Craig Stroupe | Associate Professor of Information Design | Department of Writng Studies | 1201 Ordean Court # 420 | University of Minnesota Duluth | Duluth, MN 55812 | 218-726-6249 | fax 218-726-6882 |

Hayden White's
Narrative Theory of Discovery

In his book Tropics of Discourse, Hayden White examines the ways that human beings structure their experience of the world with narrative forms—a process that he calls “the linguistic equivalent of a psychological mechanism of defense” (2).

From Exotic to Useful

One such “defensive” narrative occasion is our experience of anything new and perhaps threatening: a place (Mars), an experience (a strange new movie), a community of people (Iraqis), or a new idea (Marx’s concept of hegemony), etc. In essence, “Understanding is a process,” writes White, “of rendering the unfamiliar…familiar; of removing it from the domain of things felt to be ‘exotic’ and unclassified into one or another domain of experience encoded adequately enough to be felt to be humanly useful, nonthreatening, or simply known by association” (5).

White observes that we construct narratives to plot our experience of this discovery process, which follows recognizable stages of understanding. These steps are not so much of how we actually understand something new, but how we plot the story of coming to understand.

1. Comparing to the Known.

The “I” of the narrative starts with what White calls “an original metaphorical characterization” of the new experience. Basically, we compare the new with the familiar as a kind of rough equivalence. Mars, for instance, is a little like the Mojave Desert in the Southwest United States. It’s also airless, however, which the metaphor doesn’t account for, but this is only the first chapter in the story we tell ourselves of our process of understanding. Sometimes, these metaphors can be striking and original: the hot, edgy new filmmaker is a lot like Nathaniel Hawthorne in her view of human character.

2. Breaking It into Parts.

The “I” then moves to a new stage of understanding this new experience, what White terms “metonymic deconstructions of its elements” (5). We find ways of breaking down or subdividing the new experience to see what it’s made of. We make a map of Mars (dispersing its elements across a “spatial field” [6]), or we write a plot summary of the strange new movie to get a handle on what happens in it (dispersing its elements across a “time series” [6]). Sometimes the story of our discovery stops here “in what appears to be a final analytical act” (6).

3. Organizing the Parts into a Whole.

The “I” can then “proceed to ‘integrate’ these elements, by assigning them to different orders, classes, genera, species and so on—which is to say,…order them such that their status either as essences or merely as attributes of these essences can be established” (6). What is Mars essentially? What are its most basic “Martian” characteristics and patterns of ? Or with our filmmaker example: What is the essence of director’s style? How do we describe her artistic vision that helps us see how her choices of plot, camera work, subject matter, etc. come together into a recognizable effect?

4. Ironic Reflection.

The “fourth move” of the “I” is what White calls the “ironic reflection on the inadequacy of the characterization with respect to the elements which resist inclusion in the…ordered totality” (6). This final stage of understanding fixates on the “contrasts or oppositions” that remain after we’ve tried to reduce the new experience to an essence in the third stage. We can never know Mars, we realize. The experience of Mars confounds our theory of Mars, throws us a curve ball. It keeps surprising us, which is why it’s worth devoting your life to studying it. Or repeated viewings of our once-new-and-strange film—now a classic—keep turning up intriguing ambiguities and interesting new problems of interpretation. The film refuses to be pigeonholed. Just when you think you’ve got it nailed down, you watch it again and it reveals another layer. That’s what makes it a classic!


Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978

< Back to the Ideas Site home

Please contact me about any broken links or errors, or if you have suggestions for additional links on this page.