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Narrative Medicine Essay

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Medical Humanities: Introduction to narrative

Narrative is something we all do a lot of the time. It is a natural, human impulse, often enacted instinctively. Narrative can be defined as the process or product of organising experiences or sensations in such a way that they make sense. The instant we link nouns with verbs we are constructing a narrative: we’re using words to impose a temporal dimension – i.e. a dimension relating to time. Time is an important aspect of narrative: it is expressed in the tense of verbs we use to explain events. ‘I arrived at the operating theatre’ is different to ‘I arrive at the operating theatre’ or ‘I am going to arrive at the operating theatre’: there is a sense of time inherent in the way our language allows us to relate our thoughts and experiences.

Narrative is often associated with storytelling. We tend to think of it in relation to reading novels, or watching films – especially when the usual conventions of narrative are challenged in some way. It is testament to our narrative sophistication that we are capable of sorting out the various strands of a story which jumps from place to place or back and forwards in time. We’re so familiar with the conventions surrounding the way flashbacks or dream-sequences are portrayed in novels, film or on TV that we effortlessly collate them with other parts of the story in order to make sense of things (one of the best-known examples of subverting narrative order in movies is Memento in which the action flows in reverse: Porter Abbott (2002, p.9) calls this refusal to satisfy narrative perceptions ‘narrative jamming’). However, storytelling is not limited to fiction: it is an interpretive mechanism we all use as a way of making sense of what is happening, what has happened and what we expect to happen.

All stories are ‘constructed’ to some extent – we direct meaning in stories we tell and create meaning from stories we hear in different ways. Not all stories do have a clear-cut resolution: sometimes the lack of a conclusion is itself the epiphany or climax of the story. The story-interpreting process is dependent on a multitude of factors, often too complex to articulate, but including at least previous experience, cultural context, ethical stance, notions of identity and social awareness. The multivarious constructions and interpretations of stories led the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre to say ‘that there are no true stories’. Critics have pointed out that because stories can be told or interpreted in different ways...

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