The Construction of Identity in the Narratives of Romance and Comedy

Kevin Murray ‘The construction of identity in the narratives of romance and comedy’ Texts of Identity In J.Shotter & K.Gergen (eds.)  London: Sage (1988)

The business of this chapter is to explore the thesis that both personal and social identity are constructed by finding stories to tell about the self. Harré’s theory of personal being is recruited as the theoretical base for this assertion. Popular psychology and conversation are seen as providing access to the resources necessary for the construction of identity. How these resources are employed in the lives of individuals is investigated in the choices to run a marathon and to travel. Before commencing this task, though, I will introduce some of the issues that make the thesis of the narrative construction of identity significant.

Narrative and Life

The relationship between narrative and life has been subject to much questioning in contemporary culture. An example of this is a recent film’ which tells of an affair between two characters. The woman is a member of a cinema audience, and the man has escaped from the world of the screen to enter real life. As romance between these characters builds, they embrace for their first kiss. After a few seconds, though, the woman notices the man’s growing hesitancy. She asks him what the matter is. His reply is that he is only accustomed to kissing in films, and the lovers’ kiss alway’s fades out on screen; he does not know how to go any further. The film continues to explore the misreadings of the real world that occur when acting according to its supposedly mimetic represent a t ion on the screen. This play on the intersection between the real and the fictional world indicates at a popular level a similar concert] with the status of narrative in the way our world is actually lived as is found in some recent developments in the social sciences.

Narrative representation as a way of making sense of tile world has become an issue in various disciplines. Many literary critics have seen the realm of literature as allowing for the construction of models of the world of experience in ways that guide our actions (e.g. Frye, 1957; Hernnstein‑Smith, 1978; Price, 1983). In the discipline of history, Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) proposes the general thesis that, when historians provide an account of the past, they are partly concerned with finding a plot according to which the events can be ordered in a meaningful sequence. Exploring this notion further, philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur (1983, 1985) have been concerned with the manner in which our very experience of time is dependent on the narrative structures that we impose on experience. In political science, Frederic Jameson (1981) has proposed an interpretive scheme which claims that ideological systems are produced in part by the workings of narrative structures. Even in architecture, one finds the concern with fiction expressed in the young London‑based group called Narrative Architecture Today (NATO), which, rather than attending to the formal properties of design, focuses on the possibilities of experience created by buildings. In each of these cases, theorists are concerned with the way our mode of living reflects the representational structures that are imposed on our experience. As such, these approaches reflect a post‑modern concern with the nature of reflexivity: how our worlds are governed by our designs, and the abysses in time and space created in this process.

Although much of contemporary psychology still concerns itself with mechanistic models of human behaviour, there are fields of research such as action psychology (see Harré et al., 1985) which allow reflexivity to be entertained as having a role in individual lives. Later this entrance for narrative into psychology will be considered, but we should begin with its initial entry through the back door of psychoanalysis. Roy Schafer (1976) claimed that psychoanalytic therapy involved the restructuring of a person’s sense of the past so that it would make a more cohesive narrative. The aim of the therapy was to find a place for the analysand at the centre of this reconstructed life narrative.

While Schafer’s approach is instructive, it is constrained in a way that this chapter seeks to avoid. This limit is found in Schafer’s account of the factors that govern the process of employment in therapy. Apart from the agreement between the constructed story and certain ungrounded ‘visions of the world’, such as the ironic focus of psychoanalysis,2 his theory lacks a detailed exposition of ‑the dynamic process of finding a place for the self in a narrative.

How a storied sense of self plays a part in development is explicated more fully in recent approaches to this issue. Theodore :Sarbin (1986) proposed that mechanism as a root metaphor in psychology be replaced by narrative. Sarbin draws on both literary and psychological material to demonstrate the fundamental role of narrative in our making sense of the world, especially when this activity is sensitive to context. And, as Kenneth and Mary Gergen propose, it is regarding the construction of self in a social context that the use of narrative has much to offer (Gergen and Gergen, 1988). Here, stories seem to enable others to share one’s point of view. As a recent writer in this field states, ‘when we understand someone, we understand his or her stories’ (Keen, 1986). It is this concern with how one’s story relates to the social order that allows us to progress beyond the individualistic account of narrative construction provided by Schafer. Later in the chapter, I will attempt to establish how two forms of narrative enable this social construction of identity.

Why narrative should be the medium in which a social sense of self is constructed can be explained by contrast to the other modes of understanding. Jerome Bruner (1986) distinguishes the narrative mode of understanding from the more abstract scientific mode, which he calls the paradigmatic. While the paradigmatic mode is best for making sense according to principles that abstract from context. narrative understanding carries the weight of context, which therefore makes it a better medium for relating human experience and the contradictions that that entails. According to Bruner’s argument. therefore, encapsulating experience in the form of a story enables it to make sense in the interpersonal sphere. A further enquiry I ry into the dynamics involved in this process, although of great interest, is beyond the scope of this chapter. Rather, my analysis will assume that narrative adapts experience to the social context of meaning, and will pursue the implications of this in theories of identity.

Theory and Identity

A theory of identity is required which can accommodate the narrative construction of self. Initially, one might look to a branch of attribution theory. Implicit Personality Theory (Wegner and Vallacher, 1981) seems a good candidate because of its emphasis on the constructive processes involved in identity formation.

Implicit Personality Theory concentrates mainly on the ways in which individuals create and test hypotheses concerning the behaviour of others. It is assumed that these individuals use theories about other people as a means of predicting and therefore controlling their social environment. In the practice of assigning certain traits to people, the individual differs little in nature from the psychologist. Both use tested theories of the world to predict consistent patterns of behaviour. The sense of self that follows from this is simply a reflection of one’s own theories about others. However, rather than attempting to predict one’s behaviour, one attempts to create information about oneself that will fulfil one’s self‑theory. In discovering a match between self‑theory and information about oneself, one gains self‑esteem. The notion of self as autonomous creator of theories that predict others’ behaviour and make sense of one’s own identity would seem to be a pure example of a paradigmatic understanding of identity. Thus, despite the constructivist assumptions of Implicit Personality Theory, the processes it posits as the logic of identity formation are unsympathetic to the narrative mode.

A different type of constructivist theory of identity is presented by Rom Harré (1983). In contrast to Implicit Personality Theory, Harré’s conceptualization of personal being imbeds the self in the social context, which suggests a greater role for the narrative understanding of self. Although Harré is concerned with the relation between self and theory, he does not see the self as origin of theory. Rather, self is a product of theory. Harré thus reverses the relation between self and theory proposed by Implicit Personality Theory. At the same time, he uses in a different sense: he employs the term “theory” not as an abstract principle, but as a rule derived from the moral order. Given the different logical statuses of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ statements, therefore, these theories should be selected not on their testability, but on their place in the wider social context. An example of such a ‘theory’ is the medieval moral principle that those who help themselves will find that they can achieve more than if they rely on others. This theory is less successful in predicting the actions of others than in providing a guide to living a ‘good’ life. Harré extends this argument to account for the Western sense of self, not in the autonomous consciousness of one’s thoughts and actions, but in the referential grid of social time and space to be found first in the grammatical relations between persons. Persons are therefore made partly by the modes of ‘talk’ found in the social order.


