Labovian Narrative Analysis
- Pages: 8
- Word count: 1934
A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteedOrder Now
In this paper, I perform a narrative analysis on an “oral narrative of personal experience”(Labov, 2011). As follows, Section 1 discusses the methodology used to perform the analysis, Section 2 discusses the structure of the narrative and presents the results of the analysis, and Section 3 concludes with a summary of the narrative and analyses. Section 1: Methodology
For this analysis, I used a personal experience that is termed an elicited narrative, which means I asked the individual to share a story instead of relying on naturally occurring conversational data (Labov, 1997). The story is told by a family relative of mine, Lisa. It is about a paranormal experience she had as a child in Sydney, Australia and involves the autonomous movement of a table while Lisa and others were at an open house. To analyze Lisa’s story, I used Labov’s original model of narrative, which breaks down a narrative into distinct categories: Abstract, Orientation, Complicating Action, Evaluation, and Coda. In addition, I used general Labovian narrative theory to describe the temporal structure and function of Lisa’s story; however, I have refrained from using the term Resolution due to its ambiguity in Labov’s literature. Below, in Narrative A, the story has been transcribed to facilitate the following narrative analysis. Each independent clause is numbered, and all dependent clauses are indented below them. Narrative A: An account of Lisa’s paranormal experience
(1)Yeah, once I had this really interesting paranormal experience (2)Uh, back when I was in High School in Sydney in about 1977, (3)my parents were house hunting
(4)and mum and I were checking out a house in Killara they were interested in. (5)As soon as we stepped through the front door into the wide, sunlit hall, (6)we were both impressed by the welcoming atmosphere in the house. (7)There were one or two pieces of furniture in the hallway including an antique tray table which had really old castor wheels on it the type that don’t roll very easily even on smooth floors like that hall. (8)The tray table was standing slightly at an angle to the wall and the front edge was about 2 inches further out from the wall than the rear edge. (9)I noticed all this because we had been standing in the hall chatting to the house owner, Mrs. C, for a while (10)when a man came to the front door.
(11)Mum and I were facing away from the door and towards the table, (12)Mrs. C at the door had her back turned
(13)but her visitor at the front door had a clear view of it (the table) (14)No-one was standing within 5 feet of the table
(15)and no-one was moving around to cause the floor to move (16)but that table very smoothly and deliberately moved in on its own towards the wall to sit neatly parallel to it. (17)The silence was deafening!
(18)The man at the door stopped speaking for several seconds (19)then pointed at the table
(20)and in a very shaky voice said “That table just moved!”. (21)Mrs C just sort of said “hmmm”
(22)and concluded the conversation.
(24)she turned back to us,
(25)and continued our chat
(26)as though nothing had happened.
(27)Suffice to say that was only the first encounter of several I had in that house. Section 2: Results & Analysis
In the following subsections, I first describe the general qualities of each narrative category; second, explain Lisa’s narrative in terms of the narrative categories; and, third, present the analysis of Lisa’s narrative in terms of Labovian narrative theory. Section 2.05: The Most Reportable Event
Before diving headfirst into the analysis, it will prove advantageous to define the term most reportable event (MRE). According to Labov, any given narrative is constructed around the MRE. It is the reason for the narrative in the first place. Generally it refers to an uncommon or rare event that greatly affects the participants involved. The more uncommon the event appears, the less credibility it will hold, and vice versa. Thus it is necessary for the narrative to establish credibility elsewhere, otherwise the narrative will result in failure. Section 2.1: Abstract
Abstracts, like those in academic articles, occur at the beginning of texts and provide a succinct description of the information to follow. In a sense, they indicate what the reader can expect the article to be about. In terms of personal narratives, the Abstract informs the listener what the story will be about and that it will begin shortly thereafter. Clause (1) of Lisa’s story is a great example of narrative abstracts: (1)Yeah, once I had this really interesting paranormal experience
Lisa begins her story by briefly stating that she experienced something beyond the normal range of explanation. This statement informs the listener that they can expect a story and conclusion out of the ordinary. Section 2.2: Orientation
Immediately following the Abstract, the speaker sets the scene by orientating the listener to the surrounding elements involved in the story. Labovian narrative theory refers to this as the Orientation. It has two purposes: first, to situate the time, place, participants, and general happenings of the narrative; and second, to establish the credibility of the MRE. The Orientation establishes credibility by starting the narrative with an event that would be foolish to ask about, such as ordinary events, which are events that lack interest in themselves (Labov, 2002). Common linguistic features of the Orientation are past continuous verbs and temporal adjuncts. In Lisa’s narrative the Orientation begins with clauses (2-4): (2)Uh, back when I was in High School in Sydney in about 1977, (3)my parents were house hunting
(4)and mum and I were checking out a house in Killara they were interested in.
