CIRCULAR NARRATIVE
Contributor

I love circles, especially in writing, where the author cycles back at the end of an essay or book to a reference from the opening. Joseph Campell’s book The Hero With a Thousand Faces defined this pattern in drama, myth, and religious ritual: a protagonist, forced from home, leaves the ordinary world to enter a frightening new region, survives ordeals, and returns home transformed.

What is it about this type of storytelling that has compelled people for thousands of years? The template of circularity, which we experience in nature, feels deeply familiar, calling up a visceral response. There's a satisfaction to the echo, to seeing the familiar again, only recast as something new.

The Wizard of Oz is a famous example. Dorothy, beset by a nasty neighbor who’s snatched her beloved dog Toto, is thrust by a tornado into a phantasmagorical journey; after coming home she views familiar faces and places with fresh, appreciative eyes. Alice in Wonderland similarly opens with Alice playing on a riverbank before she slides down the rabbit hole into a surreal adventure, ending only when her sister wakens her and she’s back on the riverbank.

Myths like Homer’s Odyssey often follow this cyclical form, as does James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake may be the most dramatic instance of the pattern, where the first sentence literally completes its final one. The end comes out of the beginning, not arising from nowhere in an arbitrary fashion. The seeds of the ending lie in the beginning, so it becomes a promise fulfilled.

In my novel Mama’s Child I opened with the scene of a woman mailing a furious letter, cutting off contact with her mother. The book closes with the same woman seated at her desk fourteen years later, writing a letter of rapprochement. The letter, in its repetition, becomes a signifier for the theme of the book: communication and relationship. Reviving the letter in its transformed state, from conveying a message of anger to one of reconciliation, provides an echoing resonance. As a writer I found this highly satisfying. Circling back to the beginning, the final scene mirrors the first, yet is not a duplicate since both daughter and mother have experienced significant change.

What I find so appealing about the cyclical structure is that its protagonists are generally regenerated by their journeys. Like the seasons.

I’m a gardener as well as a storyteller. Each fall and winter I’m delighted anew to spot tiny leaf buds at the roots of anemones, whose withered stalks I’m cutting. “Look!” I shout to my family, astonished still after twenty-five California winters. “See the new buds.” There in the midst of dead brown leaves this sign of new life sprouts: a promise of a revivified spring to come. I strive for the same vitalizing force in my writing, hoping to stimulate generative thoughts and feelings in readers, as well as myself.

Circles, signifying a unity of “no beginning, no end,” wholeness and completeness, provide me an intuitively natural pattern for writing. As the monkey Rafiki sings in opening The Lion King and Simba the lion affirms at the end, after his heartbreaking journey, “The Circle of Life” endures.

August Wilson’s character Doub in his play Jitney sums it up perfectly, “Time go along and it come around.” May those of you drawn to this ancient art form enjoy experimenting with its many possibilities.

 

____________________

Award-winning author Dr. Joan Steinau Lester has published five books (fiction and non-fiction), several hundred op-eds, and numerous literary essays. Her Young Adult novel Black, White, Other has just been reissued by HarperCollins/Blink, and she has a contract for another novel: Langston Hughes and the One True Me.

www.JoanLester.com

 

 

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Comments
  • Joan Steinau Lester

    Thanks so much for all these comments. I'm glad this concept struck a nerve...seems like an intuitive process for some of us. Happy writing!

  • catherine meara

    So interesting! So relevant to my memoir! Because at the end, I am changed. It was long and hard. But I did it. And I am born anew. Thank you!

  • Lisa Thomson

    I love a circular narrative and to confess hadn't fully identified novels or stories as such---I just knew the story felt whole and concluded. So, thanks for laying this out, Joan and your examples are excellent ones. I think I write in this way as well because I aim to have my reader feel some kind of closure. I know many authors don't do this and it works for them but I feel something is incomplete if we can't circle back somehow. Loved this post!

  • Thea Constantine

    I did this in my book ( one character comes in on the greyhound in the open and one leaves on the bus in the close both thinking much the same things) and I never knew that I was creating a circular narrative-- how lovely. Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

  • Rebecca D\'Harlingue

    Thank you so much for your post!  I am finishing up the draft of my first novel, and your article has given me some ideas to solve a structural and thematic issue I've been struggling with.  

  • Camille Cusumano

    Hi Joan,

    I loved reading your novel and I love your post. In fact, I might take your concept a little farther and say I like "webular" narrative - kind of a 3D circular. Hope your writing is going well. Musefully, Camille