Figure 1. Rom Harré’s psychological dimensions

To gain a sense of identity in Harré’s scheme, one needs to find a place for oneself in the social al order. Harré maps this process out on a two‑dimensional grid (see Figure 1) which contains axes of display and realization. The development of identity begins in the appropriation of ‘theories’ from the social order. This process is enabled by a psychological symbiosis between the future person (child) and a competent social actor (parent) ‑ so ‘theories’ contained in the collective‑public quadrant are incorporated into the private world of individual thoughts and action. The sense of identity provided by these ‘theories’ is found in the metaphoric relations between them and one’s own experiences; thus, these theories are transformed, from their realization in the collective realm, into becoming part of the individual sense of identity. Yet to achieve social and personal being, one needs to find ways of making these metaphoric relations public. The realization of one’s experience in public display carries experience over into the social order. It is here that tests of hazard are found and moral careers are made. Finally, individual paths through the social order become conventionalized into accepted forms of biography.

According to Harr6, finding a place for oneself in the world involves two projects. One must find a social identity ‑ an honoured place in the social order ‑ yet also attempt to maintain a personal identity, in the sense of a biographical uniqueness. Whereas social identity is a problem for marginal individuals such as migrants who have no place in the established social order, personal identity becomes difficult for people who have achieved a successful moral career to the point where it is hard to distinguish oneself from the official social order. To illustrate the dilemma of personal identity, Harré uses the example of tycoons during the Victorian era who constructed autobiographies based on their humble origins.

Harr6’s work on personal being reflects the paradox that a sense of self is gained only through social meanings. This paradox is resolved in the way social meaning is lived. Although experience ‑ that which provides a source of resistance to the social order and therefore the stuff from which a personal identity can he hewn ‑ is more difficult to account for purely within Harré’s theory, it is the space allowed for experience that makes his theory more consistent with a narrative sense of self than Implicit Personality Theory. The paradigmatic sense of self denies the relevance of point of view the focus of the subject that coheres storied experience. In Harré’s framework, it is the necessity of living out the appropriated social meanings that reserves the place for point of view, and therefore the narrative sense of self.

Narrative and Experience

One of the primary functions of narrative is to relate theory to experience. It achieves this not through testing theories according to systematic procedures of data analysis, but through finding a point to a series of events. This point ranges from the kind of moral statements found in fables, to the simple declarations of astonishment found in such expressions as ‘amazing’ and ‘unbelievable’. Such resolutions indicate that experience in narrative has the potential of resisting theory.3 This potential is governed by the interplay of metaphoric and metonymic relations of meaning in the story (see Brooks, 1984). In terms of identity, metaphor deals with the similarities and differences between one’s own situation and what one knows of others’. Its partner, metonymy, is an experiential domain of meaning which relates events according to their contiguity in time and space rather than their relationship to similarly placed events in different contexts. It is the metonymic axis of meaning that most strongly contrasts the narrative mode of understanding with the paradigmatic. And it is the concern of narrative with a specific time and space that qualifies it as a medium for finding a unique identity in the social order. This qualification is supported by consideration of the predominance of narrative in the conventionalization of one’s unique appropriations of the social order. It does not require much examination to be certain of the inappropriateness of scientific theories in the representation of personal experience in the public realm of newspapers and television, etc. It is here that Schafer’s statement, ‘self is a telling, becomes interesting.

Harré’s conceptualization of personal being is rich in empirical possibilities. This chapter attempts to explore several in an attempt to identify some of the narrative structures governing the instantiation of self in the social order. As a guide to types of narrative structures, I will follow the lead of many theorists in narrative studies and employ the terms ‘comedy’, ‘romance’, ‘tragedy’ and ‘irony’ to represent different types of narrative.4 These terms refer to narrative structures that govern much of the telling of stories in the Western tradition. Briefly, ‘comedy’ involves the victory of youth and desire over age and death. Conflict in comedy usually deals with the repression of desire in a society, which is released in the course of an adventure or festivity by means of which a healthier social unit is restored. By contrast, romance’ concerns the restoration of the honoured past through a series of events that involve a struggle typically including a crucial test ‑ between a hero and forces of evil. Conflict is resolved by battle rather than sociality as in comedy. In ‘tragedy’ the individual fails to conquer evil and is excluded from the social unit. The nobility of this failure is contrasted with the satire of ‘irony’, which deals in the discovery that comedy, romance and tragedy are mere schemes of mortals to control experience: individuals are not so pure, nor is the social order so healthy.

Such narrative structures have been described schematically ‘in order to loosen their tie with a specifically literary tradition. These structures do not presume to represent the ‘real’ state of affairs, but rather to structure the social world according to certain moral relations between society and the individual, the past and the future, and theory and experience. With regard to the epistemological status of these structures, this chapter takes Ricoeur’s (1985) position that they are sedimented forms which are subject to the vicissitudes of history and specific to the Western narrative tradition. Their appropriation into the issue of identity formation is thus best conducted under the aegis of an historical social psychology (see Gergen, 1984), rather than a universalist model of socialization.

There will be two rounds of relating theories about self with individual experience in this chapter. Each will explore the way theories of self contained in the public‑collective domain are appropriated in identity projects. In the first case, theories found in popular psychology are demonstrated in the decision to run a marathon: in the second, theories used in the construction of persons in conversation are related to accounts of travel. In each round we are looking for two relations: a metaphoric linkage between the theories and individual accounts, and a contextual reading of the employment of those theories. As such, this chapter represents an attempt to discover some of the dominant theories in the social order, as well as an investigation of the dynamics involved in engaging these theories in the process of establishing a social and personal identity.


Popular Psychology

Popular psychology has affinities not only with the existing academic theory used for explaining actions, but also with the tradition of life manuals written by people such as Epicurus, Castiglione, Samuel Smiles and Dale Carnegie. This conjunction is illustrated in one of the most successful of recent authors in popular psychology. Gail Sheehy.5 Readers are advised by the packaging of her books that they are to he used as a resource for understanding one’s life and choosing a better course of action. Her basic theory of development maps a romantic course over an individual’s biography. Sheehy begins her description of life with the dreams of future achievement formed in adolescence. These are lost sight of in the bitter experience ‑ gained in adulthood ‑ of the limits imposed by the world on oneself. This disillusionment leads to a crisis (the mid‑life crisis) when the old enemy of self‑confidence (the ‘inner custodian’) takes command. At this point, Sheehy advises her readers to face the conflict squarely with hope of eventual victory. As long as the battle with the ‘inner custodian’ is engaged in wholeheartedly, the person will emerge with renewed potential to realize past dreams as well as a sense of purpose beyond their own desires. In addition to the metaphor of battle and the victory of good, Sheehy’s scheme reflects a romantic narrative structure in the way she emplots the mid‑life crisis as containing three events: confrontation, struggle and recognition of transcendental meaning. These events in classical romance are termed agon, pathos and anagnorisis. Sheehy’s theory, therefore, is that those who face their conflict squarely, and engage seriously in battle with the evil within themselves, will successfully navigate their passage through difficulty. Entailed by this theory is a firm commitment to individuality as a mode of being and self‑reliance as a valued goal. The narrative structure of romance indicates how Sheehy believes such values may be instantiated in the life‑course.

