Literary Pathfinding: The Work of Popular Life Constructors

Narrative Psych

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Social actors often need a past to satisfy the requirements of many different dramatic situations. These situations can vary from the extraordinary ‑ the television show “This Is Your Life” ‑ to the mundane, such as getting to know an acquaintance. The way in which the biographical subjects and their audience construct this past is likely to vary according to the rhetorical demands that govern the situation in which this practice of life emplotment occurs. This context is likely to influence at least three dimensions of this process: the choice of events that are seen as relevant to the construction of the life, the themes that provide coherence between these events, and the degree and type of narrative closure to the life story.

The structures used by people as they construct lives ‑ the language of self‑reflection employed in this discourse ‑ is an important new field of research (see Potter, Stringer, & Wetherell, 1984). Such an approach assumes that life construction is a discursive practice governed by the social settings which demand that a life history be presented. In the present chapter, I examine the form of the life manual, especially Gail Sheehy’s Passages, in order to discover the sort of resources offered through this medium for the social construction of lives. In common with other theories of biography (see Kohli, 1981; and Runyan, 1980) this analysis assumes that more than one possible account can be construed from the events of a person’s life, according to the perspective of the biographer. This chapter emphasizes, in addition, the role of narrative structures in the way an account is constituted, specifically those structures provided in the language of self‑reflection employed in life manuals.

The language of self‑reflection is most obvious in specialized forms of discourse such as works of autobiography and biography, but there are other social events and institutions which are partly designed for the construction of life narratives. Two common rituals which involve the telling of a story about a life are the speeches at testimonial dinners and weddings. These stories usually have contrasting emphases: wedding speeches emphasize human and everyday aspects of character, while retirement speeches highlight achievements that distinguish the subject from others.

The process of life construction is important in many social events designed to establish a moral character (see Gergen & Gergen, 1983, for a discussion of the social utility of this practice). This is highlighted in the statements of a character witness in the courtroom, though it is no less evident in the responses of an interviewee when asked to account in a research interview for certain actions. In the former, the witness attempts to construct a story about character which makes more sense of one interpretation of the accused’s acts than another, less innocent one; and in the latter, the research question of the interviewer makes it imperative that the interviewee construct an account of past actions that is coherent and sensible (see Mishler, this volume).

In each case, the rhetorical demands of the situation require a relatively unambiguous reading of motive: the situation demands thematic generality over a disparate course of events. So, for example, a character witness might begin the testimony with, “When he was five he saved a kitten from drowning,” in order to highlight how the theme of consideration for others marks the life events of the accused. For the account to have an easily read point (that is, the likely innocence of the defendant), the narrative must sift out those details that do not add to the coherence of the story.

Given the pervasiveness of the process of narrative construction of life events, one is naturally prompted to investigate its function. However, there is an obstacle to this investigation. One of the reasons why these processes have received relatively little study is the assumption that the function of telling stories about lives is mimetic and therefore unproblematic; that is, that life narratives are largely a transparent means of representing the truth. However, while it is necessary that these processes bear an ostensible relation to a commonly perceived reality, the success of an account is also likely to be judged by how well it fits certain rhetorical demands, including the set of conventions in language that govern the telling of stories.

The debate about the representational nature of narrative has occurred in other disciplines. History has been popularly conceived as concerned exclusively with the mimetic function of revealing the truth about the past. However, in an analysis of nineteenth‑century historians, Hayden White (1973) demonstrates the importance of other factors in writing history such as ideology, world view, and what he terms “explanation by emplotment,” which is presenting a description of the past that convinces by its success as a story; specifically, how well it conforms to the conventions of comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire. Although White would agree with other relativists, such as Runyan, on the plurality of narratives for the construction of life events, he would differ in the emphasis placed on language as a system that imposes form on reality. For Runyan, relativism extends only to the ideological and theoretical perspective of the biographer, whereas for White, the narrative account of the past is determined by the preconscious linguistic structures (tropes) imposed on reality by the constructor ‑ the choice of structure is determined by aesthetic and moral reasons.

