What Is a Circular Narrative Style?
A story that ends in the same place it began is commonly called a circular or cyclical narrative. While literature during and after the Modernist period experimented heavily with nonlinear narrative, circular narrative appears in nearly every genre and in the mythologies of many cultures. Although the narrative’s beginnings and ends mirror each other, as do the introduction and conclusion of an essay, the narrative almost never leaves characters or events unchanged.
Many poems have a similar first and last stanza. John Keats’ ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” begins and ends with a question and answer that use nearly the same language. The circular structure here is temporal, beginning in the narrative present with a speaker asking a knight what happened to him, moving into the past with the knight’s recollection, and returning to the present when the knight concludes his story. In a more complex example, the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” exemplifies the circular narrative’s popularity in Arthurian mythology. At Christmastime, Sir Gawain embarks on a quest, and he journeys for a year before fulfilling his obligation and returning to the court at Christmastime.
Novels are particularly fond of circular narratives. Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” opens with Alice playing outside on a riverbank. When she falls down a rabbit hole, she embarks on a fantastic journey through Wonderland before her sister awakens her, recalling her to the riverbank. Books in C. S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” series employ a similar journey into an alternate realm and back to the “real world,” as does much science fiction and fantasy.
Film and Television
Films frequently employ cyclical narrative structures as well. The movie “Looper,” for example, centers on characters who travel back in time to be killed by their past selves. Circularity can also occur in genres with multiple episodes. At the beginning of the television series “Lost,” for example, the shot centers on the closed eye of Jack, one of the protagonists, as it suddenly opens. The camera zooms out to show Jack lying on the ground. The last episode of the series concludes with Jack lying in the same spot, and the camera zooms in on his open eye just before it finally closes.
Circular narrative is common in lyrics from every age, and particularly in children’s songs. The terror of parents everywhere, “The Song That Never Ends” makes good on its title: The last phrase of one verse becomes the first phrase of the next verse so the song can be infinitely repeated. More somberly, Elvis’ ballad “In the Ghetto” chronicles the cycle of poverty and violence in Chicago’s housing projects. The first and last five lines mirror each other. The song begins, “As the snow flies/On a cold and gray Chicago mornin'/A poor little baby child is born/In the ghetto/And his mama cries.” It concludes with the death of that baby, grown into an “angry young man,” and the birth of another baby who is implicitly his son: “As her young man dies,/On a cold and gray Chicago mornin',/Another little baby child is born/In the ghetto/And his mama cries.”
- Bartleby.com: La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- Lyrics.com: Elvis Presley -- In the Ghetto Lyrics
- The Camelot Project: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- The Victorian Web: On Borrowed Time: Cycles of Narrative, Nature, and Memory in the Work of Tennyson and Eliot
- Alice in Wonderland; Lewis Carroll
- The Chronicles of Narnia; C. S. Lewis
Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.