The Decision to Run a Marathon

The emergence of the mid‑life crisis as a narratable hazard in the life‑course is concurrent with other developments in the social order. About the time that Sheehy’s theories became public, there was a popular movement concerned with individual responsibility for physical health. One of the most obvious displays of this movement was the emergence of jogging as a popular pastime. This had its dramatic apotheosis in the transformation of the marathon from an event restricted to elite athletes to an occasion for the participation of the whole of society. People hitherto excluded, such as women, children, paraplegics and the elderly, were encouraged to participate. Contrary to what one would expect of the increasing demands placed on time by the responsibilities of adulthood, in the marathon studied here6 half the participants were over thirty, and most of these were entering the event for the first time Because the marathon involves a test of one’s strength as well as a necessary separation from the daily concerns in the lengthy training necessary to complete the event, the decision to enter it would seem to be a candidate for the romantic structuring of life as proposed by Sheehy.

A collection of the accounts of first‑timers over thirty confirmed this. Part of the shared mythology concerning the marathon were notions such as the ‘wall’. Runners expected to encounter the ‘wall’ near the end of the event, when !heir supplies of body energy would be exhausted and they could continue only by sheer will and commitment. If the will was sufficient, then entrants expected to be able to conquer this obstacle and experience the ‘runner’s high’, a euphoric feeling of invulnerability and transcendence of bodily limits. As such, then, the common meaning attached to the marathon is of a test, with possible romantic associations. How this relates to the renewal of past dreams, though, can be ascertained most directly by examining the marathon as part of accounts by the participants, where its meaning is embedded in life concerns.

A closer look at the accounts revealed an interesting divergence in the context and construction of the decision to run a marathon. The group of entrants classified as ‘Born Again’ contained elements of the restoration of past ambitions and struggle between good and evil within the self. For instance,7 Kate, a thirty‑two‑year‑old student, related her current interest in the marathon to her sporting past and the hopes that her father had then placed in her future. In contrast, her twenties had been a time when ‘I became very average. I just sort of joined in. There was nothing exceptional in my life at that stage. No aim. No goal.’ This experience of lack of distinction from others was associated with feelings of confusion, weakness of will and lack of control. This led eventually to a ‘nervous breakdown’, which Kate eventually overcame by taking up running. Running was a means of gaining control of her existence by providing a locus outside of the confused and dependent self. In describing the probable reaction of her father to her completing the marathon, she said, ‘He probably thinks I’m mad … but underneath, I reckon if I finish the marathon, word would get round the golf club pretty quickly.’ Like nearly all entrants, Kate believed that others saw her decision as ‘mad’, yet at the same time she anticipated that she would win respect by its completion.

Many entrants generalized this recognition from specific individuals to the public realm as a whole ‑ one of the reasons for entering was ‘just to say I’ve done it’. While entrants such as Kate perceived that they could win honour in the social order by changing their life‑style ‑ to fashion it in greater consonance with the value of physical responsibility ‑ their individuality was maintained by the particular route chosen for the expression of this value. From feelings of sameness arise a distinguished place for the self in the social order. To achieve this, the individual must test herself in a situation that demands the sorts of virtues that are lauded by society ‑ endurance, individual autonomy, strength, and so oil. In the discovery for the self of a respected place in society, the decision of runners like Kate to enter a marathon corresponds to what Harré describes as a social identity, project. The ‘theory’ she appropriates to gain honour involves the restoration of past ambition through a test of the self involving clearly identifiable forces of good and bad whose result is dependent on the hero’s commitment to the good. This is a romantic narrative structure. Finding a way in which one’s own life might resemble such a structure seems a dominant part of many runners’ decision to enter the marathon.

However, the narrative structure of revival of ambition applied to only a part of the total number of accounts. Many of the men found in the ‘Repossessed’ group ‑ entered the marathon in order to withdraw from these tests of character. The event for these men was related to easing the frustrations of work while at the same time releasing a youthful spirit that had lain dormant during young adulthood.

For example, a thirty‑five‑year‑old advertising executive, David, described being ‘intolerant’ and ‘irritable’ as a result of responsibilities at work. The effect of this was to make family life more difficult. David became involved in running during a family holiday at the beach, when he discovered ‘how terrific it was to feel fit again’. Since then, running had provided a convenient release after the tensions at work and so had led to a ‘better family life’. The marathon was a ‘logical progression’ in running, and David liked the ‘challenge’. Unlike Kate, David did not structure the elements in his account in an antagonistic manner. For instance, when training conflicted with the family, this was a matter of lack of consideration; if David missed a run because of home commitments he felt guilty ‑ ‘I still get a conscience after it, because although I know I’ve done the right thing by my family, I’ve sort of overlooked myself.’ The justification of the decision to enter the marathon was in terms of easing conflict. This served to strengthen the family as a social unit while at the same time allowing David’s youthful energies to re‑emerge.

David seems quite secure in the official role that he plays in society, yet he feels that he has overlooked himself in the drive to be a successful person. His decision appears to be an example of what Harré would call a personal identity project. The issue is not to improve the stakes in his moral career, but to find expression for his free and spontaneous self. In common with similar male entrants, David saw the release of self as occurring within the interests of the social unit. Some male entrants differed from David in this by emphasizing the camaraderie of the running events above the benefit to the family, but they shared the feeling of amused distance from the possible competitive role they might take in the event, and this lightness distinguished them from those pursuing a social identity project. The discovery of a sense of identity outside of his roles is managed by David through the construction of account involving the rediscovery of youthful energies in the escape from responsibilities which leads to the renewal of the social unit. As such, David was making his decision take the form of a comic narrative structure.

