Investigating Narrative Levels in the Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

For a semester project here in the language lab, I chose to investigate narrative levels and how they interact and change in stories. To do this, I attempted to replicate a project published in The Journal of Cultural Analytics, a journal focusing on the intersection of data and human action. The project aimed to understand how narrative levels work, as well as how uniformly standard definitions of them could be identified by different scholars in different places. The project lays out three main types of narrative that deviate from the main speaker, narrator, or story:

Uninterrupted narrative: this is just a narrative by itself. It has the same speaker, the same time period, and the same point of view. 

Embedded narrative: A story within the original narrative. The original narrative will always signal a reason for an embedded narrative. These typically take place in dialogue, when a character is prompted to tell a story.

Interruptive narrative: a structural separate narrative in the midst of the original narrative. It is usually signaled by some sort of stopping point in the original narrative, such as a chapter end or a section break, and often changes narrator or time period. Unlike the embedded narrative, there is nothing within the original narrative that prompts an interruptive narrative. 

On top of these are time shifts, dreams, and visions, which can take the form of uninterrupted or embedded narrative as well. If you want to check out the original article and how it explains these more, you can find it here

Deciding which book or stories to use to analyze this was a bigger challenge than I initially thought it would be. I had planned to use The Passport (1989) by Herta Müller, a book I was writing my senior thesis on. Upon rereading it and trying to decipher where these types of narratives came into play, I realized that there wasn’t all that much deviation from the main narrator. There were frequent interruptive flashbacks, but not much more than that. I switched my project to focus on a collection of short stories by Vladimir Nabokov. While I considered these to deal with time and narrative in interesting ways, I only found about three (out of the ten or so that I read) that had a significant amount of narrative changes in the way this project treats the subject. There was a lot more effort in finding the right texts than I had anticipated. 

Once I did read a story that seemed to be noteworthy for my purposes, the way I documented narrative levels deviated a bit from the original project. In the Cultural Analytics project, each reader got a printed version of the texts and were told to highlight where narrative levels stopped and started. Instead, I made spreadsheets, with a new sheet for each story. Here is an example:

This is an example of the spreadsheet for Nabokov’s story “The Wood Sprite.” Here, I mark who is speaking, the type of narrative, a quote from where it starts, and a quote from where it ends. Though this method doesn’t provide a visual of how these narratives interact (as highlighter on a page might), it did make me think a lot about how to determine where a narrative did start and end. It was often not as clear as I thought it might be, especially when multiple tenses were used in a sentence or paragraph, and I couldn’t tell if the speaker had switched back to the present or not. There were also many instances when characters would have a two-sentence-long flashback or story, and I wasn’t sure if I should make note of it or not. 

What I mainly learned from this project is that not all stories and books work with as many narrative levels as I originally assumed; when they do, it’s not always completely clear when these narrative levels start and end. Even though I’m not completely sold that this project could account for the complex ways narrative levels interact in literature, it did get me thinking about how it is used and what a ‘narrative level’ might actually mean.