Life as Fiction

Narrative Psych

Other texts:

Harré’s (1978) notion of architectonic mail, a maker of structures, is an example of a view of mail as a being who seeks order and meaning in the world. One aspect of this is a desire to find concordances or themes which cohere life experiences into a meaningful structure. For Frank Kermode (1967), this desire surfaces in seemingly trivial structures, such as “tic toc”, which are impositions of temporal closure, like beginning-end, on continuous sequential events, viz, the sound of a clock. It also pervades attempts to construct life as a meaningful temporal sequence:

We make up aventures, invent and ascribe the significance of temporal concords to those “privileged moments” to which we alone award their prestige, make our own human clocks tick in a clockless world. Arid we take a man who is by definition de trop, and create a context in which lie isn’t. (p 135)

Psychologists by profession are involved in formulating a systematic theory for making sense of lives, sometimes establishing life themes in self‑reports (see Csikszentmihalyi arid Beattie, 1979), but the process by which ordinary people construct meaningful life structures has been little studied. This process occurs at many important points of personal and social life: wedding speeches, character witness statements, the deathbed scene, watching soap opera, etc.’ This paper argues that, in approaching this everyday process of life construction, it is legitimate and useful to apply critical frameworks which have originally been devised for works of fiction. Tile assumption is that the conventions used to make sense of one’s own life or another’s are similar to those employed by a literary author in the creation of a meaningful narrative involving the life of a fictional character. The justification for this transgression of disciplinary boundaries between science and art can be found in the dramaturgical model of social behaviour.


The main purpose of the dramaturgical model is to describe the ways people respond to the expressive demands of social life. These demands range from the need to carry markers giving information about status that are easily read by a variety of people, to ritual interactions that provide conventional rules for managing a potentially awkward situation (e.g., ending a conversation). Social life, viewed in terms of this model, becomes a drama in which the participants perform their prescribed roles based on scripts and dramatic rules. The object of study, according to the dramaturgical model, is not the individual actor, but the expressive rules which govern action in public life.

Researchers using the dramaturgical model have often studied these conventions by observing the regularities of social life (e.g., Lofland’s, 1978, typology of self-management strategies in public settings). An alternative strategy is to investigate a realm which, though removed from everyday social reality, lies at the heart of the model itself, that is, the theatrical stage. Like actors on the stage, actors in social life acquire a manifest identity by maintaining all expressive continuity ill different dramatic situations. According to Goffman (1971, p. 244):

‘File very obligation arid profitability, of appearing always in a steady moral light, of being a socialized character, forces one to be the sort of person who is practised in the ways of the stage.

A researcher may elucidate this process by describing these “ways of the stage, and a direct means of doing this is to examine dramatic works. The playwright is seen by the researcher as someone who re‑creates social life on stage, and who therefore Must use the same rules of action as apply in real life. Working with these assumptions, Harré and de Waele (1976) studied the conventional means for introducing strangers by researching the process of introducing characters on stage. In this case, stage life is seen as “an archetype of a slice of life, (p. 77).

Most behavioural scientists will be anxious about research straying from real life data into the uncertain world of imaginative structures. The problems associated with translating art into life will be discussed below; at this Point it is worthwhile pursuing the interesting possibilities provided by the use of literary texts as documented forms of real life, especially if the investigation goes beyond limited episodes. If one is to see literary texts as influenced by the rules of social reality, and therefore use them as accurate representations of routine social events, then it seems reasonable to explore their full potential, and relate them to the conventions which govern the everyday discourse about the life course.2 In most dramatic works the main emphasis is not oil the isolated appearances of actors on stage, but on the overall development of the main characters in the course of the play. Conventional dramas contain a plot with a certain logic which gives each scene a meaning in the context of the play as a whole. If one is to draw from small dramatic episodes, it seems necessary to at least explore this large narrative structure.

