In theory, narratives could probably exist as narratives even if nobody ever read, saw or heard them. In practice, though, audiences arguably play as great a role in determining how a narrative functions and acquires meaning as does its narrator. After all, if the purpose of narratives is to make sense of the world and to provide an account of why things happen the way they do, what human beings are like, how the universe fits together, and so on, then they can only really achieve that goal if they have an audience to act upon: a person or group of people they can seek to encourage to accept or reject the version of reality they present.
Of much more importance than the notion of an implied author, at any rate, is the notion of an implied audience. This can take many forms. It can be the person or persons a narrator explicitly addresses – as, say, Walton addresses his story of Frankenstein to his sister Margaret, or Dr. Frankenstein himself addresses his story to Walton, or Frankenstein’s creation addresses his story to Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. When the intended audience is identified as openly as this, narratologists commonly call these recipients of the story its narratee(s).
At some level, every narrative will be addressed to an implied audience, no matter how difficult to discern this audience might be. A 21st-century book written in English by an Englishman but set in Papua New Guinea in the 12th century, for instance, will necessarily represent the lives lived there in terms that make sense to a 21st-century, non-native readership. To this extent, it treats its contemporary readership as its implied audience. (Indeed, the consequence of this is that the same narrative would probably make very little sense to a 12th century inhabitant of Papua New Guinea – and not only because such a person would be unlikely to understand modern English).
The importance of a narrative’s implied audience varies from one narrative to another, but in some cases it is very important indeed. For instance, a story narrated by a right-wing fascist to entertain his or her fellow right-wing fascists will read very differently from – and therefore come to mean something very different to – someone whose gender or ethnicity would make them a target of such a group were these kinds of narrative ever to command widespread consent. Many narratives, of course, play upon this gap between their so-called implied audience and their actual audience to help us see what might be wrong with, or comic about, the narrator and the narrative he or she tells. A narrative that assumes its audience is very stupid and easily led, for instance, will itself look somewhat misjudged and ill-informed (to say the least) to an audience that boasts neither of these two qualities.
In short, the manner in which the individual reader of a book or the viewer of a film or play is positioned by and in relation to the narrative – in terms of distance or proximity, a sense of close affinity or hostility, and so on – will contribute in important ways to the manner in that narrative acts upon that reader and generates meaning out of their interaction. For this reason, readers and viewers are in and of themselves significant elements of narrative.
Return to Elements of narrative