Is every story a journey?

On a refreshingly cloudy afternoon last July, I faced the last big hurdle in earning my Ph.D. in psychology: “defending” my dissertation. People in other departments, at other universities, tell me this can be a grueling event, but my department has a reputation for being supportive and friendly, which made the occasion more of an interesting, fairly low-key, group conversation about my work.

By and large, my committee liked my dissertation, which was about metanarratives. In a nutshell, metanarratives are beliefs about the world that have storylike properties, and I was interested in learning which types of metanarrative beliefs were most likely to result in action. I’ll write more about that another time – I learned some interesting things!

One of my committee members, however, did raise some concerns, questioning some of the foundational work early in my dissertation. Since I was writing about metanarratives and “storylike properties,” naturally I had made an effort to explain just what a “story” is. This committee member, the eminent philosopher Mark Johnson, seemed a bit frustrated with my explanation, feeling I hadn’t gone far enough in the direction he had detailed in one of his own books, Moral Imagination, and also explored by the legal scholar Steven Winter in his book, A Clearing in the Forest.

In those books (which I had read and considered while writing my dissertation), the authors assert that the primary metaphor that all good narratives fit is a Journey. All stories involve goals, Johnson asserts, and since goals are metaphorically equivalent to destinations, and since achieving goals is metaphorically equivalent to making a journey (complete with making decisions = choosing paths, having setbacks = encountering obstacles, etc.), then stories are metaphorical journeys.

I’ve thought about it some more, since July, and I don’t think I necessarily agree. Although it may be possible to squeeze any given story (or even any activity) into the mold of a metaphorical journey, is a journey always the most apt and meaningful metaphor for every story?

Stories – excepting those that qualify more as literary experiments – are accounts of events, and in particular of events that fit a certain type of schema, or model: A problem occurs, which creates dramatic tension or suspense, and matters are eventually resolved when the characters in the story reach a new, more stable set of circumstances or state of mind. That is, things become unsettled or disrupted, then other things happen and actions are taken, and finally the disruption is mended, for better or worse. Or even more simply: Stasis ➔ Displacement ➔ New Stasis.

Of course, a journey is literally a displacement, and a great many stories do fit very well into the journey metaphor. Stories about quests usually feature journeys directly, with the main character leaving home to meet some goal. At other times, characters may be said to make a journey in a metaphysical sense, encountering new information and new people, as time passes and events unfold towards the story’s resolution.

But is a journey really the primal experience that most clearly represents the idea of “story” or “narrative” for all people? For much of humanity’s past, people didn’t so much undertake journeys per se, but rather, their groups would slowly migrate from place to place, looking for food and good living conditions. Later, when people became more settled, it was not uncommon for people – especially women – to stay in or near one village for their entire lives. Solitary journeys, in particular, would not have been routine and familiar events.

Also, stories and journeys have different combinations of predetermination and randomness. Most journeys, both literal and figurative ones, involve setting out deliberately for a particular destination, usually with an expectation of getting to specific points along the way, but the actual unfolding of events isn’t known in advance, nor are all events along the way necessarily relevant to reaching the goal. A story in which the characters already had a clear idea of the specific points they’d reach towards the final resolution of the problem, on the other hand, wouldn’t be interesting, and one that detailed the characters’ irrelevant experiences to the same extent as the relevant ones wouldn’t be considered very good. Simply because it is a story, we know that every event described within it must be contributing to the overall picture in some fashion, or it would have been left out. The experience of taking a journey is not so crafted.

Why not try out a different root metaphor for stories? Why can’t a story be, say, a pregnancy (from the reader’s perspective), or a gestation (from the perspective of the outcome)? Pregnancies are every bit as primal as journeys, and maybe this metaphor has some advantages that journeys do not. For instance, once you begin reading a story, you can trust that there will be an outcome, a resolution one way or another, and the process has in fact already been fully set out, although you have yet to experience it. This is true of pregnancies as well – if a pregnancy goes its full course, there will be a child; if a story is read to the end, there will be a resolution – but a journey might end up somewhere entirely different than expected.

Of course, metaphorically, pregnancies can often be described as journeys, and journeys that are highly focused and essentially predetermined could be described as pregnancies. Both metaphors illuminate different aspects of stories.  The Hobbit, for example, is more of a journey, with its hero setting out unwillingly into the unknown; Jane Austen’s Persuasion is rather more of a pregnancy, as its heroine experiences an evolution in her life while scarcely venturing or changing at all. Saying that Anne Elliot goes on a journey is pretty contrived.

Or, here’s another metaphor. A story – a nicely evocative one, with vivid descriptions – is a meal. The first pages are an appetizer, piquing our hunger for more, and as we proceed chapter by chapter, or course by course, we (vicariously) experience different sensory delights until at the end we find ourselves sated and content. The meal metaphor has roles for both the author (who is much like a chef) and the reader (of course, the diner), and the experience of consuming a meal is even more fundamental to human life than making a journey.

So what do you think? If we want to understand stories in terms of some other basic part of human experience, which categories of experience are the most illuminating?

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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2 Responses to Is every story a journey?

  1. Robin Turner says:

    Congratulations for holding your ground against Mark Johnson! And yes, I think that there are other metphors that can be applied to stories than a journey, even though that is by far the most common. But I think it’s not that stories are necessarily modelled on journeys but that both fit the Source-Path-Goal image schema.

    • Laura says:

      I’m with you, Robin; I had written that Source – Path – Goal was the important part, and I even presented some research describing how early infants learn that schema (by 9 months). That research used the “sustained gaze” paradigm – babies will stare longer at something that’s more interesting, so when the bouncing ball on the screen takes an indirect route to a goal it holds their attention longer than one that goes there directly. So, in essence, by 9 months babies can be said both to have demonstrated the universal human interest in prototypical stories and to have internalized the basic concept of efficiency, which I think is fascinating.

      But, nope, Mark objected specifically to the fact that I hadn’t also talked about journeys. If I ever publish my research I guess I probably will, but I’m not convinced it’s meaningful in all cases.

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