In a parallel fashion, the dramaturgical model becomes more challenging when it deals with superordinate social rules. It is easy to see the relevance of this model when dealing with isolated performances, yet uncertainty remains as to the actual principle which is involved ill linking together those performances with a sense of personal identity. As Goffman indicates in tile above quotation, identity must be related to the social rituals which are its visible manifestations. This is made clearer by examining the continuity of contextualization proposed by Cronen arid Pearce (1981). They describe a hierarchical organization of levels at which one can make sense of social life; these levels range from speech acts arid limited episodes, to life script, and cosmologies. Thus events in social file call be seen as governed by rules applying to limited social episodes, and at the same time larger structures such as “all individual’s repertoire of episodes which makes up one’s concept of self” (life script) that encompass these smaller scale frameworks. The broader levels of meaning have been little studied in social psychology. This has prompted the criticism by Sabini and Silver (1982) that social life is too often treated as a jumble of incidents, rather than as a coherent biography. Though the abstractness of life scripts makes them more precarious to study, they are nonetheless a valid object for investigation in social psychology as contexts for making sense of social life. To address this problem it is necessary to stand back from an atomistic view of social life as a series of ritualised activities and take a broader view of tile course of such performances in an individual life. In doing this, one can usefully exploit the literary metaphor by relating the problem of overall plot structure within the dramatic work to this problem of identity over the life course within the dramaturgical model of human behaviour: the solution to the former could provide clues to the solution of the latter.


The work conducted so far on biography within the dramaturgical model has explored such concepts as “character” and “moral career”. The concept of character refers to the effect of self‑presentation performances in the eyes of others. Moral career is the life‑history of an individual in the eyes of one of his or her different audiences (family, friends, colleagues, etc.). Because it is concerned with the components of personality which are evident to others it is necessarily interested in the outward representations, or performances, of character.

Thus far performances of character have been associated with the hurdles commonly used to change status in society, such as educational tests (Glasser and Strauss, 1971). The history of successes and failures in meeting the challenges of tests of hazard thus forms a significant theme of moral career.

One problem with viewing reputation simply in terms of success and failure, though, is that sometimes endurance of failure can be better than exploitation of success (Harré 1979). A binary system is very useful in describing gross patterns, but a more complicated system which includes the individual’s stance toward success and failure is needed to more accurately describe individual instances of moral career.

This is still far removed from applying the dramaturgical model to an understanding of a personal identity cohering these ritualised performances. Given that the existence of these tests of hazard has been established, the story remains to be told of the individual who negotiates them throughout the life course (Marsh, Rosser and Harré’s, 1976, study of the career path of a soccer fan is an exception here). The problem is that moral career is a slippery fish. The difficulty lies in abstracting the cultural structures in an individual biography from tile other contingencies in real life. So, for example, an instance of ritualised combat is difficult to tell apart from an improvised attempt to cope with an imposed threat from an outsider. To make such a fish easier to catch it is better to choose a medium which is more removed from life contingencies, one that enables us to sift the cultural conventions which structure individual biographies from the influences of other domains, such as personal health. In literary texts we have characters who by virtue of their fictional status are formally independent of real life contingencies. Rather than attempt to construct a suitable net de novo to isolate the various standard forms of’ moral careers, it seems more practical to try out one borrowed from literary criticism, which as a discipline is already adapted to


A system is required which is general, related to character development (especially success and failure at meeting tasks), and can easily be applied to everyday life. Many schools of literary criticism are ineligible here because they either are closely tied to the historical circumstances of the work, concerned with purely formal stylistic characteristics specific to one genre, or see literature as having no bearing on anything whatsoever apart from itself. One school which meets these criteria is the myth criticism of Northrop Frye (1957). According to this school, literary works can be interpreted as recurrences of four mythic formulae: comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire. These myths are the conventions adopted in Western literature to provide the superordinate dramatic structures which give meaning to the isolated events and characters in literary texts. Myths, for Frye, are the narrative structures in literature which concern:

Man’s view of the world lie wants to live in, of the world he does not want to live in, of destiny and heritage, of the world he is trying to make and of the his situation and a world that resists his efforts. (1970, p. 18)

In dramas, novels, and poetry these myths take conventional forms just as what people take as a painting depends on the satisfaction of certain pictorial what people recognise as literature depends on the conventions, so the presence of already established forms for the transformation of human experience into a familiar set of narrative structures. It is reasonable to suggest, by extension, that when we demand to know about someone in everyday life we are riot satisfied until we have been able to cast his or her “story” into a similarly conventionalised set of forms. They are, what Goffman (1974) would term, “interpretive frames”, which can be applied to both fiction and everyday life. The four mythic forms described by Frye are listed below.


