure, the directing strategy for the narrator is always a positive or negative fulfillment of a primary thematic infinitive that reflects the narrator’s goal vis-à-vis the main character (see Brémond 1970 and Stahl 1973). To illustrate this, think of my grandmother’s story as a positive infinitive tied to the primary character trait identified above—i.e., integrity. The “theme,” or as Brémond would say, the potentiality that is successfully actualized, can be expressed as “to demonstrate integrity.” Thus the basic function (Brémond borrows the word from Propp) of the narrative is the three-step sequence:
(1) Integrity to demonstrate (reversed to emphasize the trait)
(2) Procedure for demonstrating integrity (plot of story)
(3) Success (Integrity demonstrated)
For now, let me say simply that the anecdotal or theme-of-characterization personal narrative will typically have this structure. A specific character trait—such as those I have enumerated elsewhere (Stahl 1975a) in connection with a similar genre, the local character anecdote—will always constitute the “potentiality” or object of the positive infinitive directing the storyteller’s procedure of plot development. And conversely, when we spot such a structure in a narrative, we can readily assume that the teller has actively chosen to affirm this particular trait as part of his or her self-characterization. The teller is perceived as responsible for inserting his or her personal values into the thematic frame of literary characterization.
The theme-of-characterization form of the personal narrative is the strongest form—and by that I mean both the most common and the most impressive, most moving or effective as a form of literary expression. This is certainly not unexpected in light of the pervasive impersonality of contemporary society. No longer is man’s very nature handed to him through the church or state or even a pervasive philosophy. He must decide himself who he is, what his most basic traits are, and he must affirm this self-discovered “nature” both to himself and to his audience. My grandmother was a strong woman reared in a sexist society. Born in 1879 into a devout German-American Protestant family in the Midwest, she inherited a culture that characterized women as stereotypes—the bad jezebel, the good mother, the frail heroine—but rarely recognized genuine and significant character traits in relation to real, individual women. (This sorry tradition continues in American popular culture to a great extent, especially in children’s literature and television. I am thinking in particular of the popular “Smurfs” animated cartoons in which the single female—Smurfette—represents all women, whereas the males all have individualized traits indicated by their names—e.g., Brainy Smurf, Handy Smurf, Lazy Smurf, Poet Smurf, Painter Smurf, Vanity Smurf, etc.) My grandmother found a way to teach herself the value of her own integrity, its value as a significant aspect of her self-characterization, her identity. And she taught me as well. When I remember her story of “The Spelling Bee,” I think of her as someone who, even as a young woman, knew that her outstanding personal trait was her integrity. It is her story, not our common genes or a granddaughter’s love, that has introduced me to what I can know of her real character.
And now, is Larry Scheiber to be left out in the cold so far as “the strong form” of personal narrative is concerned simply because he is not a woman? Well, no, but in fact he does more often tell stories that are primarily humorous rather than reflective of personal characteristics he hopes to emphasize as part of his identity. I would speculate that this might well be the case simply because Larry does not need to affirm his identity quite so desperately as do many women, minorities, or members of other less socially powerful groups. Despite the overtones of group identity here, the discovery and affirmation of identity is a very personal thing. Ultimately, the choice of which theme to emphasize (and thus which form to use) is tied to individual personality, and of course personalities are complex entities. Larry does occasionally tell a theme-of-characterization narrative, but always laced with humor. In one story about an eventful New Year’s Eve—“The Red Velvet Suit” (see Appendix for a complete transcription of the text)—Larry combines three traits into his own positive portrait of manliness. In the first segment of the story, he patiently suffers considerable bodily abuse in an effort to help a stranger who falls into a violent and uncontrollable seizure; in the second segment, he defends the honor of women by challenging (belting in the face) a fellow who insists on using foul language at a party where women are present; and in the third segment, he manfully agrees to fight a much bigger and younger opponent who challenges him to “step outside.” Larry obviously hopes to demonstrate the positive trait of “manliness” as he conceives of it and as he identifies with it. The story is told with much humor, but the overriding theme is characterization.
Larry’s “Red Velvet Suit,” because it involves the theme of characterization, is an anecdotal form of narrative and has a structure similar to that of my grandmother’s “Spelling Bee” story above, with—in this case—the positive infinitive of “Manliness to demonstrate.”
Let us consider an example of a didactic narrative for comparison, for it would seem that the “exemplary messages” carried by narratives of either the anecdotal form (characterization) or the exemplum form (didactic) might make it difficult to tell the two apart. The following story is one my mother tells relating an incident that occurred during her senior year in high school. The setting in the story is Hastings, Michigan, in 1930.