The nonrepresentational factors which figure in this professional sense‑making are also likely to apply to everyday constructions of the past. The criterion of truth is certainly not dominant in informal social activities such as gossip, when the members of a group exchange “interesting” stories about people not present, and popular culture, especially in magazines concerned with media personalities whose lives are regularly encapsulated in touching, shocking, and amusing stories.

Given the prevalence of narrative structures in constructions of the past, it is difficult to argue for life stories as a transparent means of representing truth. A qualified case for this mimetic view may, however, be cast in information‑processing terms. These stories may be seen as attempts at information reduction, in which the large variety of life events is reduced to a set of narratives so that it may be cognitively processed more efficiently. The function, therefore, remains representational, though this is by means of an information‑simplifying structure rather than by a mirror of reality. However, this ignores the pleasure with which apparently useless additional information is sought about people who have no practical relation to one’s life. Who should care if Elizabeth Taylor marries again? It would be difficult to see a story of Elizabeth Taylor’s remarriage being used as an aid in the cognitive organization of the social environment. The moral function of such a story seems more evident than the information‑processing function; the remarriage may continue a story about a prominent public figure whose actions have relevance as standards of conduct in everyday life; the happy or sad outcome of the story indicates whether the course of action is correct or misguided. For Hayden White, one purpose of narrative is moral:

Narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling and probably in fictional storytelling as well, is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system, that is the source of any morality that we can imagine. (1980, p. 18)

If one looks again at the process of gossip (Sabini & Silver, 1982), one finds emphasis on the embodiment of codes of conduct on the elaboration of moral rules in concrete examples. The gossipy stories in the popular media seem to instantiate the moral order, thus exercising it and ensuring that it is able to organize the events of everyday life.

Besides the moral function of this process, life construction is also likely to be an attempt to find a narrative structure by means of which life can be granted meaning. This is what Frank Kermode describes as an explanatory fiction: “In ‘making sense’ of the world we still feel a need, harder than ever to satisfy because of the accumulated scepticism, to experience that concordance of beginning, middle, and end, which is the essence of our explanatory fictions” (1967, pp. 35‑36). This sense of beginning, middle, and end, in terms of a life path, is provided by a set of conventionalized narrative forms. Jerome Bruner, in his essay “Myth and identity” (1962), describes this set as the “controlling myths of community,” which provide a “library of scripts” that give recognition to certain life paths. This library of scripts is an abstraction of the narratives that are evident in the ways the biography of an individual is presented in public. The aim of this chapter is to demonstrate, in popular psychology at least, that these life constructions are determined as much by the moral and narrative conventions contained in the hypothetical library of scripts as they are by the facts of life.


The popular book Passages (1977), by Gail Sheehy, presents a revealing document for studying these socially recognized life paths. First, it explicitly sets out to provide a prescribed route through life events, and tells many stories about people as examples of a general theory. Second, Sheehy is a popular writer (her books reach the top of bestseller lists), and her books are more likely to be consumed as myths than books directed to an academic audience. Given these factors, Sheehy’s works are likely to indicate ways in which lives can be constructed as resources that can he used by members of society in the choosing of a life path.

Sheehy’s work is examined here with an emphasis on the manner in which she constructs life narratives and on the theory from which she draws to support her constructions. The relativity of her constructions can be established by two sets of contrasts: first, by a comparison with two of her contemporaries: Daniel Levinson and Roger Gould; and second, because many of the assumptions Sheehy makes may seem at first to be self‑evident to participants of the same culture. 1 cite a theorist from a different time: the Victorian moralist and biographer, Samuel Smiles. Smiles, like Sheehy, achieved great popularity while telling stories about how people should live their lives.

Because our interest is partly in the consumption of Sheehy’s book it is useful to approach it initially from the perspective of the ordinary reader. It is likely that the prospective reader goes to this book as a guide to ways in which one deals with problems in life. This seems to be the ostensible purpose of the book. As the reader inspects it in the bookstore he or she sees the blurb on the cover reinforce this expectation:

‘A revolutionary way of looking at adult life’


Brilliant new insights on the predictable crises of adult fife.