The four myths and seven layers associations



























Happy go lucky

Head in clouds

Tortured soul







Popular examples


Star Wars

Elephant Man

Life of Brian


Comedy involves the triumph of man over the world through a harmonising of conflicting forces. This reconciliation is brought about through a festive occasion, typically a wedding. The end result is a society which is more peaceful and easy going. The focus is on sociality as a healing medium for the conflicting forces in the world. Humour, though often associated with the tempering of strict moral systems, is not a necessary condition for the myth of comedy, which makes it different from the everyday sense of the term. The popular television series “M.A.S.H.” exemplifies aspects of comedy such as the belittling of a stern moral figure (“Frank Burns”) and the place of the group in resolving conflict. So, in many episodes conflict between individuals is healed through easy sociability, such as in film nights and cocktail parties, or the necessarily shared commitment of the operating table.

Success is achieved also in Romance, but in this case it involves a more abstract victory of good over evil. The focus in this myth is on the individual hero and fits or her adventures in conquering the evil force. Typically, the hero is able to transcend the world of experience as a result of the quest for good. “Star Wars” uses many of the conventions of romance; involving a balanced in personal development and reflected ill the opposition between individuality and sociability in tragedy and comedy. Writing as a literary critic and asking the question if social context has anything to offer criticism, Lawrence Danson (1984, p. 180) makes a similar point in an attempt to ground Jonsonian comedy in a social context:

In real life as in drama we have the question of genre: the self in any of its models may be comic or tragic. At times we conceive ourselves as continuous, stable, well‑coordinated beings: to know us is a pleasure. At other times we know that the self is fragile discontinuous, threatened, alone.

The myths of comedy and tragedy thus tell stories with different moral implications about an issue that is of critical importance in personal development to what degree our identity conforms to the accepted image.

The formality of literature‑tile degree to which it overtly corresponds to everyday life‑is represented by the opposition between romance and satire: the former is fantasy‑based and the latter ridicules fantasy by contrasting it with daily experiences‑“ No one in a romance, Don Quixote protests, ever asks who pays for the hero’s accommodation.” (Frye, 1957, p. 223)

Sociality and formality closely resemble the dimensions which Mary Douglas (1973) uses to classify various cosmologies. According to her GridGroup theory any understanding of physical and social reality can be seen as a permutation of two dimensions: the degree to which goals are oriented toward society rather than the individual (Group), relating to the difference between tragedy and comedy; and the degree of routinization in the means chosen to achieve these goals (Grid)‑the issue of formality which opposes satire to romance. Grid‑Group theory integrates many other sociological dichotomies (see Ostrander, 1982) such as Durkheim’s concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity (Group), Tonnies’ concepts of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft (Group), Weber’s concepts of traditionalism and rationalism (Grid), and Linton’s concepts of ascribed and achieved status (Grid). The two dimensions which differentiate the myths thus possess a large degree of generality in the sociological sphere.

In this way, the four myths can be seen to be related to ways of conceiving of the individual and society. The two sets of dimensions chosen do not exhaust the range of elements these myths can relate to, they merely serve to illustrate the fact that they can apply to the experience of everyday life‑the stuff of moral careers‑and are not restricted to changing weather patterns These myths incorporate success and failure and the individual’s response to it, as well as the individual’s relation to the social environment. The fact that myth criticism sits easily oil two different sets of factors indicates that tile four myths are unlikely to have one exclusive field of application, but this is inevitable when dealing with representations of social life, which is by its very nature consisting of ambivalences.


The major problem facing the proposed marriage between the dramaturgical model and myth criticism is the difference in backgrounds of each partner: one is grounded in everyday life and the other in the unreal world of fiction. Conceptually, it has been shown that the four myths can be related to the everyday development of character in a moral career, but the problem needs to be further explored by examining where these structures might be discovered. It is not enough to prove that a treasure exists, one needs also to provide directions to its location. The issue here is the degree to which these myths penetrate the everyday process of narrative construction (emplotment) and the particular situations in which they might be revealed.