Identity Projects and Distance

Despite the difference in accounts of marathon entrants, there was a common belief that their actions could be construed by others as , mad’ or ‘insane’. This should spur us to question the isomorphism it is possible to maintain given Harré’s scheme between social meaning and individuality. It seems odd that, in spite of their concern with establishing a sense of identity, these runners would take pride in their lack of integration in normal society. Reference to the treatment of this paradox in other disciplines may be helpful here. The relationship between identity projects and distance from the norms of social life is something that has been an issue to anthropologists such as Victor Turner (1969), who studied the ritual practices governing identity change and found that these ‘rites of passage’ typically remove participants from normal space and time into a ‘liminal’ sphere. The liminal sphere serves as a transitional place in which normal expectations of behaviour are suspended, allowing participants to take on new roles. This division of cultural life is based on a more fundamental dichotomy between the structure of society ‑ the ordered hierarchies of roles and meanings ‑ and its anti‑structure, which inverts and subverts these established meanings. Two types of rite of passage correspond to Harré’s two identity projects. Rites of status elevation concern ascendancy of one’s social identity ‑ one’s place in the structure. On the other hand, rites of status reversal concern elements of self‑denied expression in the structure and so are sympathetic to the construction of personal identity. Kate’s concern was with her lack of social distinction: for her, the marathon became a rite of status elevation involving separation from others through a test of character. (Conversely, David’s worry was that the work which grants him distinction also represses his humanness. Holiday was the initial release from work.) This escape from the ‘burdens of office’ then found fuller realization in the free release of aggression in training for the marathon. This relaxation of social hierarchies makes his participation in the marathon a rite of status reversal. In short, while Kate’s involvement in the marathon is part of a plan to secure a respected place among others ‑ with the accompanying sense of stability and independence ‑ David’s decision plays a part in a narrative of expanding communality which encourages the release of youthful energy entailed in this.

The inclusion of Turner’s work on identity change fills some of the space for anthropological detail made available by Harré’s scheme. As identity is perceived to he constructed through certain social practices which regulate the assignment of meaning to individuals’ sense of selfhood, it is fitting to turn to anthropology to discover these. As we have seen, Turner’s framework accounts for the necessary separation involved in identity change, as well as the different movements in identity. But the inclusion of Turner’s theory has its problems. It raises the issue of the status of narrative in the process of identity change. How is story related to rites of status elevation and inversion? As we saw when examining the suitability of Harré’s theory, the space allowed for experience outside the social order necessitates a process which mediates individual biography and collective representations: while the result of this is a metaphoric transformation of the self, the mediating process involved is that of narrative. What place does narrative have in Turner’s account?

The emphasis on ritual in Turner’s work underlines a processional model of social life. This processional approach is not antipathetic to the idea that individuals find ways of making their experience conform to certain narrative structures. In Turner’s later work (1980), he saw the ritual practices involved in social dramas such as identity change as related in a reciprocal manner to the stories that govern their representation. The basic narrative structure of breach‑crisis‑redress reflects the ritual structure of social drama. And it is in such genres of cultural performance that modes of self‑understanding are found.

The narrative structure of breach‑crisis‑redress identified by Turner is a superordinate form of which romance and comedy are species: such a form requires a disruption of the normal order which leads to a decisive instant after which order is restored. This scheme allows for the central role of narrative in identity: narrative is seen to govern the transgression of the social order, which is necessary for the creation of personal being. What this scheme adds to Harré’s concept of identity project is the emphasis taken from ritual on a single event as the focus for change: either the ‘test’, as in romance, or the ‘release’, as found in comedy. Stories in Turner’s scheme serve in the process of conventionalizing ritually governed patterns of events. So, in terms of the two narrative structures identified here, romance is a suitable structure for recording in individual’s successful negotiation of certain hazards encountered in rites of status elevation, while comedy is more appropriate for inscribing rites of status reversal in which communal bonds are reaffirmed through individuals who act outside of their prescribed roles. Narrative in these cases enables the experiences of struggle and release to be inscribed in individual and collective memory.

A Person Constructed through Talk

An alternative way of approaching Rom Harré’s notion of the I person’ as constructed through talk is to take his approach literally: to ask a group of people to actually perform the task of constructing a person. Such an exercise aims to gain access to collective goals and strategies through the intragroup negotiation involved in completing the task. It is expected that this makes explicit the expectations that govern the practices of biographical construction in everyday life. (Such an approach resembles research in action psychology: see von Cranach, 1982.)

I asked ten groups of between three and four people to construct the life of a person. They were given the freedom to decide the type and amount of information necessary for this purpose. Generally, the groups took their time at the start in deciding on the basic characteristics of their person, but once they were agreed upon these most groups made steady progress. The groups tended to finish with this person when they had lost interest in the life they had constructed.

The life of ‘Nicola’ is a typical construction which expresses most of the themes of other lives while including clear justifications within the group of the information included. Nicola was created by three women and one man, all in their early thirties and pursuing professional careers. After a brief examination of the constructed person, key points in the life will be interpreted in the light of the group’s discussion.

Looking initially at the finished story of Nicola (see Appendix), one can see that her life is divided into two parts. In the first there is a conflict between her desire to become independent of her family and her responsibilities at home This conflict is made clear when her wish to escape the family by travelling overseas and exploring her artistic potential is thwarted; while away, her father dies and she realizes that she is needed back in Australia to maintain the family. As a result, her desires are not able to be fully realized. Eventually, the affair with the archaeologist enables her to escape these demands and as a result her career flowers in New York. Having established her personal career, she then goes on to do good for others in the suffering world of Africa and South America. This new life structure is made possible by the liberating role that the community of New York plays in restoring her denied self.

What is the narrative structure governing Nicola’s lite? On the one hand, her life follows Sheehy’s scheme of development: Nicola’s adolescent dream of success is lost in adulthood and then regained owing to the adventures following the mid‑life crisis when a sense of social mission is gained. Nicola’s path to selfhood diverges from Sheehy’s, though, in that her ambition in architecture is realized not through struggle, but through the free spirit of New York.

The dominant plot in Nicola’s life seems to concern the vicissitudes of her ambition: the initial conflict in her life, release in New York, and its metamorphosis into an altruistic pursuit. The analysis of the story will examine the group’s goals governing the life structure, especially at the turning points of Nicola’s ambition. The theories that inform this discussion are taken as representative of the moral order which governs biographical discourse in the society to which the group belongs.

First, why was Nicola given an ambition? Nicola’s ambition was born in the group’s attempt to make their character ‘ Interesting’. Initially this was made possible by introducing elements of conflict into her life.

F: I quite like the idea of her coming from somewhere like St Albans or Footscray,8 cos now she’s … the struggle to overcome.

P: It’s the battler syndrome. [Laughs]

F: Well, otherwise, what’s her struggle going to be? Let’s say she comes from Kew, or wherever, say, gone to the private school whichever one it was ‑ and she’s gone through Uni and she’s done all the obligatory things. Well, maybe she has, maybe she has gone through the obligatory things.

J: What’s going to make her interesting?

F: Maybe she has no struggle? Everything in her life goes extraordi­narily smoothly.

J: Do we want her to have a struggle?

T: I want her to he interesting.

F: Well, you create something that’s interesting about her.

T: Okay, [Pause] I think she’s got really pushy parents who have high aspirations, ‘cos they had to work really hard.

In order that their character appeals to a curiosity about human nature, the group placed her initially in a scenario where her freedom is being limited by the aims of others.

