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What Is Narrative Criticism?

By Emily Daw
Updated May 23, 2024
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Narrative criticism is a form of literary analysis that concentrates on the characters, stories, settings, etc., of a work of literature. The term is most commonly used in the field of biblical criticism, where stories in the Bible, especially the Gospels, are analyzed for literary rather than historical content. As a method of studying biblical literature, it emerged in the mid-20th century, where it drew on secular theories of literary criticism such as New Criticism.

The 20th century methods of biblical criticism largely focused on the historical properties of biblical texts. The Gospels — the four New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus — were often discussed in terms of their Sitz im Leben, which is German for "Situation in Life" and refers to the historical, social and political backgrounds of the books' authors and audiences. Biblical scholars using the historical-critical method might also try to determine if the writers of the Gospels received their information about Jesus' life through eye-witness accounts, written sources that are no longer extant, or other sources.

Narrative criticism arose in part to address the limitations of this style of biblical analysis. For instance, a historical critic of the Gospel of John might evaluate the history of the story in which Jesus gives sight to a man born blind in relation to the historical relationship between Jews and early Christians, since the story implies tension between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. While a narrative critic might not consider this style of interpretation invalid, he or she would might that there is more to the story than that. A scholar applying narrative criticism might examine the story in terms of its principal characters — Jesus, the blind man, the man's parents and the Jewish leaders — in order to determine the text's thematic significance. He or she might also comment on the symbolic implications of physical blindness in relationship to spiritual blindness within the story.

The world of secular literary criticism contained similar trends in approximately the same time period. While early 20th century literary critics often focused on biographical information about the author or the author's sociopolitical context, a movement arose in the 1940s known as New Criticism, which decried this approach. According to New Critics, a literary text ought to be considered apart from any outside information in order to seek meaning from a "close reading" of the text itself, which considers its language, symbolism, and other purely internal features. Narrative criticism in biblical studies drew on these ideas and strategies for examining narratives. In the later 20th century and early 21st century, both secular and biblical narrative criticism generally returned to some consideration of external factors, but the influence of New Criticism can still be seen in scholars' use of close readings.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Oct 19, 2014

I don't think I agree with New Criticism. Sometimes, it is helpful and even necessary to consider outside information when analyzing a narrative. For example, Shakespeare's Hamlet uses a lot of symbolism and words with double meanings. But someone who is not familiar with 15th century British English will not understand most of them.

By bluedolphin — On Oct 19, 2014

@ysmina-- I don't think that narrative criticism is just about Biblical criticism. And even when it comes to Biblical criticism, I don't think it's just about symbols. In order to understand the stories in the Bible, it's important to understand the time period and what was happening at that time historically.

Islamic scholars also engage in this type of analysis, called tafsir. Tafsir means interpretation. They interpret the stories based on the historical occurrences at the time and support their interpretation with hadeeth, the sayings of the Prophet.

So narrative criticism of the Bible or any other religious text does not mean criticizing the content or understanding it out of context. It's about analyzing the text to make it easy for people to grasp and understand the ideas presented.

By ysmina — On Oct 18, 2014

When it comes to the world of God, I don't think it's right to criticize it or look for symbolism or for double meanings. I hold this view for every book that may have been sent by God through a prophet. Now it could be argued whether the Gospel of today is what God had sent down. Many believe that it was initially but was later changed by humans and so it is no longer the word of God, at least not in totality. But to look symbols and metaphors in these types of narrative doesn't make sense because it's a message, a warning from God and I don't think God would make his message complex, dubious or difficult to understand for people.

I think that people have a tendency to criticize and analyze narratives because we like to see the world more complex than it truly is. And we also like to use our imagination and criticize. Everyone's a critic these days. People do use symbols, metaphors, allegories in their writing. They do that to amuse and entertain their readers. But I doubt that any religious narrative intends this.

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