However, if at this point the reader decides to gauge Sheehy’s style by examining the first page of the main text, the expectation of a serious academic work is soon put in doubt. Chapter One of Passages, entitled “Madness and Method,” immediately immerses the reader in the excitement of Sheehy’s adventure in Northern Ireland. There is no conceptual argument; it begins much more like a novel than an academic tract.

If the reader had looked at the cover notes in a little more detail the expectation would not have been of a serious theoretical work. The notes on the inside of the cover are more representative of the style of the introductory chapter:

‘A lively, passionate and readable message . .  Margaret Mead

‘Provokes the same recognition that we experience in a good novel . . .’  New York Times Book Review

‘Extraordinarily good reading . .  ‑Publishers Weekly

The readableness of Sheehy’s book is evident in the clever literary style she adopts throughout. This style partly consists of tropes, such as, “Killing time is a suicidal act. The time she is killing is all she has left to live.” This emphasis on the literary style may seem irrelevant to the purpose of this chapter, but it is important to recognize the context in which Sheehy’s theory is cast ‑ the medium which contains the message. The decision in adopting this particular style may be related to what she is trying to say, and the way in which she wants her message to be consumed.

The rest of the statements used to package Passages emphasize the involvement of the reader in the text.

PASSAGES IS YOUR LIFE STORY. You’ll recognize yourself, your friends, and your lovers.

‘Passages shakes you up, shakes you out, and leaves you shaking hands with yourself.’

Shana Alexander

These statements stress the prospect of the reader being changed by the text ‑ either in the acts performed in life or the process of self‑reflection. (For a discussion of the influence of reading on everyday life, see Sarbin, 1982.) The impression of Passages gained from this bookshop browse is likely to be of an entertaining text which has the power to recast one’s own life story.

At this point we will leave the impressions of the prospective reader and turn to the actual theory which Gail Sheehy offers to account for life events. According to Sheehy, adult life consists of a negotiation between two powerful forces within the psyche, and the outside world. The primary force is essentially good, Sheehy calls it the “dream.” The dream has its origins in the fantasies of childhood. Adult ambitions, such as vocational success, establishing a secure family, and becoming famous, are attempts to realize this dream. Opposed to the dream is the “inner custodian.” This is a negative psychic force, similar to the superego,l which has its origin in the demands that parents make of the child. The inner custodian, which Sheehy calls a “nasty tyrant,” demands that one live up to these ideals or be nothing. It is a critical annihilating force that engenders a feeling of helplessness.

The conflict between these forces comes to a head in midlife. In this “passage” there is usually a threatening event which triggers a crisis, usually a memento mori such as the death of one’s parents, or a heart attack affecting oneself or a friend. Sheehy’s book begins with the event which triggered her own crisis: the sense of futility in life resulting from her experience of a Northern Ireland massacre. For Sheehy this is a particularly dramatic event in the lives of everyone: “There is a moment an immense and precarious moment ‑ of stark terror.” This crisis engenders a period of depression and inactivity ‑ a sense of hopelessness in coping with the threat.

Sheehy advises people at this point in their lives to act bravely, to face the conflict squarely and be hopeful of the future. The hope which Sheehy offers is a romantic one; there is an optimistic commitment to the self as the only force of authority in one’s world. This becomes clear when her statements about the crisis are examined:

For whether we know it or not, and usually we don’t, it is this dictator guardian from whom we all are struggling at last to be free. In midlife, all the old wars with the inner custodian flare up again. And eventually, if we let it happen, they will culminate in a final, decisive battle. The object of that battle is to overtake the last of the ground held by the other and end up with the authority for ourselves in our own command. (1977, p. 436)

Given Sheehy’s literary style, it is not surprising that she employs a metaphor to describe this conflict. It is, rather, her choice of metaphor which is interesting. By using a metaphor of battle she is encapsulating the event of midlife crisis in terms which make it compatible with the literary structure of a romance.