The group later reviewed this question of how to make Nicola interesting, and decided to achieve this instead by creating a cultural and intellectual gap between Nicola and her parents. The gap arises in the conflict between her status as second‑generation immigrant and her desire to grow as a person. So that Nicola can be both distanced from her parents and given ambition. the group decided that she wants to be an architect. The source of this goal is the experience she had when growing up of her father going with her over the plans for the sites that he was contracted to build on. This was given narrative plausibility by making Nicola the eldest in the family, with a much younger brother who lacks ambition. And Nicola’s mother is made sickly to explain the smallness of the family and the dominant role of the father in Nicola’s life. Having established that giving Nicola an ambition will provide the break with the social order that enables the struggle which is necessary to make her ‘Interesting’, this fact about her character then became the major feature around which other facts of her life were mustered. What is important is that, although her ambition plays a major role in the narrative to follow, it was initially granted to Nicola to separate her from her family and thus involve her in some kind of ‘struggle’. As shown in Figure 2, the group set themselves the goal of creating an interesting character, which for them meant a person who was engaged in some struggle, and for this, extraordinary ambition was necessary.9 The initial situation of Nicola’s life follows from this.

Nicola’s eventual release from the demands of family is made possible by an affair with an American archaeologist in the free atmosphere of New York. In this process of release, her hidden abilities are allowed to emerge. At this point, the group had constructed a life for their character which is basically comic: Nicola overcomes the responsibilities that restrict her so that she may live a life of freedom. Although the catalyst for this is the affair, the real context for it is New York, it is the city where she can begin a ‘wonderful new life’. New York is a magical citv where she can explore her varied artistic potentials free from the bounds of responsibility. So, for instance, when her lover is away on a dig in Africa, the fact that she is in New York means that she is liberated from the dependencies that previously would have made her situation miserable and constrained her range of actions.





Extraordinary ambition


Eldest daughter, contact with father, etc

Figure 2. Goal hierarchy for an ‘interesting’ life

F: She’s been practising architecture for some time, but she’s in New York, the guy she’s with is an archaeologist which means he goes off anyway. Even if he’s not off on his digs or trying to raise money for them, he’s an intellectual so he’s doing his studies. He’s not really a social human being as such.

J: As she finds out.

P: So what does she do?

F: That in fact might be okay for her, you see, because New York is one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

T: By then [the year 20001 it’s degenerating into a gigantic …

J: No, maybe she loves the fact that she can look at a city and enjoy it and just enjoy people. And she doesn’t have responsibilities.

New York functions in Nicola’s life as a haven where none of life’s problems intrude. In the terminology of literary criticism, the narrative function of New York would be as a ‘utopic space’ (Barton, 1985), or a ‘green world’ (Berger, 1965).

The function of such spaces as a means of escape from repressive forces in the real world is most noticeable in the forest of Arden in Shakespeare. They provide the social interaction that is necessary in the comic scheme for the resolution of conflict. The ‘green world’ is inhabited by an including community who make few demands on the subject, but instead provide an enabling environment for fulfilment of her desires. In the story of Nicola, it is New York that provides the magical setting for the comic resolution of the contradictions in her life. In it she can resolve the conflict between her desire for independence and her network of dependencies. New York enables this to happen by providing a world inhabited by individuals whose spontaneity and undemanding acceptance enables the hitherto denied potential within Nicola to be released without conflict.





Travels to Africa, South America, etc.

Figure 3. Goal hierarchy for a ‘good’ life

Having provided a comic fulfilment of Nicola’s quest for independence and creative potential, the group then proceeded to work on making her a ‘good’ person. Her life at this point changes from being a comic escape from responsibility to being a discovery of suffering: the narrative goal of being an ‘interesting’ person is supplemented by that of being a ‘good’ person (see Figure 3). This involves the adventure of travel with her lover. For the group, the basic purpose of Nicola’s philanthropic journey was to make her a character who can be called ‘good’,’(‘ and this was achieved through her not only gaining an awareness of suffering, but also attempting to relieve it. This is part of the general drift in her life from being concerned with inner needs to being involved in causes outside of herself. As the group is deciding what to do with Nicola after New York, two members discuss how her character should develop.

F: She’s becoming not so self‑centred; even if she’s being responsible she’s becoming outward‑centred. She’s looking at other people and their needs.

T: I think that would be a normal development at that age.

What the group seems to be deciding is to return Nicola to the concern for others from which she had escaped in New York. Yet she has not lost everything in this return. Experience has intervened to make her a more rounded character than before. Her insularity has been transcended through the engagement with the people of New York, and this has opened her up to the world and its problems.

The story of Nicola thus can be seen as a comic escape from responsibility leading to the successful pursuit of individual ambition followed by integration of self into the concerns of the greater world. The group makes their character interesting by separating her from normal social life in the struggle of her ambition. And Nicola’s goodness is granted by her witness of the suffering which extends her horizons beyond personal success. A remarkable feature of the story is the way travel overseas, specifically to New York, functions as a comic device for release from responsibility and harmony of conflicting elements of character. Having firmly established herself in the role of mother, the pursuit of ambition becomes a personal identity project ‑ not so much to do with finding a place for herself in society as finding a medium for the expression of her individuality. This expression is eventually tied to the emergence of a society where conflict is healed between the West and Third World countries through the positive creative power of Nicola’s thinking. Again, the expression of individuality emerges from the context of the social. Initially, this was through the sociality of New York, but it finds its fulfilment in the universal health of people in the world. Nicola’s life therefore reflects a braided structure of personal and social identity projects which culminate in the realization of her individual talents in New York, and their social fulfilment in the work in Third World countries.11

Identity Projects and Travel

Escape from the responsibilities of the past was clearly granted a necessary role in the development of personal identity in four of the ten groups. The way in which travel enables this process would suggest that the decision to leave one’s home environment to journey through foreign lands is sometimes an attempt to find that part of oneself that is denied expression by one’s responsibilities to others. With such a possibility in mind, interviews were conducted with university students who had returned from travel. These interviews were designed to collect accounts of the experience in a similar fashion to the marathon study mentioned above. A brief examination of two cases will be used to demonstrate different ways in which travel is constructed.

Michael was a twenty‑three‑year‑old student of agriculture when he left Australia to travel around Europe and America. The main reason he gives to account for this decision was the desire to see his Irish grandparents while they were still alive, so he spent four of his eleven months overseas in Ireland. It is this period that Michael sees as having made most impact on him during his journey. He found the closeness of the community in Ireland quite remarkable, and enjoyed greatly the camaraderie of social life, especially in the pub. This closeness became narratable in the story of his visiting his uncle.

I think I liked, eventually I liked, the sense of community and the sense of the closeness, I found it claustrophobic at first. I remember one particular incident. I have an uncle who lived about 10 miles out of Cork and I was going to visit some cousins who lived about 15 miles away in another town and I was cycling along the road and I went and visited my cousins and I walked in the door and they said we knew you were coming, and it was because someone had seen me on the road cycling and thought this person is obviously such and such and it got back like that later.

The other impressions that Michael remarks upon concern the sublime landscape and being able to experience the presence of cultural sites and objects he had only read about before. Consistent with this is his emphasis on the elements of experience that are not found in mundane life. Given these expressions of anti‑structure in Michael’s account, it is reasonable to expect, on the basis of the persons constructed above, that a comic narrative structure is evident as well.

