Volume Five, December 2004

home » articles » Sorin Stefanescu


In their effort to justify the scientific pretensions of criticism the structuralists have tried to order the universe present in the literary work. For this they have devised countless sets of concepts, mostly derived from the previous recording of linguistic functions, according to which the text could be categorised and, ultimately, “decoded.” The results of these efforts were the narrative typologies, which were present in large numbers and great varieties in the structuralist metatexts, and which lay at the receiving end of quite a few defining attempts. Such an attempt belongs to Philippe Hamon who, in Analyse du recit: elements pour un lexique, 1974, found that a typology was “a classification according to formal and/or functional recordable criteria.”
An interesting narrative typology is that of Jaap Lintvelt, which appeared in Paris in 1981 under the French title, Essai de typologie narrative. In what follows we shall try to perform a structuralist reading of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” by applying Lintvelt’s categories to this literary text. This typology is deduced from the functional opposition between narrator and actor. The narrator is understood as an intermediate instance between the author and the fictional history, whereas the actor is, according to Greimas, any of the characters.
The narrator assumes the function of representation (the narrative function) and the function of control (the directing function), while the actor is always endowed with the function of action and deprived of the functions of narration and control. In this typology there are two basic narrative forms: (1) the heterodiegetic narration, when the narrator does not appear in history (diegesis) as an actor (narrator?actor); (2) the homodiegetic narration, when one and the same character fulfills a double function: as a narrator, he assumes the narration of the story, and as an actor, he plays a role in the history of the narration (narrator=actor).
Since the narrator of Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” is not one of the characters, it is obvious that we are facing a heterodiegetic narration. As a result of the opposition narrator/actor the reader’s centre of orientation can be determined, according to which we can establish, within these basic narrative forms, their narrative types. Thus, within the heterodiegetic narration we may encounter three different narrative types: (a) the auctorial narrative type, when the centre of orientation lies in the narrator and not in one of the actors; the reader is guided in the fictional world by the narrator as organiser—or auctor—of the story; (b) the actorial narrative type, when the centre of orientation coincides with the actor, not with the narrator; (c) the neutral narrative type, when neither the narrator nor any of the actors function as a centre of orientation; there is no individualised centre of orientation, the fictional plot is no longer filtered by the subjective consciousness of the narrator or of one of the actors, it looks as if it were objectively recorded by a camera.
“Hills Like White Elephants” is obviously a story that falls in the category of neutral narrative types. This is a result of the spareness and tenseness of Hemingway’s style, following his own simply enounced concepts: “the way it was,” with its aesthetic instruments, the sense of place, the sense of fact, and the sense of scene, or “what happened,” including the application of T.S. Eliot’s objective correlatives or Joyce’s epiphanies, as discussed by Carlos Baker.
This outlook produced a story of great economy, employing the cinematic technique of recording motion and sound and avoiding auctorial interventions to the extent that, in most cases, the reader does not receive any indication about who utters the lines of the dialogue. Actually the story deals with far more than abortion: its vertical, paradigmatic axis (to use a famous Barthean formulation), which is vital to the generation of meaning, is constituted by oppositions (of the binary type) between the sterility of rationalism/the beauty of irrationalism on the one hand or the impotence of selfish love/the power of selfless love on the other. The roles performed in the realisation of this narrative, called “spheres of action” by Vladimir Propp (a term also adopted by Barthes), include the “real” woman, genuine, unselfish, courageous, and her lover, arrogant, egotistical, dishonest, “reasonable.”
In his typology Lintvelt points out that the reader’s centre of orientation and, thus, the narrative type, is determined by the imaginary position that the reader occupies in the fictional world, on several levels: the perceptive-psychic level, the temporal level, the spatial level, and the verbal level. These are narrative categories according to which the narrative criteria will be classified: narrative perspective, moment of narration, etc. In what follows we will discuss every level in turn.