Indeed, Sheehy’s theory readily allows for a romance narrative. There is already the notion of a dream, which can be seen in terms of a romantic quest, and the inner custodian, which can be easily viewed as the elemental foe opposed to the realization of the quest. Given these initial terms, the equation of romance is completed by Sheehy’s view of life as a perilous journey consisting in a series of adventures leading up to a crucial struggle in the midlife crisis. This is clearly indicated by Sheehy’s statement of romantic hope:

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. The inner custodian must be unseated from the controls. No foreign power can direct our journey from now on. 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 aims to inspire the reader with a sense of hope in life by constructing personal development in terms of a romance. And given the nature of the crucial struggle in romance ‑ that it allows for the rebirth and rejuvenation of the hero ‑ it structures a difficult period in life in a way which allows for the possibility of an optimistic outcome. If she had chosen to structure life according to alternative forms, such as a tragedy in which childhood hopes are destroyed by the cruel realities of adult life, or a satire where the idealistic dreams of childhood are disillusioned by the ironies and complexities of adulthood, the effect would be to engender despair.

The purpose of using a literary style can thus be seen as allowing Sheehy the license to use literary forms to construct lives. In effect, Sheehy is teaching the readers to read their own lives in terms of romance so that they may share in this hope: “the capacity for renewal in each human spirit is nothing short of amazing.” The message on the cover saying “Passages is your life story” now can be translated as “You too may emplot your life as a romantic adventure.”

There is further evidence for this point in Pathfinders (1982), the sequel to Passages. Here Sheehy presents heroes of her system. The heroes must pass three tests:

  1. To confront crossroads
  2. To cause a minimum of human damage.
  3. To seek a purpose outside oneself.


What is significant about these three tests is that, according to critics of the romantic literary form (see Frye, 1957), the heroes of classic forms of romance must also face three tests, and the nature of these tests roughly corresponds to Sheehy’s. The first test (agon) involves conflict between the hero and the evil force. The second test (pathos) is the final death struggle between the combatants. Sheehy’s second test is compatible with this; it assumes that the person has tried to resolve the conflict by reassessing commitments such as an unchallenging job or a sour marriage. She is specifying that the outcome of this test should not merely be the annihilation of previous commitments ‑ persons should salvage some of their pasts from this crucial struggle. The third test (anagnorisis) is the discovery of a transcendent meaning or truth as part of the process of renewal after the struggle. Sheehy similarly specifies that the pathfinder should discover a meaning beyond the pursuit of pleasure or self-gratification. It is understandable that if Sheehy invests in the mythos of romance as a source of optimism, then she also buys the baggage of the romantic conventions.

In Passages Sheehy refers to the work of two other researchers as promoting her own interest in human development: Daniel Levinson and Roger Gould. Levinson’s book, The Seasons of Man’s Life (1978), is seen by some as an academically respectable work from which Sheehy draws her theory. Certainly, the Dream concept figures as strongly in Levinson as it does in Sheehy, but, unlike Passages, Seasons constructs a force opposed to the Dream which is not an object with whom one can engage in battle ‑ it is not like Sheehy’s inner custodian (“nasty tyrant”); rather it is a tragic flaw within the character, something over which one has no control. Levinson’s scenario for midlife does not provide the reader with the same sense of adventure as Sheehy because the enemy or frustrating force is part of oneself ‑ it cannot be easily externalized as a foe: “The tragic sense derives from the realization that great misfortunes and failures are not merely imposed upon us from without, but are largely the result of our own tragic flaws” (1978, p. 225). Given the absence of clear opposition between good and bad, the metaphor for the process of growth cannot be battle; Levinson chooses instead to compare development in midlife to a geographical study, in which basic faults are revealed to the explorer. The aim then is discovery, rather than the victory which Sheehy envisages.