To discover if this exists, though, requires that we look beyond the specific happenings while away and examine the way Michael frames the journey as an event in time. When describing the sorts of changes that travel has produced, Michael refers to his feelings before departure. Besides anticipation of the journey, he mentions feelings of intolerance towards others, especially his father. He felt misunderstood ‑ his family could not accept the way he had changed while at university. This independence was buttressed in travel by a pilgrimage to galleries and landmarks concerning literature. The interest in the arts separated him not only from his parents, but also from his fellow students.

According to Michael, though, the unsympathetic relationship with his family changed as a result of his travel experience. When talking about his feelings towards his parents, Michael says, ‘I didn’t get on very well with my father … But now, definitely I’m closer to them.’ And on his return to Australia ‘ he admits to starting university with a ‘new vigour’, though this had not lasted. More certainly, travel strengthened the bonds between Michael and his family. In returning from Ireland to Australia, he felt he could understand better the frustrations and uncertainty his parents would have felt when they first moved to Australia. Again, paradoxically, to become close to his family, Michael needed to go away from them. He returned able to empathize with them, as well as having an independent set of experiences that enter the repertoire of stories he can tell about himself.

Like Nicola, therefore, Michael’s travel is a time for realizing a unique identity in the extraordinary, and therefore free exchange between people. This leads to a renewed feeling of energy as well as a greater commitment to the world of people outside the self.

A contrasting case to Michael is Susan. Susan is a twenty‑eightyear‑old postgraduate student who has travelled to Europe twice, once with a girlfriend and on the last occasion by herself. She included two months in India and Nepal on her last journey. Susan’s descriptions of travel mainly concern the moral characteristics of the foreign people. The French are beautiful people who adopt an easy‑going Mediterranean attitude to life: they are ‘nice’. At the opposite extreme, the Indian people are ugly and rude. The aspects of travel that Susan comments on deal mainly with the extraordinary ‑ for example, the precocious politeness of a French boy, and where to obtain the ‘best croissants in the world’. What stands out from this in its urgency, though, is her account of trying to survive in India.

This includes hanging on to the outside of a departing train while two young men tried to push their way, out. Contrasted to Michael’s stories of Ireland, Susan’s travel narratives deal more with struggle than with sociality. Although both accounts are concerned with the extraordinary, Susan’s fit more into a romantic narrative scheme than a comic.

Again, it is necessary to examine the frame of the travel account to verify this. Before travelling. the main problem Susan saw her life was the conflict between her feeling of responsibility towards her boyfriend, and her desire to break off the relationship. Part of the reason for travelling was for her to gain the strength needed to he more assertive in her affairs with other people. Susan saw her experiences in India as certainly aiding this.

Yet it is not only with this personal perspective that Susan views travel. Being a traveller is importantly a moral business: it broadens one’s horizons. Susan admits to feeling superior to those people who have not travelled. The moral substance of this scaffolding is the quality of ‘niceness’. This is evident in her discussion of why she likes the politeness of the French.

I wouldn’t say that I like politeness just because it gives a structurethat facilitates interaction, I just think it’s nice … I value politeness not because it gives you a structure. I see no reason to be rude to people. It’s just as easy to be polite and it makes it all so much … nicer.

Although politeness is related to the interaction between people, in Susan’s case it is involved in the distinctions between people who are ‘nice’ and those who are not. It has the quality of an absolute value. This sharply contrasts from the feelings of greater tolerance reported by Michael on his return. Indeed, Susan broke off from her boyfriend on her return, rather than finding aspects of him that appealed to her, as would he the resolution of a comic narrative. Thus, the place for Susan in the social order ‑ distinguished from ignorant and rude people ‑ is gained through the experience of travel, in which she struggles not only against the uncouth behaviour of others (Indians), but also against the weak side of herself.

In this, Susan’s experience of travel resembles Kate’s social identity project of running a marathon, as does Michael’s reparation with the family through his journey to Ireland follow a similar path to David’s greater commitment to the family through rejuvenation in deciding to enter the marathon. In the case of social identity project, a place for oneself in the social order can be found in the discovery in one’s own life of events that potentially fit a romantic narrative structure. Romance suggests the honourable course by which established moral values may be realized in the individual biography. And it follows that individuals may find in romance one of a repertoire of structures of meaning that grant their life social significance. A necessary component of this is the separation of the person from everyday life and the test of a certain quality of her character. This account is consonant with Rom Harré’s notion of moral career as a history of success and failure in tests of hazard in which the contempt of others is risked for the sake of their respect. Similarly, it is not contradictory to the anthropological notion of rite of passage, although this emphasizes more the framing of the period of test as an event distinct from the conduct of mundane world. Engagement in these events may be what Harré describes as a social identity project.

This is contrasted, in the case of Michael, with the remarkable experience of community which granted him a travel story that would serve to distinguish him from others, while at the same time reconciling him to the social world. This project of personal identity has found itself in this chapter often framed within a comic narrative structure, making it resemble what Turner describes as rites of status inversion, rather than status elevation, and therefore placed more within the anti‑structure of society rather than its structure. The implication of this is that the expression of individuality is something for which there is a certain time and place. Finding the right time and place remains a necessary part of the personal identity project, and leads people often to leave their homes for extraordinary adventure (Scheibe, 1986). The personal identity project ‑ finding a recognizable characteristic of uniqueness from others ‑ is discovered in the narrative structure of comedy. The central event in this is not a test of the self ‑ requiring distance from oneself and others ‑ but a release of an aspect of the self denied expression, enabled by the extraordinary closeness of the community separate from the structure of normal society. This specific context for the development of personal identity provides a valuable extension in Harré’s theory of personal being. It leads to greater consideration for the role that the interpersonal contexts of friendship and carnival play in the ‘fleshing out’ of identity. 12

Romance and Comedy in Identity Projects

What both the personal and the social identity projects share, as, evidenced by the stories discussed in this chapter, is the importance of distance from the social order in the development of a sense of self. This distance has been evident in various ways: the necessary ‘journey’ of the mid‑life crisis, the ‘madness’ of the marathon entrant, the travel to the ‘utopic space’ in constructed persons, and the extraordinary’ events recounted by travellers. In romance, the hero ventures to the wilderness where tests are encountered. The very notion of a test indicates an event at the margins of the social order. As most of official life runs according to a routine in which contingency is avoided, a test, which involves the possibility of failure, necessarily occurs on the margins of everyday social order. And in comedy people are brought together outside of their normal relations in situations of extraordinary social gathering. In these cases, the familiar patterns of life are disrupted and new meanings explored.

