Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Cultural Narrative

see also notes to Robert Fulford, The Triumph of Narrative:
Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture

Narrative—at its simplest a synonym for plot or story—is an essential feature of human nature and history. People are story-telling creatures. Narratives describe and define our identities, values, and relations to the world; create a sense of order and expectations from the overwhelming data of experience; and provide models for solving problems.

Each of us creates a little reality-story every time we tell someone how our day went or share "life stories" with a new or old acquaintance. Literary discussions of narrative often treat stories as unique to individual characters or as representative of narrative genres such as romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire or combinations like romantic comedy.

Cultural narrative is the kind of story a peoplea nation, an ethnic or minority group within that nation, a band of pilgrimstell about themselves.

As literary studies blends with cultural studies, narrative is increasingly interpreted in cultural  and historical terms. A cultural narrative tells the story of a people. Individuals in that culture will live out or write variations on a basic cultural narrative.

For instance, the "American Dream" may be the underlying narrative on which individual stories relate experiences of success, failure, or ambiguity.

Examples of cultural narrative:

USA: American Dream +- Immigrant Narrative (with many sub-narratives, e.g. bonding through shared suffering of Pilgrims and Revolutionary War)

African America: The Dream: aspiration for equal rights met by repeated exploitation and denial only to rise again.

Jews: Exodus story from the Torah (or Bible's Old Testament): journey from exile or captivity to the Promised Land

Old South / Confederacy (USA): "the Lost Cause"; rugged individualists heroically defending their homes and traditional ways from intrusive government

Mexico +- Mexican America: The Virgin of Guadalupe as "border identity," meeting and fusion of Indian and European identities. (mestizo, Hispanic / Latino)


Summary: these are all big stories that members of a culture measure our identities against, consciously or not.

These stories partly control our options, but our choices and actions can in turn change the stories.


(narrative as time-sequence)