Gould is another theorist who refers to the Dream as a primary force in human development, but he provides a different metaphor for the process of growth. The negative force for Gould rests with the “angry demons” of childhood, which remain fostered in the illusions carried into adulthood: “To enjoy full access to our innermost self, we can no longer deny the ugly, demonic side of life, which our immature mind tried to protect against by enslaving itself to false illusions that absolute safety was possible” (1978, p. 218). Midlife thus becomes a period for facing up to reality. The metaphor Gould employs is breaking a wild horse; evil cannot be defeated in battle, it must simply be exposed to reality and, through experience, tamed. Gould holds an existentialist position toward life ‑he sees it as a process of demystification: “Time ... strips away our last remaining illusion of safety and makes existentialists of us all.” The breaking down of illusions through experience is the goal presented by Gould, contrasting with Levinson’s discovery of tragic flaws and Sheehy’s victory over the inner custodian. The goals typify the myths of satire, tragedy, and romance, respectively.2 The fact that these authors examine the same issue, with similar materials, yet construct their theories in such contrasting ways, demonstrates the relativity of narrative constructions, and especially highlights that Sheehy’s view of life is as much a product of the structures of narrative emplotment and their associated assumptions about human nature as it is of representation.


Samuel Smiles is a writer whose success in the Victorian era is compatible with Sheehy’s success in our own time. Smiles authored many life manuals, the most popular being Self‑Help (1925, originally published, 1854). The impact of Self‑Help on Victorian culture can be gauged by the fact that it sold more copies than any of the great nineteenth century novels. The purpose of the comparison between Smiles and Sheehy is not to analyse historically the changes in sensibilities concerning life constructions, but simply to highlight more distinctive features of Sheehy’s approach.

Looking at the cover notes of Self‑Help, the reader is less encouraged to find a literary masterpiece within. Smiles’ style is praised as being 11 clear and attractive,” but the emphasis is largely on the inspirational nature of his works:

[Self‑Help will] help to inspire the rising generation with ennobling sentiments.



There are few departments of public life in which this book may not inspire to higher self‑devotion....

Liverpool Mercury

Smiles’ style is less colourful than Sheehy’s, and more precise.

The force which drives personality in Smiles’ system is character. Character is made up of various elements or moral qualities of personality. These are energy. duty, reverence, will, courage, self-control, cheerfulness, and manners. The general theme of these qualities is a positive desire to do right by society. According to Smiles, character is determined by social milieu. Thus the greatest formative influence on personality is family, followed by teachers. peers, spouse, patrons, books. and society’s heroes.

Many of Smiles’ books display the means by which character can become manifest to others, especially as it is evident in the lives of heroes of Victorian society; their story is usually of boys from modest and devout backgrounds who through application are able to raise themselves and do good in society. Their character is made evident in two ways. First, it can be seen in the daily contributions to society that eventually amount to a character‑building set of good works: “Indeed, character consists in little acts, well and honourably performed; daily life being the quarry from which we build it up, and rough‑hew the habits which we form” (1925, p. 468). Alternatively, character may become manifest by means of a dramatic gesture: “When Stephen of Colonna fell into the hands of his base assailants, and they asked him in derision, ‘Where is now your fortress?’ ‘Here’, was the bold reply. placing his hand upon his heart (1925. p. 453). In this way character becomes something which is easily read by others. in terms of one’s history of good works (moral career) or through self‑presentation strategies.

Compared to Sheehy, the essence of Smiles lies on the surface. Smiles’ lives are flat and undynamic ‑ there is no struggle within the self to arrive at a self‑determined meaning. In the language of self‑reflection discussed by Potter et al., Smiles holds an “honest soul” theory of character. one which sees self as consisting of a stable set of traits, whereas Sheehy sees self as something that must be strived for, the romantic self.

For Smiles, the meaning which determines one’s life comes necessarily from outside oneself; there is an objective moral order, the same for all, by which one’s personal worth is judged. This may sound restrictive and uninviting, but Smiles does offer a bonus. Because the example of others acts as an independent force which permeates our moral capabilities, our own actions are granted a significance outside ourselves as they become part of the moral fabric of society which in turn controls the behaviour of others. Smiles’ theory of character thus implies a secular immortality:

The spirits of men do not die: they still live and walk abroad among us.... Thus, every act we do or word we utter, as well as every act we witness or word we hear, carries with it an influence which extends over, and gives a colour, not only to the whole of our future life, but makes itself felt upon the whole frame of society. (1925, p. 428)

According to Sheehy the worth of an individual is in the ability to face reality by finding a balance betwen seeking and merging, independence and intimacy. In contrast, Smiles simply believes that people operate like a Marxist economic system; that the value of a product is directly related to the labor involved in its creation, thus there is no honor without struggle. The value for Smiles is labor, whereas for Sheehy it is authenticity. A comparison of the moral orders of Islam and St. Thomas of Aquinas by Rom Harr6 (1984) reveals a similar difference. While the Islamic concept of quaadar prescribes a universal life path for all that is achieved by faith and determination, Aquinas refers to the necessity of making decisions in the life‑course.

