Narrative on the Holodeck: the role of narrative

Nicholas Friesner '05, Brown University, Spring 2005

The novel can put things in their place, can let us figure out what is right and wrong by offering us a specific context for human behaviors. But in a global society we have outgrown our ability to contextualize. We are tormented by our sense of multiple conflicting frameworks for every action. We need a kaleidoscopic medium to sort things out. [Hamlet on the Holodeck, 282-283]

If literature has any role in society, then what role does it have, and how does it go about fulfilling this role? Perhaps an easy response to this question would be entertainment; all literature – or we should perhaps switch to using the term narrative since literature is a prime example of narrative, but, as may be seen, narrative may have different connotations from the term literature, especially when considering it in different roles besides the traditional paper-bound book – serves only to pass the time in a non-strenuous and relaxed way. Although it is true that many people who consume literature do so only as a reprieve from their job or stressful life, it hardly does justice to the multifarious ways in which a story can alter the individual and the society. Indeed narrative seems to be a tool with which the author can go about achieving something valuable, what that value is we shall have to determine.

Janet Murray’s book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, continually returns to the theme of the nature and role of narrative, perhaps in an attempt to draw the reader into questioning the future of narrative, specifically as it relates to new media. Murray wants to define narrative as giving a context in which we can explore -- and subsequently come closer to understanding through further illumination - human behaviors and the human condition. Murray seems to believe that narrative is a method through which we can isolate human traits, project them beyond ourselves, and contextualize them in a medium which can be used to understand human behaviors and society. (Interestingly, narrative under this description seems to accord very well with projectionist theories of religion, specifically Feuerbach. Ludwig Feuerbach, in his work, “The Essence of Christianity”, explains religion as man’s projecting his own humanity beyond himself into a transcendent reality in order to understand his own characteristically human experience. He argues that it is only by separating man’s own primary selfhood from himself that he can hope to come to a greater self-knowledge, eventually getting to a full self-consciousness.) As Murray puts it: “Every age seeks out the appropriate medium in which to confront the unanswerable questions of human existence” (280).These unanswerable questions – although there may be something nihilistic to confront unanswerable, since by definition the exercise is futile – are problems of humanity as a whole. By creating a medium such as narrative which has the ability to isolate and extrapolate upon the specific conditions of being human, we can hope to come to a greater understanding by searching through the experience being mediated. Even if the questions are unanswerable, a certain naïve pleasure comes from exploring human existence, even if there is no end of exploration.

Since Murray’s definition of narrative does not limit her to traditional passive storytelling – what may be commonly considered to be the only way of telling a story, the book or oral tradition – she can evaluate emerging technologies on the basis of whether they allow for a new advancement in narrative construction, pushing toward the ultimate goal of understanding the human context or experience. Paralleling this theory is trying to find a way to engage the ‘reader’ in the most efficacious way possible, making the ‘reader’ fully engage the narrative. Obviously the more the medium engages its reader, the more the reader is drawn into the story and all of its intricate details, the more effective that medium is going to be at elucidating those intricate details. She posits that the primary mode of reader engagement gives the reader power within the story to enact events: “Enacted events have a transformative power that exceeds both narrated and conventionally dramatized events because we assimilate them as personal experiences” (170).

Combining the two essential elements of a good narrative -- its ability to illuminate the human and its efficacy in engaging the reader -- Murray can deduce possibilities of new media that would satisfy these two elements better than previous media forms could. Curiously, Murray chooses to emphasize the possibilities of narrative within the domain of an electronic environment. She makes a radical departure by separating traditional fiction from a gaming environment, then putting a greater emphasis on the possibilities of the former, and reworking the latter into a non-traditional schema. But making this division is a natural step for Murray, since she sees the power of the reader within the narrative environment as the primary method of achieving the goals of narrative.

In making these assertions about narrative, and tangentially about traditional literature, Murray appears to envision a world where the formal narrative structure that current occupies the vast majority of what we would call ‘narrative’ becomes the domain of history. There may be a small problem with Murray’s conception of narrative that prevents this dramatic paradigm shift: the notion of reader power – in the sense that the either the reader desires to have a causal role in the story or that the reader desires the heightened level of efficacy within the narrative space -- may not be the reader-actuating principle that Murray describes it to be. With such a strict notion of what makes a ‘story’ or a ‘storyspace’, Murray may be excluding a large part of what it means to be a reader.


Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York: Free Press, 1997.

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Last Updated February 24, 2005.