Chapter 6 – Narrative
Oral history both produces narrative and depends upon narrative. Oral histories are narrated, and those narrators draw on narrative models to tell their stories. It follows that the narratives – understood as a story told according to certain cultural conventions – are informed by and embedded in the cultural world in which we live. This chapter explores how narrative theory can help us to interpret the meaning of the stories we are told. It introduces some of the approaches to narrative analysis and identifies some of the more common narrative structures which help to shape people’s oral histories.
- Why do oral historians aim to facilitate a narrative response from their interviewees?
- How does linguistic analysis of narrative structure of interpretation of an oral history interview?
- In what sense are narratives ‘essential meaning-making structures’?
- Which narrative models do narrators commonly utilise?
- To what extent and in what ways are narratives inflected by gender and ethnicity?
- Why is narrative so difficult to produce by survivors of trauma?
A: Clara Wilson
This extract from the interview with Mrs Wilson conducted for Paul Thompson’s Family Life and Work Experience Project (‘The Edwardians’) illustrates a non-narrative response by the respondent who delivers short responses to questions:
Q: Did your father ever go to a club, or pubs?
No. He didn't never drink. Nor smoked.
And what about your mother, did she go out?
No, she never drank.
Did your father, before he was ill, take part in sport or go and watch sport at all?
No, no sport.
Did they not go out, really, at night then?
I don't know 'cos I was too young then to notice all that.
But when you were older?
No they never went out. They had their business and that was that. That was their life, that was their livelihood.
Did they ever belong to any savings clubs?
I don't know.
You said they had friends, the customers dropping in.
Did they also have friends who weren't customers, who weren't to do with the business?
No, it was always business people, not many neighbours.
And when the business people came in, did they entertain them at all, give them a cup of tea?
Oh, yes, they used to do that.
What about having tea together and that kind of thing, did they do that?
They did. I just wondered what the social life was like.
Well, of course, you have to do that sort of thing in business, don't you.
B: Narrative Analysis
This short extract from an oral history interview with Mrs I1 (b.1894) near Stirling, Scotland, illustrates the technique of narrative analysis whereby the researcher breaks down the extract into its component parts or clauses to reveal narrative techniques or patterns within the speech. Below the extract is reproduced firstly as a free flowing narrative and secondly after it has been parsed or analysed syntactically for the identification of narrative stages:
Drinking. Drink. So I think I mentioned General Booth. He came. I was as near to his car as I am here, and his fight was against drink, because they pawned. And if they didn't pawn they'd, [pause] their mothers pawned; took their clothes and spent it on drink. One little boy that I was very fond of, in the snow and cold, his whole shoulder was bare. Three times I bought him a new woolly cardigan. She pawned them every time for drink. I know and I would come up from Felling Station, up the hill on a winter night, there would be a cluster of children sitting on the step of a public house, waiting for a mother to come out, and it made, [pause] it formed a feeling in you, which of course, I never saw up in Bridge of Allan, but, [pause] oh there couldn't be, they couldn't be like that, ‘cause they put the clothes into the pawn shop. Three Golden Balls, you know, so they say, it's gone now.
- Drinking. Drink.
- I think I mentioned General Booth.
- He came.
- I was as near to his car as I am here,
- and his fight was against drink,
- because they pawned.
- And if they didn't pawn they'd, <..pause..> their mothers pawned;
- took their clothes
- and spent it on drink.
- One little boy that I was very fond of,
- in the snow and cold,
- his whole shoulder was bare.
- Three times I bought him a new woolly cardigan.
- She pawned them every time for drink.
- I know
- and I would come up from Felling Station,
- up the hill on a winter night,
- there would be a cluster of children sitting on the step of a public house,
- waiting for a mother to come out,
- and it made, <..pause..>
- it formed a feeling in you,
- which of course, I never saw up in Bridge of Allan,
- but, <..pause..> oh there couldn't be,
- they couldn't be like that,
- 'cause they put the clothes into the pawn shop.
- Three Golden Balls,
- you know, so they say, it's gone now
The full interview is available in: the Stirling Women’s Oral History Archive (CD) (Smith Art Gallery and Museum, Stirling, 2007)
C: Examples of narrative and non-narrative responses – Mrs X1, born 1897, interviewed in 1987
Q: And what was your father's job?
An engine driver.
And did he have any other jobs before or after that?
Yes, as a young boy he served his apprenticeship as a baker and he joined the railway after that.
And did your mother have a job before she was married?
She was a dressmaker.
And did she work after she was married?
Did your parents attend church?
Did they go regularly to church?
Q: So have you any memories of the Second World War? You mentioned that you did First Aid work?