1. In dealing with the perceptive-psychic level, which points to the relationship between narration and history, we must first refer to the criterion of narrative perspective or point of view. Although the problem of point of view dominates the method in fictional technique for many critics, even pre-structuralist ones, and although the narrative perspective has repercussions on the other levels of the narrative text too, Lintvelt considers it as belonging exclusively to the perceptive-psychic level. The narrative perspective for the neutral narrative type is constituted by the focalisation of a camera, that is, the fictional action is not perceived by any of the actors or by the narrator, the action is presented as seen through a camera lens.
Another narrative criterion within the perceptive-psychic level is the depth of the narrative perspective (in relation to the object of perception). This refers to the quantity of information about the perceived object. The inner life of an actor, as an object of perception, will or will not be revealed. A binary opposition appears thus between the internal perception and the external one, which, in turn, are subdivided according to the degree of depth:
• the external perception: -limited;
• the internal perception: -limited;
In our story the external perception is limited, as we have pointed out, it all comes down to a recording of the actions and words. Hemingway shows tremendous restraint in the process of communication with the reader. He counter-balances the lack of auctorial interventions and the scarcity of emotional suggestions with the detailed descriptive precision of a film script.
Since everything is recorded as by a camera, it is obvious that an internal perception is impossible. The actors’ inner lives will have to be deduced indirectly, from the oblique meaning of words and actions. Gestures and facial expressions are not available, so the reader will have to infer them from the text, too. It is thus up to the reader to actively interpret the emotions, because the narrator refrains from fulfilling his optional function of interpretation.
The next criterion, on this level, is the narrative mode. The narrator may present the story according to two such narrative modes, which are inspired by Plato’s dichotomy between diegesis and mimesis. This dichotomy has received several terminological determinations. While Percy Lubbock chose to speak about telling and showing, for instance, Lintvelt has settled, the same as Booth or Genette, upon the pair summary/scene.
The scene, practised very often toward the climax of a narrative, is characterised by:
a) The complete presentation: the scene describes the fictional events in all the details and exposes the actors’ discourse in extenso;
b) The visualised presentation: due to the complete presentation, the scene creates the illusion of a direct representation, revealing itself, so to speak, before the reader’s eyes; during a scene a combination may appear between a “rendering of events” and a “rendering of words,” so we distinguish between: the scene of non-verbal events and the scene of the actors’ discourse.
The summary, which also appears in a narrative, has the following distinctive features:
a) The summarised presentation: the summary is made up of the events and the words, transforming them into a simple sum total (like a football game summarised in the final result). Due to the concise presentation, the summary will often be used in a narrative to quickly provide necessary information;
b) The non-visualised presentation: the strong condensation prevents the mental visualising of the history.
The summary also has two forms: the summary of the non-verbal events, when the dialogue or the actors’ speech is missing, and the summary of the actors’ discourse, a discourse pronounced by the actors from the very beginning and then summarised as concisely as possible by the narrator.
“Hills Like White Elephants” is characterised by the scene as if recorded by a camera. Both the complete presentation and the visualised one are evident in the story, granting it a real-life quality. The scene of non-verbal events is present, constituting only a framework for the actors’ exchanges. There is little action to describe in our narrative, pointing to the greater importance that the scene of the actors’ discourse has in rendering the meaning of the text.