So far, Sheehy and Smiles have been contrasted in their theories of how lives are constructed. To gain knowledge of their method, attention should be paid to the many case histories included in their books. Both writers use cases very much as exemplary lives which not only demonstrate their theories about human nature and conform to the narrative patterns seen as typical in life, but also provide models of how the readers should live their own lives.


In Passages (1977, pp. 256‑27 1), Sheehy uses the case of Dwight to illustrate the rebirth of a person who avoided experimentation in earl. life. It begins as an example of the hazards involved in a lack of risk taking when young, and ends as a celebration of the potential to overcome a bad start by taking on adventures later in life.

Dwight is presented as a person whose early development was stamped with the traditionalism of his established New England family. Sheehy exploits the rhythm of language to highlight his lack of experimentation. After Dwight gains a large inheritance from his grandfather:

He safed it all away in blue chip stocks. Lock!

He wasted not a moment between finishing basic training and starting married life with Vanessa. Lock!

And she describes his becoming a teacher despite his father’s objections:

With almost no experimentation Dwight had found his one true course in life.


Slowly becoming aware that his life had been too restricted to allow the realization of any authentic sense of self, Dwight begins to break out. He leaves his wife and starts experimenting with one of Sheehy’s stock figures, the Testimonial Woman When she leaves him Dwight is devastated, but this leads him to realize that: “a change of mates was not the key. A change in him was.” Following this revelation Dwight sets out on the romantic quest to find himself, and he begins to grow: “As he began to assume the authority for his own support, Dwight stretched on all levels.” In keeping with the romantic mythos, Sheehy even has Dwight disappearing into the sunset: “On the brow of 40, brimming with vitality and more daring than he had ever before displayed, Dwight whisked off with his new wife to the last wilderness in the West to make a documentary: in his field, using her medium.”

There is, however, another story embedded in the case of Dwight that Sheehy chooses to deny by her use of poetic license. Dwight’s previous life may be alternatively represented as a series of rebellions. First, he turned against his father’s expectations of him to become an executive and chose to become a teacher instead. This, according to Sheehy, happened with no experimentation, but “experimentation” seems to be something which serves the narrative structure of the case rather than the “facts” of Dwight’s life. Second, he entered the political arena by working for a year as an administrative aide to a congressman; but this was, “For want of excitement.... It tickled him to make contacts with celebrities.” After this change of style he went back to teaching. By employing metaphor, Sheehy again uses poetic license to make one interpretation seem more obvious than another: “At 30, the outlines of his life in the academic world seemed to fall into place as clearly as the stone geometry of an old land‑grant college.” The metaphorical neatness of Sheehy’s image allows her interpretation to slip in without being subject to a serious critical scrutiny.

Sheehy’s romantic story of Dwight’s life is not the only one that can be constructed. One could construct it as a satire, in which a good and honest man is influenced by the romantic ideal of selfhood and destroys his family and personal future in the misguided belief that he would achieve greater authenticity. Instead, Sheehy chooses the romance mythos which generates an altogether more inspiring and optimistic scenario. Her choice is not guided solely by the match between this mythos and reality; also at play are Sheehy’s moral and aesthetic visions of life.