In both the romantic and comic narrative structures, the possibility exists for forging an identity. This identity, whether in terms of one’s honour or one’s sociability, is necessarily found outside the social order. Thus, in terms of Harré’s original grid, the sense of self is to be found removed from the public‑collective domain, though maintaining a metaphoric link with it. What is evident from the range of stories examined in this chapter is the way this space is not necessarily defined as a private‑individual domain. The place for the construction of identity need only be framed as belonging outside the boundaries of the normal social order (i.e., the ‘liminal’ sphere). A useful comparison may be found in the less individualistic societies which people this ‘other world’ with gods rather than selves. But, just as the role of gods is bound up with the existence of social institutions, the liminal experience in the development of self is contained in a story envelope which relates the individual’s life to the social order. Thus, the separation referred to above is complemented by the return to the moral values of self‑reliance, physical responsibility and ‘niceness’ in romance, and to the social utilitarian values of global welfare and family in comedy. It is this process of separation and reparation of meaning that is enabled by the telling of stories.

Table 1. Romantic and comic narrative structure and details







Mid‑life crisis

Psychological struggle




Nervous breakdown

Marathon as a test

Physical responsibility



Dependence in relationship

Physical struggle



Lack of distinction


Moral point




Mid-life crisis

Escape to New York

Global welfare



Denial of self

New York




Intolerance of others

Holiday with family



Lack of community


Social utility

As shown in Table 1, the narrative structures of comedy and romance share the basic ritual form of breach‑crisis‑redress which collectively manages deviations from the normal order. The crises in romance mediate this process through struggle, whereas in comedy this occurs through release. The resolution, or redress, as a normal order is re‑established and functions to give meaning to the events by reference to a superordinate moral and social order. While the narrative allows entry into discourse of foreign elements, these are eventually granted meaning by the point that frames the story as a social act. To have a story filled with bizarre happenings without a point is to reflect the same confusion felt by people like Kate, who lack a distinctive social identity. And to have a story that is all point is like a self deprived of spontaneity, as in David’s encasement in his social roles of father and manager. Without spontaneity, communality is robbed of the energy derived from the free exchange between people. The elasticity of meaning enabled by the narrative mode of understanding given in its point allows the departure of the individual from the normal social order to be only temporary. The construction of identity through narrative is thus necessary to deal with the paradox of individuality. There are some cases, however, when the paradox is unresolved in narrative.

When’s the Fade‑out?

The experiences of selfhood described and constructed in this chapter all concern the world of extraordinary happenings. Given that most people, most of the time, live in one ordinary world, it is necessary to raise the issue of how real these stories are. Like the fictional man in the film, we ask, ‘When’s the fade‑out?’ Two narrative structures not addressed in this paper ‑ tragedy and irony ‑ both deal with aspects of experience that miss out on the round of official narrative representation. Tragedy deals in the elements of self that have been discovered, yet are incapable of realization in the real world. The film Elephant Man is a tragedy about the inability of the contemporary social world to recognize a humanness beyond the abominable exterior of a deformed person. Irony deals with the less noble exposition of how reality often fails to live up to the expectations of it contained in its representations. In Don Quixote we attend more to the amusing inappropriateness of the hero’s actions ‑ led astray as he is by reading too many romances ‑ than to the sad loss of hope for happiness on the part of the hero. In both cases, the audiences of these stories witness how fictional members of a social order are caught in a contradiction that leads them necessarily to transgress certain norms. The fate of these heroes ‑ becoming martyrs or fools ‑serves to monitor those boundaries, just as the occasional failed escape attempt reminds us of the existence of the Berlin Wall. Tragedy and irony, although indicating that there are certain times and places where romance or comedy are inappropriate, can lead to depression and cynicism if taken to extreme. None the less, they help to instantiate the limits of the moral order in the government of human action.

That tragedy may sometimes he an appropriate structure for an individual’s biographical identity challenges the commonsense assumption that people’s actions are motivated by the desire successfully to achieve their individual goals. An alternative model consonant with the thesis of this chapter would propose that this assumption is itself partly a product of the narrative structures that govern its expression. The motivating force would instead become the desire to find a match between one’s own biography and the socially recognized life‑stories resembling romance and comedy, etc., but also including tragedy. Turner (1980, p. 155) views the possible participation of such ‘action paradigms’ as a guarantee of social status and certainty:

Just to be in the cast of a narrated drama which comes to be taken as exemplary or paradigmatic is some assurance of social immortality.

When an ‘action paradigm’ begins to be discernible from the variety of narrative possibilities in one’s life, when suffering begins to be considered tragic or when a change of script is considered, when the burdens of office outweigh the glory of romance, when self‑deprecation and cynicism overtake generous communality ‑ it is plausible that these moments are managed by framing devices similar to those found in transformations of outlook within literary narrative. While the identification of these devices is likely to be an uncertain process, it should be easy to appreciate their function in switching moods in dramatically recognizable ways: ‘Things began to turn sour when … ‘; or ‘I had almost given up hope when … ‘ The difference between change of fortune in real life and literature must he the necessary place of individual volition, perhaps mediated .by negotiations in friendship and therapy, in choosing what makes best narrative sense in one’s own life. As emphasized earlier, when a lack of narrative fit is perceived and a change of design is desired, the individual must seek out those areas of social life set aside for transformations of identity such as running a marathon or travelling overseas. The identification in this chapter of some of the traditional costumes for biography and recognized changing rooms should then lead us to examine the dynamics of the choice of clothing. 13

The Narrative Self

Narrative has been depicted in this chapter mainly as a process for mediating between theories from the social order and individual lives. It is from such a mediation that identity is constructed: social identity through the instantiation of a romantic narrative structure of tests, and personal identity by means of the release of idiosyncrasies allowed in a comic narrative structure. These story forms serve as prescribed ways for the instantiation of moral values such as self‑reliance, and commitment to social units such as the family, into the life of the individual. They allow for the possibility that lives might contain a meaningful and honourable point. Although romance and comedy were taken as structures that enabled this process, there is no reason why they should exhaust the narrative possibilities of selfhood in Western culture. Different structures will probably be found in other discourses which govern the expression of individuality. One can, for instance, consider the serious retirement speech as emplotting the career in terms of an epic narrative structure.

The way the construction of identity through narrative has been represented in this chapter implies that the collectively represented social order is an integral part of the development of self. While this is in harmony with Harré’s theory of personal being, it denies the validity of theories that lack the collective component, such as the Implicit Personality Theory and Schafer’s theory. Implicit Personality Theory might well respond that romance can he viewed as a means of testing an element of one’s character, while comedy can be seen as an exploration of one’s personality, similar to, say, drilling for oil. These accounts would preserve the initial concern with sense of self as the product of practices of collecting data about the self. However, while such explanations might undoubtedly account for part of the narrative structures uncovered in this chapter, they have little to say about the central role played in each by values of morality and social life. The struggle and release described by romance and comedy concern our interaction with norms that are collectively held, and it is among these that the narratives of self find the point that grants them an eventual meaning. Finding a place for an individual in the concerns of the collective is thus a problem that a narrative formation of identity can manage better than a sense of self based on abstract informational procedures.