2. Passing on to the temporal level we notice that because “Hills Like White Elephants” is a neutral narrative type, within it the “camera” follows the temporality of the recorded scene. Two relationships are possible on this level: the relationship narration/history and the relationship story/history. Within the relationship narration/history we have to mention the moment of narration, which designates the temporal position of the narrative act in relation to history. Whereas, for instance, in the auctorial narrative type the moment of narration is ulterior to the time at which the story is considered in evolution, in our neutral story we have the illusion of a simultaneous narration in the past tenses. If the story is written in the present, the narrative act is simultaneous with the development of the fictional action. As in “Hills Like White Elephants,” the past tenses are used more frequently. But the reader does not share the posteriority of the narration in relation to the events and is under the impression that he is an eyewitness of the action, due to the scene and due to the tendency of identification with the actor (or actors). The past looses, thus, its traditional past value in order to create the illusion of a simultaneous narration in the present.
When it comes to the relationship story/history mention must be made of the distinction that different critics establish between:
• Erzählzeit and erzählte Zeit (Günther Müller);
• “the time of narration” and “the time of fiction” (Jean Ricardou);
• “the time of the story” and “the time of the history” (Gerard Genette).
The time of the story is actually a pseudo-time because it identifies with the time of reading, which cannot be objectively measured except by the length of the text, that is by the textual space. Conscious of his narrative techniques, Henry Fielding, in Tom Jones, often announces, starting with the title, the time of the history (“Book IV: Containing the Time of a Year”) and even the time of the story (“Book IV, Chapter I: Containing five Pages of Paper”). Together with Genette, Lintvelt calls this criterion order and to the neutral narrative type he attributes the limited possibility to go back in time and the impossibility to make certain anticipations.
This is verified in “Hills Like White Elephants,” a textual system in which the category time of the story, belonging to Genette, is interspersed with Barthes and Propp’s “sphere of action” in communication. Communication, which presupposes a relationship between the poles of the addresser and the addressee that is established within, and not beyond the literary system (Barthes), also accommodates the category of exchange. Within the category of exchange, the actors of the story, who are seen by structuralism as “paper beings,” not flesh-and-blood ones, use the title metaphor “white elephants” as a bargaining chip in the exchange they struggle to achieve. This exchange implies a transgression from the position of non-acceptance of the metaphor by the male actor towards the position of reluctant acceptance—on condition that the female actor goes through with the operation. So, the “white elephant” metaphor is the paradigmatic axis around which the narrative turns temporally, from the near past certain position of the sterility of rationalism towards the near future position of the beauty of irrationalism.
When it comes to the criterion of duration, the neutral narrative type is generally characterised by a relatively short time of history: because it uses the scene, this type will require much time of the story to recount a short episode. Such is the case with “Hills Like White Elephants,” which requires four pages, mainly of dialogue, to render about forty minutes of history.

3. The spatial level is quite easy to deal with in the light of what we have shown so far. The criterion of spatial position implies, for the neutral narrative type, that the imaginary position of the reader is oriented by the “camera,” whereas that of spatial mobility points to the fact that the “camera” allows movement, but excludes omnipresence. In our story we seem to follow the “camera” everywhere, starting with the barren scenery of the white mountains and the sun-invaded railway station, focusing then on the table where Jig and the American sit, and following each of them towards the end of the platform (in Jig’s case) or behind and into the station (in the American’s case).

4. Finally, the verbal level analyses the way in which the relationship that the narrator maintains with the narration is expressed in the narrative discourse. The criterion of the narrator’s status and the grammatical person is fulfilled in our case by the heterodiegetic narrator. The neutral narrative type only allows the non-personal use of the third person, constituting “ the verbal form which has as its function to express the non-person” (Emile Benveniste). In “Hills Like White Elephants” this is mainly noticeable in the short introductory paragraph.
Within the criterion the temporal value of the past tenses we must repeat a discussion that we had at the moment of narration about the use of the past tenses that offer the illusion of the present. Actually, in “Hills Like White Elephants,” there are very few past tense forms because there are few auctorial passages. Most of the story is made up of dialogues, which do not contain many past forms. As a result, the impression of present, of witnessing the events, is very strong.
The third criterion on this level is the verbal register, containing, for the neutral narrative type, the scene of the non-verbal events, characterised by a neutral (or non-individualised) verbal register, and the scene of the actors’ discourse, characterised by a faithful recording of the actors’ ideolects. Finally, when it comes to the degree of insertion of the actors’ discourse, our story presents the recording of the actors’ exterior discourse, which may be a monologue or a dialogue, but also the impossibility of recording the actors’ interior discourse because the auctorial intervention is lacking.
Structuralism has been criticised for being too abstract, technical and consequently lifeless. This view has been encouraged by the use of a highly specialised vocabulary or technical jargon. Jaap Lintvelt’s typology is no exception, and this reading must be forgiven for turning a perfectly charming story into a “sum total of literary devices.” Structuralism has also been criticised for the exclusion of the historical dimension of its object of study. An analytical practice of this kind may provide insights into relationships at a given moment in time (synchronic analysis), but will neglect matters of development or evolution (diachronic analysis). Thirdly, we might question the omission of the author’s name from our analysis. For the structuralist reader the play of signs is endless. Barthes has generated heated debate with his words, “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” Should we accept that Jig and the American, and maybe even Hemingway himself, are a product of the text they are connected with? An application of this kind shows that to read practices and signs does not in fact dematerialise those practices; we may echo Julian Cowley in saying that “the world does not dissolve just because we take language to be the key to reading it.” Hemingway remains the author, and Jig and the American his characters.

 Webmasters: Neic Rãzvan and Crăciun Bogdan