In the social world there are two immediately obvious locations for the process of emplotment: gossip and popular culture. In both these a form of discourse is demanded which call tell interesting stories about people. Given that this is also a major objective of literature, it is possible that popular representations of events and characters borrow from it dramaturgical devices.

An example of the place of such myths in popular culture is in the life manuals which advise readers how they should live their lives and what stance they should adopt towards achieving success in this world, an issue which is addressed by comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire. The most popular writer of life manuals in recent times is Gail Sheehy, author of

“Passages” (1977) and “Pathfinders” (1982). The predominant myth Sheehy uses is romance, in which a quest for a fantasy object‑called the “dream” comes to a head in the midlife crisis when the adult battles with the “nasty tyrant”‑ the “inner custodian”‑to assert control over his or her destiny. Life is structured by Sheehy as a romantic adventure, stimulated by the hope that the discovery of truth about oneself will emerge from the despair of a personal crisis.

To reach the clearing beyond, we must stay with the weightless journey through uncertainty. Whatever counterfeit safety we hold from overinvestments in people and institutions must be given up. Tile inner custodian must be unseated from the controls. It is for each of us to find a course that is valid by our own reckoning. And for each of us there is the opportunity to emerge reborn, authentically unique, with an enlarged capacity to love ourselves and embrace others. (1977, p. 364)

Sheehy contrasts this with other mythic constructions of life, such as the tragedy‑satire of the “Wunderkind”:

…in the process of subordinating everything else to the drive to enter the winner’s circle‑in the expectation that then insecurity will vanish and one will be loved and admired and never again humiliated or made to feel dependent‑the gulf of loneliness grows wider and wider. And when the wunderkind’s grand expectations are shot down, there is no one else to care. (1982, p. 162) 

Sheehy’s works are telling illustrations of tile place of literary structures in tile ways in which human development is popularly conceived, as well as indicating the very inspirational effect of romantic life constructions. 4 There is an obvious case for research which explores the presence and importance of these myths in other forms of biographical discourse, such as gossip.

Other possible locations of narrative life construction include more ritualised social events, such as wedding speeches, which involve tile telling of a story about an individual’s life. The fact that these story-telling events occur at many important points in a person’s life -- one of the most dramatic being the deathbed scene -- indicates that these conventions may play a significant role in the way life is understood by the individual. The actors in social rituals associated with retirement from work and funerals typically use stories as a medium through which recognition is granted by others for one’s life achievements. Because achievements are most often given this recognition after they have been encapsulated in story form, it may be suggested that the narrative form also determines greatly the way individuals view life and its purpose.

Because narrative acts as a means of providing some temporal order, the most likely type of social event in which life construction plays a role is the rite of passage. This can be illustrated by a study of the marathon as a test of hazard which signifies changes in one’s moral career (Murray, 1985) . One of the dominant stories provided by the entrants in this study to explain their decision to run a marathon was a comic narrative: conflicts within themselves and others would be lessened as a product of the group engagement of the marathon and they would be “born again” as better people.

Retirement is a rite of passage which figures in the completion of many life narratives; as such, the manner in which it is presented can determine whether the resolution belongs to one of the four myths. An example of a tragic retirement is that of U.S. footballer John Hannah, who left the sport at the age of 32 complaining about (lie inadequate effort of the team management. As a result, lie said, “Everything 1 had in me was vanislied”..5 John Hannah’s career story is one of ambition thwarted by evil ill others. In the early 1980s, the comic form of retirement seemed to be employed frequently. It usually took the form of someone leaving a position of public importance in order to devote more time to tile family. Here the emphasis is on being integrated into tile community rather than being put forth as a hero. When Anthony Staley, Federal Minister of the Australian Parliament, retired early from politics in 1980 lie did so “with a tremendous feeling of achievement” avid seeking a quieter life in which lie could give more time to his children. He told reporters at the press conference of how his family had missed him while he was playing the role of politician.6 Here the concerns of the everyday are placed above the drama of political struggle; this is the typical resolution of comedy. Alternatively, one could retire with an ironic perspective on the unrealistic ambitions one commenced with (satiric), or, having successfully fulfilled the goals of one’s career, one could disappear from public life to a distant location surrounded by nature (romantic). The way in which the event of retirement is emplotted by oneself and others is likely to determine the basic narrative of an individual’s biography.