First Aid work in the Home Guard, and I remember the night the bomb fell down in Springkerse. Went down to the office in the morning and couldnae get nothing but splinters of glass, it fell just about the railway, you know the railway bridge? Fell just about there and the office was just over the bridge. And then the boss had been called out during the night, he was on police duty and he'd been called out down to his own place. The windows were all broken and there were big stone just at the side of his desk. A few memories of that.
Q: And so can you remember what the story was in relation to that bomb? How did it happen to get dropped? How did the Germans manage to bomb Stirling?
Well it was a main line and this Ordnance Depot out there, the gas works and there was the soldiers parked in the field next, but they'd have done a lot of damage if they had struck except where they did. They missed the gas works and missed the main line. And in the morning we went up to, <..pause..> I was the First Aid, supposed to be in the First Aid post and fainted in the middle of the floor. My mother said, ‘That's you!’ And my mother's brother was staying with us at the time, he says, ‘I'll go down with you’ and my mother said, ‘No, you will not go down!’ ‘She's not going’. So Dr. Wilson, he says ‘Your place is at home with your mother.’
The full transcript is available in The Stirling Women’s Oral History Archive (CD) (Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, 2007)
D: The composed narrative: Agnes Leask
This is an example of the same story about a sick calf (narrated by Shetlander Agnes Leask) told to two interviewers several years apart. Version 1 was recorded in 1986. The interview was conducted by a native Shetlander and transcribed in Shetland dialect.
Anyhoo dis calf lay aa dis day, an he stunkit an he grind, an den Maggie cam ower, an dey tocht at well dey wid maybe try da calf wi a grain o opening medicine. So dey wir a bottle o some kinda concoction made up an poured doon wi da calf. But be next morning he wis nae better, an dey wir naithin ta’en effect, an dere were some mair stuff poured doon wi him; I dinna ken – whedder it wis stuff at wis bocht fae a sho or wis it mebbe ony kind o ‘erbal remedy. I ken some o hit wis treacle because I ken mind me midder spoonin treacle oot o a jug… An I thinks, weel bairns, whit ails da folk, at dey canna put da vaam (cat) upo da calf an better hit? An I wis as witless den as whit I am still, an I t’inks, weel, if dey wilna do hit, I’ll do hit. So I picks up da cat, an I laachs across da hoose wi da cat in me skirt. I baals da cat on, keeps a haad o her tail so at I shall fetch her a good rive upo da calf. Da cat sank her claas inta da calf. Da calf raised wi a aafil skröl he just sprang I da air wi a skröl…
Version 2 was recorded in 2002. The interview was conducted and transcribed by the author.
mm, and the cat was called Venck. Now if an animal was sick and you put the Venck upon it, it had this magical powers to cure it, and what you had to do was pick the cat up and throw it on the sick animal …and the old lady who lived next door she was very clever at medication for animals so she was called over – ‘oh yes, give it a good dose of epsom salts’ – so it got a good dose of epsom salts … and by night it was still no better so er she come over herself and ‘how was the calf?’, oh it's just the same, is that ? ‘medicine not worked?’, no no nothing happened, ‘oh well did we have castor oil’, oh yes castor oil and surely the best part of a bottle of castor oil was – and she would come back first thing in the morning, so she came back in the morning, and no no nothing had moved, ‘oh well give it a good dose of epsom salts’ this time and for good measure they put treacle in with it. So this treacle had to be melted and the epsom salts mixed in with the melted treacle, this was all poured down, and she would come back later on to see how it was, so about lunchtime she came back and it was more or even more, it was just blowing up then like anything and her and mum standing discussing it well they doubted, they doubted and that was it and she'd go out and Mum was crying – she wasn't crying making a fuss but tears were running down her cheeks and she was wiping them away and I knew it was over the calf and the cat was in front of the fire. So I thought what is wrong with the ? that they don't put the Venck on it? See I'd heard about the cat curing any illness on any animal [inaudible]…. threw it on the calf and of course I was hoping that – you can imagine yooooww – the claws out into the calf. The calf sprang to its feet and honestly it was like a little bit of effort was all that was needed to set in motion all these potions that had been tipped down it…
- J. Brockmeier and D. Carbaugh (eds), Narrative and Identity: Studies in Autobiography, Self and Culture (Amsterdam, 2001)
- M. Chamberlain and P. Thompson (eds), Narrative and Genre: Contexts and Types of Communication (London, 2004)
- K.M. Langellier and R.E. Peterson, Storytelling in Everyday Life: Performing Narrative (Philadelphia, 2004)
- C. K. Riessman, Narrative Analysis (London, 1993)