In terms of Harré’s view of personal being as a product of the theories contained in the social order, it seems that narrative has a necessary role to play in the mediation between those theories and experience which permits the construction of identities that are more than mere transcriptions of the social order. To achieve this, individuals must leave the familiar everyday world and not only engage in tests ‘in order to he granted a place in the status hierarchy, but also find release from normal controls in order to relate to those others, such as one’s family, who exist outside of that hierarchy. And narrative is the means by which these departures are managed and inscribed in one’s biography.

Appendix: The Life of Nicola

Nicola was attractive, gregarious, and ambitious. She was her father’s girl.

Angelo, her father, was a bright and hard‑working builder in East Doncaster of classical Italian background. His wife, Dimantina, was sickly and had many miscarriages.

Nicola went to a Catholic primary school, where she was very mischievious and got into trouble. Rather than continuing her Catholic education, she was forced to go to a government secondary school because her mother’s illness had left the family in financial trouble. At her new school she was very popular and even became a prefect.

Nicola developed the ambition to become an architect while looking over plans for buildings which her father showed her when he was working at home. This ambition was strengthened during work experience when she met a spunky architect. Architecture inspired her as a symbol of the unattainable.

While studying architecture she was again very popular. She went out with a former prefect from her old school. Halfway through her degree, her father had a heart attack. This strengthened her resolve to do well, and she withdrew into her studies.

Once she had successfully completed her course, she was given a ticket overseas as a present by her parents. Nicola felt that it was time to break from her family. While she was overseas she developed an interest in fashion and discovered that she had a real creative flair. But when Nicola was twenty‑three her father died and it became clear that she was needed back home. She realized then that it was up to her to hold everything together.

Back in Australia, she married her boyfriend. They had two children by the time she reached thirty years of age. By the age of forty‑two she had still not reached her career potential, and this precipitated a mid‑life crisis. While accompanying her husband on a business trip to New York, she had an affair with Peter, an archaeologist from Texas. Looking for a way of fulfilling her ambitions, Nicola decided to leave her husband and stay with Peter in New York. There she managed to set up a successful business practice. Peter would go away on digs, but that was all right for her because there was plenty to do in New York. Her children did not mind her leaving them, and they came to visit her.

At the age of fifty‑two, Nicola went with Peter to Africa. She felt the need to contribute, and so designed cheap communal housing for the natives. The experience of poverty enabled her to realize what a comfortable life she had been living. When she was sixty‑two Nicola travelled to South America. At this point she had become interested in a combination of archaeology and architecture. Unfortunately, her heart went in the heat. This complaint was in the family and she was given ten years to live.

At this point she went to live in Italy, where Peter died. Nicola decided then to return to Australia to see her children.

She died with grace.


This development of this paper from its draft form owes much to comments from Kenneth Gergen, Sue Kippax, Jerome Bruner, Rom Harré, Theodore Sarbin and Karl Scheibe.

1. The Purple Rose of Cairo, directed by Woody Alien, released in 1985.

2. For a more detailed explication of this argument see Murray ( 1987).

3. In early modern theories of narrative (see Shklovsky, 1965), the devices of the story were seen to permit the exclusion of habitual ways of making sense of the world. In making familiar objects strange, the plot uncovers the experiential world and thus introduces new ways of looking at things.

4. Other theorists who have employed these structures include Schafer ( 1976), White (1973), and Gergen and Gergen (1988). See Murray (1985a) for an argument for their usefulness as interpretive categories in the social sciences.

5. Sheehy’s first best‑selling book, Passages (1976), set out some prescribed routes through the life‑course. This was followed by Pathfinders (1982). which more explicitly covered the demands necessary to become a fully realized individual. A comparison of Sheehy with other similar popular writers can he found in Murray (1986).

6. The particular marathon studied was the 1981 Melbourne Marathon. It attracted about 6000 partipicants in a city of 3 million people. The study examined the accounts of fifty first‑time entrants who were over thirty years of age. (For more details see Murray, 1985b.)

7. Because theory about the narrative structures in designing one’s life is not dealing in estimates of quantitative behavioural characteristics, the study of individual cases is more relevant than measures of larger samples. Our concern is not with statistical trends but with the sorts of possibilities in life granted by the narrative structures imposed on it.

8. Footscray and St Albans are lower‑class areas of Melbourne; Kew is a respectable middle‑class suburb.

9. The fact that the group is using the quality ‘interesting’ to determine what sort of person Nicola is indicates that she may not be necessarily a realistic person; yet, given that one of the main tasks in becoming a successful social actor is being an ‘interesting’ person, the way the group constructs this quality is far from irrelevant.

10. One of the members of the group observed that, in deciding to have a ‘good’ character, they risked avoiding some of the less idealistic problems that life contains. Nicola represents ‘how we see ideal people growing up’. The apparent inattention to verisimilitude implied by this statement enables us to see more clearly how the function of narrative structures extends beyond the essentially mimetic purpose to its role in the realization of the moral order in the realm of experience.

11. The story of Nicola was far front an isolated instance of the discovery of personhood through the social group. Other characters constructed by groups found themselves in a social environment that permitted the free expression of their individuality. One more life is worth noting to highlight the regularity of this narrative. One can speculate that, because of the association between America and freedom, its narrative function in the lives of many migrants from other countries would be the same as it was in the life of Nicola: as a ‘green world’ in which the ties of the past are replaced by the promise of the future. America was given the same comic potential in a story constructed by a different group. Dealing with the life of an acrobat, the constructors decided to send her to New York to escape the IRA and attempt to realize her ability as a dancer.

J: So she’s got a lot of money, right. This is her big chance to go wherever she wants to go.

S: So she picks New York.

C: mm.

P: And signs up with the New York dance theatre or something like that.

J: Well, not necessarily New York.

C: But New York’s really exciting, ‘cos it’s a place where expatriate [Irish people] go, and there’s a lot of migrants there … It’s just a place where all sorts of people she’d identify with were, but were also strangers.

That New York contains people similar enough to the acrobat for her to identify, with, yet remain strangers, indicate,, the possibility of close contact without any of the responsibilities normally associated with social relationships. It is in such a world that she is expected to discover her talent for dancing. However, her dream of being a successful dancer is treated cruelly by the acrobat’s constructors. The reason for this was that the acrobat had spent her entire life on the outside of society, because of her mixed origins and her dream of dancing. Although New York appeared as a world containing people more like her than there were in Ireland, and thus promised to provide her with the support she was looking for, she is ultimately excluded by this world because of her status as an outsider in the story: her dancing is not fashionable. Although the moral vision of the world is tragic, New York still retains the same comic potential that it has for Nicola. Two other groups found utopic spaces for their characters in the university and a guerrilla camp in Brazil.

12. The growing theorization of these unofficial spaces for identity work includes psychosocial theories of friendship as ‘ensemble’ relations (Little, 1985), and the expression of folk identity through grotesque inversions of body symbology (Bakhtin, 1984).

13. Such a venture is broadly sympathetic with the concerns of autobiographical research proposed by de Waele and Harré (1979). Both attend to the social order that constrains the range of personas, etc., available to the individual, as well as the processes governing their eventual selection.


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