The importance of mythic structures extends beyond personal being: it relates to cultural differences as well. Most societies contain different sets of rules which inform different people as to how to live their lives. This is what Bruner (1962, p. 36) refers to as “the mythologically instructed community” which provides its members with a “library of scripts”. It is by means of this mythopoeic structure that an individual may gain greater definition in his or her sense of personal identity. As Harré (1983, p. 257) writes, “One’s personal being is the product of appropriations and transformations of social resources, including the local theory of selves”. The concept of social resources is echoed lit the writings of at least three other contemporary theorists: MacIntyre (1981) proposes a mythology which contains “dramatic resources” that provide members of a society with narrative guidelines for acting ill the social world; Geertz (1975) attempts to uncover the “symbol systems” which “pattern” human life ill culturally specific ways; and for Shotter (1981) action draws its sense from a collectively‑held “moral world”. The argument of this paper is that these cultural structures are partly organised along narrative lines, especially when dealing in lives; and that these structures can be initially categorised as comedy, romance, tragedy and satire. Gall Sheehy’s “Passages” is an example of a cultural resource which offers readers a particular story in which they can emplot their own experience: the story of romantic adventure in the search for self. Harré (1981, p. 79) expresses this point in a more directly dramaturgical manner:

... there are distinctive indigenous psychologies based oil the “theatrical” conventions that govern plot and character in the socially maintained repertoire of scenarios through which we both conceive and realize projets.

The four myths are being proposed as general structures, within Western cultures, which govern the social representation of individual life goals and their resolution. As such, they can be applied to cultural products which signify a narrative vision of the world, for example, popular songs, histories, and obituaries.


So far, discussion has avoided tile major problem associated with translating structures used in art forms to those employed in real life. Obviously there are different rules associated with each domain. One unquestionable difference between art and life is the presence of tradition. Works of literature such as novels form part of a tradition and thus they refer in part to works preceding them. Schemes for the analysis of literature are thus likely to account for the added complication of the history of the form which makes them inappropriate for the analysis of real life. Faced with a similar problem in applying Frye’s myths to the working of historians, Hayden White (1973) was encouraged by tile criticisms within literary circles that myth criticism was too abstract and rigid to capture the complexity of literature. It seems that this scheme, originally intended for use in the realm of fiction, is more suitable for simpler forms of emplotment such as are found in everyday life. Frye (1967) himself sees literature as only a part, though a central part, of tile total mythopoeic structure of culture, which extends from the greatest works of imagination to mass media and con versa t ion‑each draws from the same myth structures.

A meaningful but difficult task for social psychologists is to find a means of discovering the degree of penetration of these myths in everyday life. At the moment there is a burgeoning area of research into the resources offered by a community from which people draw instructions about how to live their lives and how to interpret [lie lives of others. This has led to research into person prototypes (Tajfel and Forgas, 1981). This is in part a fulfilment of the direction by de Waele and Harre (1977, p. 228) that an attempt be made to discover the typology of personas available in the community, say, through the stage, television and so on, upon which any individual draws for his knowledge off thee locally authentic personas.

What would result from such attempts to explore the presence of pre‑existing character structures is a system of stereotypes with an added dimension: chronological development. The four myths of romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire, provide structures for the self‑presentation of biography which afford an opportunity to speak to the hopes, fears, successes, and failures that make up the course of a life in the eyes of others.