A typical case from the works of Samuel Smiles reveals a different force driving personality. The case of Dr. Samuel Lee (1925, pp. 41341 5) typifies the story of the man who through the force of character hauls himself up from modest beginnings to outstanding achievements. “One of the dullest boys” at school, Dr. Lee began life as a carpenter, reading books with Latin quotations in his leisure. Becoming more interested he mastered Latin, and went on to study ancient Greek, followed by the Chaldee, Syriac, and Samaritan dialects. All this was without support from any academy. However, the strain of reading began to tell on his eyes and he had to forego his study until a fire destroyed his carpentry tools and he was forced to take up teaching language for his livelihood. Through the patronage of Dr. Scott, a neighboring clergyman, Dr. Lee expanded the languages under his command and eventually became a professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Queen’s College, Cambridge. According to Smiles, the point of this story is to reveal “the power of perseverance in self‑culture,” though it could just as easily be to demonstrate the unpredictable and impressive nature of a natural gift for languages.

Absent from Smiles’ narrative is any discovery within Dr. Lee of a goal which has personal relevance, which would have marked Sheehy’s version of the same story. The catalyst for Dr. Lee’s rise was not selfdiscovery, but the patronage of Dr. Scott and the recognition from others of Dr. Lee’s “unaffected, simple, and beautiful character.” The story of Dr. Lee’s life can be viewed as an epic narrative in which the hero undergoes adventures that do not interact with his relatively static and simple character. Scholes and Kellog (1966) contrast the epic with the romantic form, especially the modem romance involving a psychological search for identity, where the adventures dynamically affect the character of the hero. The form of character emplotment used by Sheehy typifies the themes of modem romance.

Despite these differences in their chosen forms of life emplotment, Sheehy and Smiles have in common a moral framework upon which their constructions are based. In this framework the hero is understood to be an exemplar of certain virtues ‑ for Sheehy it is authenticity, and for Smiles it is commitment. An alternative framework for constructing character is suggested by Hunter’s (1983) study of the practice of “reading” character in drama criticism. Sheehy and Smiles typify a practice of reading character in which the worth and workings of a person are formed by moral qualities. An alternative means of reading character was practiced in the eighteenth century. This involves viewing character as a rhetorical object, whose plausibility and quality is determined by the dramaturgical rules of everyday life. This practice is evident in the typification of characters into such categories as the “eccentric” and the “conformist.” What such characters lack is a temporal dimension which would give their lives a stronger narrative underpinning, and thus a greater moral relevance. By providing definite narrative frameworks for life, Sheehy and Smiles enable character to be read morally.


Gail Sheehy’s books can be seen as attempts to construct life in terms of the narrative conventions of romance, of a struggle between good and evil which sets the stage for a discovery of inner truth. The outcome of this construction is to create adventure in personal conflict and thus allow the possibility of hope in a period of potential despair; it gives personal crisis a meaning by encapsulating it in narrative terms. Compared to Sheehy, Smiles’ narratives grant the individual much less authority in resolving the issues of selfhood, and offer the less individually determined Stoic path of moral goodness as a guarantee of happiness. Smiles’ books demonstrate that the conventions used by Sheehy are relative. What is found in the works of two of Sheehy’s contemporaries, Levinson and Gould, are the life manuals which do grant the individual this authority, but their metaphors for selfhood lack the spirited adventure with an externalized foe that characterizes Sheehy’s vision. Certainly there are enough materials in any life for the construction of a romance, but whether romance is chosen before other narrative structures such as tragedy and irony will depend on the aesthetic and moral will of the constructor.

All of these life constructions serve a basic need to provide a narrative concordance in human development, but they obviously differ in the values they attach to the individual and society, the limits of human freedom, and the resulting degree of hope, despair, resignation, or pragmatism that is appropriate in life’s progress. The first step has been to recognize the process of life construction at work in the popular life manual, the next stage is to determine its aesthetic, moral, psychological, social, cultural, and historical contexts.


1.         For an analysis of Gail Sheehy’s relationship to popular psychoanalysis see Murray, K. (1984). Romanticizing psychoanalysis. Unpublished manuscript, University of Melbourne, Australia.

2.         For a description of these myths see N. Frye, 1957; and for a statement of their theoretical relevance in the social sciences see K. Murray, in press.


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First published as a chapter in T.R. Sarbin The Storied Nature of Human Conduct New York: Praeger, 1986

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