Here, she presents the background information needed to proceed with the remainder of the story: Sydney, a house, Lisa and others, and an open house walk-through. There is no reason to ask about how these events came about, because they are so commonplace. Thus, the credibility of the narrative is not in question. In addition to clauses (2-4), clauses (7) and (8) can be considered part of the Orientation as well, because they contribute to the setting; however, they have been incorporated into the Complicating Action. Unfortunately, I will not discuss the Orientation any further due to space constraints. Section 2.3: Complicating Action
The Complicating Action is the narrative proper. It is what the Abstract and Orientation set up to be told. Generally it contains a set of sequential clauses, called a narrative chain, which leads up to the narrative’s MRE. Each sequential clause attempts to answer the question “what happened next?” and can use the simple past or present tenses to move the narrative forward. In terms of Lisa’s story, the Complicating Action is bookended by clauses (5) and (16) the story’s MRE. But, not all the clauses in between can be considered clauses of complicating action. This is because they are not a part of the narrative chain and serve as retrospective observations. For instance, clauses (11-15) focus on the participants’ proximity and orientation to the table; they do not progress the narrative forward. In fact, by focusing on these ordinary events, they slow down the narrative and heighten the anticipation of the most reportable event.
If we remove all the clauses that do not contribute to the forward movement, the true narrative chain becomes apparent: (5)As soon as we stepped through the front door into the wide, sunlit hall, (6)we were both impressed by the welcoming atmosphere in the house. (9)I noticed all this because we had been standing in the hall chatting to the house owner, Mrs. C, for a while (10)when a man came to the front door,
(16)but that table very smoothly and deliberately moved in on its own towards the wall to sit neatly parallel to it.
These five clauses constitute the Complicating Action and, as we can see, it is relatively short in comparison to the full story. Although clause (10) is necessary for the Evaluation, even the man’s introduction is not vital to the narrative’s progression. It is possible there was not much of a story to tell, but because the credibility of the MRE was questionable, embellishment of the narrative chain with ordinary, therefore less questionable, events increased the credibility of the MRE and produced a longer story. Section 2.4: Evaluation
The Evaluation section serves a few purposes, first it justifies the narrative and the speaker for holding the floor for as long as they have; second, it serves to establish the MRE as the reason for the narrative; and third, it provides information about what happened after the MRE and its affects on those participating. Common linguistic features in evaluative clauses are modals, negatives, evaluative commentary, embedded speech, and irrealis clauses. Clause (17) begins the Evaluation section in Lisa’s narrative: (17)The silence was deafening!
At this point in the story, it seems that the table’s uncanny movement has elicited a reaction noticeably different from earlier events, one of deafening silence. If we assume the silence occurred during a conversation, then, in terms of Conversation Analysis, the table’s movement unilaterally ended the conversation without negotiating a closing, thus disrupting the norm. If no reaction were elicited, there would have been no story to tell. Therefore the reactionary silence serves as grounds for the narrative and establishes the MRE as the reason for the narrative.
The remainder of the Evaluation, clauses (18-26), reads like a narrative chain in a complicating action. Except for (26), each clause is sequential and in simple past tense. However, unlike clauses of complicating action, they do not progress towards an MRE. Instead they describe the various reactions to the MRE in sequence, including a deictic gesture, possible ambivalence, and departure. Section 2.5: Coda
At the end of the narrative, the Coda functions to return the story to the present tense and inform the listener that the story has concluded. It is often accompanied by a “timeless” statement. In Lisa’s narrative, the final clause acts as the Coda: (27)Suffice to say that was only the first encounter of several I had in that house.
Lisa concludes her story by stating she will say nothing beyond the fact that she has more stories to tell. She explains how it all ends by saying it does not end quite there. Section 3: Conclusion
After dissecting Lisa’s story with a Labovian scalpel, this paper has shown that narratives are not just simple retellings of events; rather they are complex constructions with functional purpose. As shown above, narratives have an internal structure that can be broken up into distinct categories: Abstract, Orientation, Complicating Action, Evaluation, and Coda. Each category provides a necessary function for the narrative, and while some hold flexible positions, others do not. Ultimately, the goal of a narrative is to inform the listener of the most reportable event, while upholding its credibility. To do otherwise would result in failure and a reduction of social standing for the narrator. As a side note, it would be interesting to investigate the structure of Evaluations in other narratives and compare them with Lisa’s. It seemed to me that the reaction to the MRE had higher significance than the MRE did, but because I currently lack experience and knowledge in the field of narrative theory, I cannot support my argument.
Labov, W. (1997). Some further steps in narrative analysis. The journal of narrative and
life history, Retrieved from http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~wlabov/sfs.html Labov, W. (2002, February 2). Ordinary events. Retrieved from
Labov, W. (2011, January 1). Oral narratives of personal experience. Retrieved from