Beating Illness Into Shape: An Exercise in Applied Narratology

    Activity: Talk and presentationAcademic presentationAcademic


    The currently dominant type of illness narrative is modelled on the quest narrative. In this type of narrative, past experiences are remembered as leading to fulfillment or enrichment later on. Thus, illness is ultimately ‘framed’ as an asset – it is made meaningful through a narrative design that creates a rounded narrative whole with an endpoint of achievement. As the plot unfolds, illness becomes an ‘investment’, which ultimately proves profitable for the patient. The implied notion of narrative identity here is one of perpetual growth, reified by how the narrative shapes memories of illness.
    In this paper, we will take up Galen Strawson’s critique of narrative as the supposedly ideal means of making life meaningful and morally sound. Strawson’s critique is valid for the ‘Aristotelean narrative tradition’, in which coherence and closure are foregrounded as necessary elements of an ethically sound narrative. There is, however, an ‘other’ narrative tradition (Paul Ricoeur) which is equally valuable, but has been neglected in most conceptions of narrative identity.
    In this paper, we will discuss both traditions, as explored by literature and other arts, and their potentials and dangers when applied to illness narratives. Then one of the authors, whose research is informed by her experience as a carrier of a genetic mutation for Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer, will interrogate the structure of the quest narrative through an auto-ethnographic account.
    Shifting from the seemingly objective academic ‘we’ in a theoretical introduction, to the first person singular in the auto-ethnographic account, this paper both analyses and explores the morals of specific ways of storying lives. The paper closes with a dialogue between the authors about the theoretical, methodological, and ethical insights gained by such an exercise in what we call ‘applied narratology’: the transfer of narratological methods and findings to actual practices of narrative.
    Event titleUses and Abuses of Storytelling: Theorizing the Intersections of Narrative, Memory and Identity (The Fifth Symposium of the Narrative and Memory Network)
    Event typeConference
    LocationTurku, Finland
    Degree of RecognitionInternational