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—most simply a synonym for plot or story—is an essential feature of human nature and history. People are story-telling creatures.


Our stories describe and define our identities, values, and relations to the world.


Narratives or stories create a sense of order and expectations from the overwhelming data of experience; and provide models for solving problems.


A story's beginning, middle, and end reflects and shapes our sense of past, present, and future.


Each of us creates a little 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 like 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 their past, present, and future.


As literary studies blends with cultural and historical 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 dominant-culture or immigrant Americans 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, traditions, and rights from intrusive government. (Overlaps with current gun-rights narrative)


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 their identities against, consciously or not.

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



USA's Immigrant Narrative and its parallels:


Immigrant narrative: leave traditional Old World > journey to New World > Shock, vulnerability, adaptation > assimilation to dominant culture > nostalgia for earlier community / identity


American Dream narrative: dissatisfaction with original circumstances > find path, climb ladder of success > sell what you have to get what you don't have > Made it, but what lost?


conversion narrative: dissatisfaction with old sinful self, separation from God > path or pilgrimage to righteousness > achievement of new self, re-birth or born again to union with God


Each story gains power or resonance through familiarity with the other stories.


(narrative as time-sequence)