In their Handbook of Narrative Analysis, what do Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck mean when they write in Chapter 3, 3.2 "Narratology and Ideology," that narrative oppositions (such as light/dark) have...

In their Handbook of Narrative Analysis, what do Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck mean when they write in Chapter 3, 3.2 "Narratology and Ideology," that narrative oppositions (such as light/dark) have ideological implications?


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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a complex concept within narratology. Essentially, you need to start with a sound understanding of ideology: that which comprises the political, economic, cultural, intellectual, social, philosophical and religious constraints or parameters of a society or of an individual.

Some literary criticism approaches the question of ideology from the writer's perspective: What is the writer's ideology? What ideology is consciously or unconsciously being unfolded by the writer as reality in the text/narrative? Thomas Hardy is a good author for understanding this perspective: his whole objective in writing was to present an ideology contrary to that which was in force in his day.

Some literary criticism approaches the question of ideology from the reader's perspective: What is the reader's ideology? What ideological perspective does the reader impose on the text/narrative? Think of the silent servants in Emma Woodhouse's home written of in Jane Austen's Emma. A Marxist imposes on this scene an ideology of class domination and oppression of the proletariat, while a high school student in a capitalist country may impose an ideology of desirable luxury and privilege.

Some literary criticisms, like New Criticism, approach the question of ideology from the combined perspectives of the writer and the reader. Thus the writer's ideological foundation--economic, political, religious, intellectual, cultural and social, etc--carries weight in understanding the text/narrative at the same time as the reader's own ideological foundation carries weight in understanding the text/narrative.

Now, binary concepts in literature--often themes, sometimes motifs--represent opposed concepts or ideas as presented by pairs of words: dark/light, he/she, us/them. These oppositional binary pairs can be intentionally or unknowingly part of the text. When themes or motifs, they are included intentionally and reflect the writer's ideology. When unknowingly part of the text but discovered by the reader, they are seen as reflecting the reader's ideology. Take for example the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

A scene in the Captain's stateroom shows the officers seated for an elegant dinner while around the edges of the room stand the silent, stiffly erect servants. The binary concept here is the seen and the unseen, the privileged and the other, the voiced few and the unvoiced mass. To modern viewers, this both illustrates the Colonial, Imperialist ideology and triggers the modern twenty-first century anti-imperialist ideology: this binary concept may reflect two ideological stances that are separated by more than 100 years.

So, binary concepts--and the authors of Handbook of Narrative Analysis use the example of men/women reflected by dark/light--have ideological implications when they reveal, reflect, or even subvert the ideological foundation of the writer's life and society or of the reader's life and society, or that of both writer and reader. [The idea of an ideology subverted might be reflected by the scene mentioned above taking place in the stateroom in which the illustration of the oppositional nature of colonialism, the us/them nature, subverts colonialism's credibility and integrity as a viable ideological position.]

kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Consistent with the theme of their Handbook of Narrative Analysis, Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck, in their discussion of ideology, emphasis the importance of understanding the author’s or speaker’s intellectual background as a key to understanding their text or speech.  In the context of the authors’ discussion of opposites, this implies important distinctions between categories of people that may preclude objectivity or may otherwise have influenced the scholar or speaker’s perceptions of reality.  “Ideology,” of course, is defined as a set or system of beliefs and ideas regarding politics and policy.  Central to Herman and Vervaeck’s thesis is that ideology influences the conclusions not only of the author or speaker, but, also, of the reader or listener.  In other words, individuals filter what they read and hear through their own particular thought processes, or ideologies.  A person who holds to a certain set of beliefs regarding a particular theory, for instance, will subconsciously – and/or consciously – perceive information relevant to that theory through his or her own unique prism. 

Complicating the discussion, Herman and Vertaeck argue, is the potential contradiction in how an individual is viewed by the reader or listener and what that individual may believe or what policies that individual might advance.  As the authors point out, a reader may be predisposed, often as a result of how the writer or narrator manipulates the intended audience, to view a likeable character as acting out of the most benevolent of motives when, in “fact,” the opposite may be the case: the likeable character may actually be acting out of the most malevolent of motives, or may be well-intentioned but unintentionally advancing an agenda the outcome of which will be negative.  The reader may be sensitive to this paradoxical relationship, but that sensitivity on the part of the reader may have been anticipated by the author.  As Herman and Vertaeck note,

“The narrator may also anticipate this resistance; and a character may display contradictory ideologies or his ideology may contrast with his actions.  As a result, it becomes impossible to identify a clear and compelling relationship between narrative technique X and ideological meaning Y.”

Narrators, according to Herman and Vertaeck, can manipulate the reader or listener any number of ways in order to affirm or discredit particular policies, characters, relationships, etc.  It is rarely, as they point out at the beginning of this section of their handbook, as simple as identifying a feminine perspective as “light and good” while presenting the masculine perspective as “dark and false.”  The narrator has quite possibly anticipated the perceptions of his or her audience, and manipulated scenario accordingly.