It is possible that the four myths will not prove useful as a means of classifying the narratives which speak to those hopes, etc. Because the myth of satire works as a catch‑all for exceptions to the other three myths, it is difficult to conceive of a life narrative, given that it has some order, which if it were riot tragic, romantic, or comic, did not fall then into the category of an ironic inversion of one of those myths (satire). One possible exception is the self‑narrative of the Puritan. Ill its ideal form, this life took the course of work directed towards the goal of self‑control in the hope that the person would be in a state of grace, that is, would be chosen to be saved. The election, how‑ever, was beyond the individual’s control and lie was left in doubt about it during his life. Despite this, most of the Puritan heroes did have confidence in their own election (Gilpin,  1979). But this does not negate the fact that the Puritan life in its ideal form does not fit any of the four myths‑it is goal-directed but success is not directly affected by the individual’s actions. It is also possible to conceive a life narrative which is constructed as a mystery: the principle that governs the person’s actions is not revealed until the end of the story. Life as mystery resembles the basic form of the case history. 7

Given these two possible exceptions, it appears wise to begin with Frye’s myths as a handy set of tools, which may be added to depending on the task at hand. Possible additions may include Thompson’s (1977) folktale motives or Polti’s (1916) dramatic situations. It may even be useful to level the myths down to their evaluative dimension, and discuss instead of myths, different combinations of stable, retrogressive, and progressive narrative units, as Gergen and Gergen (1983, 1984) do.8 This paper has attempted to open up the possible use of these literary devices in the analysis of the construction of lives in public, and has suggested that myth criticism is suitable to begin with because of its grounding in social life. The success of the marriage is now mainly all empirical matter.

In summary, tile transgression of disciplinary boundaries involved in approaching public life construction in terms of the literary framework of myth criticism call be justified by adopting the dramaturgical model of such behaviour, for which literary representations are an acceptable source of information for research. Approaching episodes of social life as dramatic events grants us the license to view the life course as a dramatic event also. As Sartre (1965, p. 61) writes, mail “lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them, and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it”. This may be a bold position, but it can be argued that the narrative life constructions that fashion much social and personal life are due for some serious empirical investigation. The degree to which biographical self‑presentations reflect the literary forms of comedy, romance, tragedy and satire is a fruitful point at which to begin this research.

Kevin Murray, Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne, Parkville,

Victoria, Australia 3052.


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‘ It also pervades the private construction of identity, in which a narrative of the self is likely to play air integrating role (see Gergen & Gergen, 1983, avid Sarbin, 1982).

2 Potter, Stringer & Wetherell (1984) provide a general argument for the study of literary texts as an approach to the understanding of everyday discourse in general.

~3 There are three popular hybrids of these myths. In a romantic comedy the adventurer achieves success arid is (hen integrated back into society; whereas in a tragicomedy the downfall of (lie hero is merely scaled down to everyday proportions; and in an ironic tragedy the hero’s scheme is seen to clash with the evil nature of the world, so that the downfall is achieved through the hero’s own devices. Because of their incompatible levels of idealisation, romance and satire are mutually exclusive. Despite (lie presence of these hybrids, the paper will continue to discuss the myths in their pure form, hopefully maintaining a simplicity of analysis.

‘ For a more detailed analysis of life manuals and examples of those which construct tragic and satiric lives, see Murray (in press).

‘New York Times, May 12, 1983, 11, 16: 1.

“ “The Age” (Melbourne), 5 August, 1980, p. 1.

7 The solving of the mystery of a life which is associated with a cure, such as in Freud’s case histories, is likely to have a strong comic theme (see Schafer, 1976) similar to the end of a Dickensian epic when long suffering characters discover their noble origins. But a mysterious life which does not involve a cure or happy circling, such as that constructed for Howard Hughes, deals with a sense of puzzlement and intrigue which escapes the narrative scheme of Frye.

‘ Air alternative approach to these is the stage‑state model of development; this partitions life into certain stages in which there are a number of possible states. Examples are Runyan’s (1984) probabilistic model of stage‑state sequences, and Hankiss’ (1981) mythological scheme of accounting strategies for success arid failure at the beginning and end Points of life. ‘Fire advantage of Hankiss’ scheme is that it allows for the comic possibility of’ life beginning again (the antithetical strategy of accounting for the outcome of success from a poor start); Runyan’s purpose is more statistical, so he is precluded from allowing such a possibility.

Originally published "Life as Fiction" Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour  15:2 July 1985 173-88

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