The First Charge Account
You know about the pair of hose that I charged when I was a senior in high school? I—oh, I wanted a new pair of hose. Well, in fact the ones I’d been wearing were so lacy with being repaired that—you know, sew up the runs? So anyhow, I’d gone into Larson’s Dry Goods Store—and they were a real fabulous store there in Hastings. And I wanted a pair of hose and I wanted to know how much they were. Well, they were a dollar and a quarter.
And I—uh—couldn’t buy them, and she said, “Well, you could charge them.” And I didn’t know what that meant. But she said, “Well, just take them now and in a week come in and pay on them.” So I thought, “Oh, gee, a quarter a week, that wouldn’t be too bad. In six, or five weeks, I could have them paid for.” So I took the hose and I charged them.
And gosh, the next week came and I didn’t have the quarter. And I didn’t know what to do about it. Here I worried all week, and finally it came Thursday night and I just didn’t have any money, so I went to ask my dad for a quarter. Well, what did I want the quarter for? [In hesitant voice] Well, I’d charged a pair of hose. So—he gave me the quarter, but he told me that—I’d have to figure out some way to pay him back. So he finally—we finally arrived at—uh—I could have the eggs that, over so many eggs a week. If the hens laid more eggs than three dozen or whatever it was, I don’t remember how many, why I could have those eggs and save up and save them until I got enough money to buy my hose. And that’s the way I got them paid back—was with those extra eggs. But geeminee!
As with many exemplum-form narratives, the incident at the base of the story is a “first” for the teller. Freud and Freudian critics attribute a similar significance to first experiences in an individual’s life (even if not consciously recalled, as in the story). In this instance, my mother effectively illustrated the negative consequences of buying “on time” when a projected source of income is not available. Typically the purpose of such a cautionary tale is to influence the behavior of the listener, to illustrate the effects of certain personal experiences as a lesson for the listener. The implication is that the teller herself has already benefited from whatever insight the experience affords.
Structurally, the story is built upon the infinitive “economic responsibility to illustrate,” and in this case the theme is homiletic—the teller implies that economic irresponsibility is immoral. Again, the basic function of the narrative follows a three-step sequence:
(1) Economic responsibility to illustrate
(2) Procedure for illustrating economic responsibility
(3) Failure (economic responsibility not illustrated)
The negative outcome fits the teller’s literary strategy as well as a positive outcome would. The teller is able to assume that her attitude toward the incident is clear; the moralistic value, in this case, is assumed to be shared by the audience.
Humorous personal narratives can be categorized as a subtype on the basis of the consistent attitude involved. No matter what the theme, the teller’s attitude toward the incident in the story is amusement—usually sparked by a recognition that some embarrassing or incongruent situation caught the teller unawares. Larry’s “Chicken Blood” story is typical. It is clear at the beginning of the story that Larry wants nothing to do with the disgusting chicken blood. By the end of the story, we can expect his attempt to avoid being contaminated by the foul bucket to fail. Structurally, the “hero” fails to avoid an ironic reversal; the functional sequence would be as follows:
(1) Contamination to avoid
(2) Procedure for avoiding contamination
(3) Failure (contamination not avoided)
Each of the three forms of personal narrative has its own distinct structure tied to a particular infinitive of potentiality. The anecdotal form involves themes of characterization and typically reflects a structure with a positive closure to the infinitive “X to demonstrate.” The exemplum form involves homiletic themes and reflects a structure with either a positive or negative closure to the infinitive “X to illustrate.” And the joke form involves humorous themes and a structure with a negative closure to the infinitive “X to avoid.”
The variety of themes that fit these subgenres is impressive but perhaps not as infinite as one might suppose. Without suggesting that this is an exhaustive list, I would list the following themes as those most common to the secular, single-episodic personal narrative. Among those reflecting characterization of the teller are (1) honesty, integrity; (2) cleverness, wit; (3) bravery, heroism, fearlessness; (4) practicality, business acuity; (5) charm, seductiveness; (6) loyalty, patriotism; (7) generosity or affection; and (8) manliness or maturity. Humorous themes are generally classifiable as involving (1) embarrassing situations, (2) ironic situations, or (3) incongruent occurrences. Homiletic themes intended to elucidate moral lessons are reflected in stories based upon (1) terrifying situations, war-time experience; (2) horrifying situations, cruel events; (3) unjust situations; (4) poignant situations; or (5) practical problems in managing one’s affairs. Such themes are the narrative cores that tie the structural subtypes of the personal narrative to real functional concerns in culture and represent as well identifiable traditions useful in folkloristic classification.