The Dürer Woodcut: Narratology
This image is of interest for a number of reasons
that exemplify narratology's precepts. For one thing, the image presents
an entire narrative sequence as a single pictorial representation, thus
illustrating how a story
or fabula can be completely re-presented by discourse
or sjuzet. The story goes something like this: 1) The first "frame"
of the sequence is the right-hand half of the image, in which a travelling
knight is stopped by the devil, who holds up a die to tempt the knight
to gamble; 2) the second "frame" is the bottom-left-hand corner
of the image, where a quarrel breaks out at the gambling table; 3) the
third "frame" is the top-left-hand corner of the image, where
the knight is punished by death on the wheel. By having the entire sequence
in a single two-dimensional space, the image comments on the fact that
narrative, unlike life, is never a gamble but always stacks the deck
towards some fulfilling structural closure. (A similar statement is
made in the Star Trek episode I analyze under Lesson
Plans.) Here, the structural relationship between temptation and
punishment is underlined by the fact that the two actions are juxtaposed
on the top-right and top-left hand of the image. Temporal action is
thus re-presented as a spatial juxtaposition, suggesting that there
is a deeper oppositional logic to what might otherwise appear to be
merely a series of cause-and-effect actions.
The structural nature of the implied juxtapositions
in the woodcut thus could be said to underline Algirdas Greimas' point
that narratives subscribe to foundational "deep structures,"
which are organized by way of oppositions. The Greimassian square for
this wordless narrative could be said to be as follows (Fig. 1):
In this semiotic square, "restriction/punishment"
takes the place of "non-temptation," while "transgression"
takes the place of "non-forbearance," following the tendency
of the contradictory term to be more than the term to which it is associated
by a "relation of implication." (For an explanation of the
workings of the Greimassian square, see the Greimas
module on the semiotic square.)
By having the woodcut narrative proceed from the
right-hand to the top left, the image also could be said to be going
backward since the same story written in text form would have us reading
from top left to bottom right, much as you are now reading this explication.
The image's backward movement could be said to exemplify Peter
Brooks' Freudian interpretation of narrative: the irritation of
plot (temptation, desire for gratification) competes against the desire
to return to the quiescence of narrative closure, which is here tied
literally to the death
drive by having the subject of the action die at the end of the
sequence. The English language even allows us to sum up what Brooks
sees as the opposing forces of narrative into a single word-play, die/die,
or the unordered gamble that is life and the structured fact of narrative,
which is usually bounded by death (our primary metaphor for closure).
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Proper Citation of this Page:
Felluga, Dino. "The Dürer
Woodcut: Narratology." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date
of last update, which you can find on the home
page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/narratology/narrativeimage/>.