A Penguin Story from
a narratological point of view
One of the most noticeable features of the children's own stories,
collected between 1995 and 1997 in Finland, is the vast array of
characters they include. Children bring a wide spectrum of animals,
objects and persons to their stories. Because of the nature of the
stories, current literary theories of characterisation need
modification to provide us with any insight into the construction of
characters. The stories are short and spontaneous; their presentation
of characters is very different from lengthy written texts, while the
theories discuss such features as development of characters or the
psychological life of the characters. To make these theories relevant
to the stories requires addition of other new ideas. In my study, I
focus on different kinds of narration in 87 narratives of children,
for example the usage of speech, speech acts and metafiction.
My aim and material
Today, my aim is to describe how a child tells about a character
and it's relationships in one narrative. My emphasis lies here on the
plot and the speech. As an example material, I use one story, 'A
Penguin Story', that a 5-year-old Finnish child told within a project
called Storyride .
I am going to read the narrative with you with eyes focused
1) Firstly on the story level: existents (characters and setting) and
events, the main three episodes
2) Secondly, on discourse: mostly the usage of adjectives and pronouns,
3) Thirdly: on direct and indirect speech and speech acts
The narrative, which I analyse here, is the following:
Once upon a time there was a penguin
and it went for a swim in the morning.
It noticed that the water was cold.
It went to drink the hot chocolate which mother had made.
It went to play with some friends.
The friends played together, they didn't want to play with her/him.
S/He went home to play alone.
Then when s/he had played
s/he went again to try the water to see if it possible to swim in.
Then s/he noticed again that the water was cold.
So s/he went to play alone again.
Then when s/he had played
s/he drank mother's chocolate again.
Then s/he went to look at the ice sheet
how all the other penguins swam two by two.
Then when all the other penguins said come you too and swim with us
s/he said I think it is chilly.
Then it went inside to do something with the baby.
1) Story: existents and events
As in over half of the narratives in my corpus, the main character
here is an animal. This is the only one among the narratives, which
tells about penguins. In the Finnish text, the gender of the
protagonist, other penguins and the baby is not specified. The Finnish
language does not distinguish between masculine and feminine in the
third person singular: the pronoun 'hän' refers to both 'he' and 'she'.
Mother, other penguins and a baby create the social field for the
penguin. This kind of cast is usual in the narratives of children.
Rather often the relations between characters are depicted with
dichotomies like little and big, or for example the baby rabbit and
the big rabbit. Mother and the other penguins build a comparable
dichotomy for the setting: inside and outside, home and by the water
Because the direct characterisation of the penguin is minimal and
it's appearance or habits are not described explicitly, I look at the
personality of the penguin another way. The characteristics of the
penguin can be found in actions on the plot level and in penguin's
According to the hierarchy of actions, one way to paraphrase the
plot could be the following. The main episodes are
1) Desire to swim - penguin's own decision not to swim,
2) Desire to play with other penguins - other's decision not to play
3) Desire to swim and play - other's invitation and own decision not
to swim but to do something with the baby.
Decisions not to swim and to play alone are repeated twice before
The dramatic conflict is placed in the last episode in which the
others ask the penguin along and it refuses to joint them. Furthermore,
the opponents in the story become helpers.
2) Discourse: Descriptive meanings
In children's narratives the amount of descriptive chapters or
meanings are minimal like the whole narrative can be a minimal one.
Still, the depicting words have a meaning in the whole. The narrative
of the penguin has a couple of describing adjectives, namely cold and
hot, which become interesting when we notice what is told in the
The usage of speech is not frequent in the penguin story. The
penguin directly interacts only with the other penguins, not with the
narratee or implied reader . The character's speech act is placed only
on the climax of the story.
The change of adjectives is placed also in this climax point. In
the beginning, the character's notion of the temperature of the water
is that it is cold. The water gets contrast with the hot chocolate
mother had done. The coldness of the water is emphasised like the
repeated testing of the water and playing alone. After the other's
approval, the water becomes chilly. In Finnish, the adjective
'vilpoisaa' has a kind of a poetic sound and it can be interpreted
both as 'cooling' and as 'fresh'. The observations are done from the
penguin's point of view (It noticed that the water was cold. - It went
to drink hot chocolate). The answer "I think it is chilly"
emphasises and strengthens the penguin's opinion.
Similarly, the shift of pronouns is situated after the climax. In
the beginning, the author uses the personal pronoun 'it' to refer to
the penguin. It changes when the other penguins deny play with her/him.
After the climax the pronoun 's/he' replaces the pronoun 'it' until
the invitation is posed to the penguin as come you too and the
penguin's answer is a direct speech with the pronoun 'I'. Then the
author returns to use of 'it'.
The first communication with the penguins is narrated with free
style. The communication is not cited; we do not know how the other's
denial is actually presented. The denial is narrated as a summary of
actions. We do neither know who began that discussion. In the second
verbal contact, we can follow the turns of the discussion. Though the
penguin is active with it's doings, it does not take the initiative to
speak to the others. They make the initiative here; they begin the
conversation. Therefore the penguin has the power to decide if it
comes with them or not.
The invitation is presented as a direct question and the penguin's
answer is similarly a direct answer. These direct speeches are both
tagged with neutral verb 'said'. The utterance of the penguin is
though and indirect speech act because the penguin does not refuse by
saying: no, I don't (want to come). The utterance implies refusal with
words that characterise the temperature of the water and the
chilliness of it.
Finally, if the main episodes of the narrative is desire to swim and
desire to play with the other, the conclusion and problem is solved
with the help of the baby, or at least a possible solution is served
in the end. After the indirect speech act, the penguin chooses the
company of the baby; but the penguin does not go to play or swim with
it. Instead, they are going to do something inside. Word 'something'
gives an open possibility for them, the doing is not specified.
Earlier in the story, the inside is combined with two things. The
first one is to play alone, and the second one is - after the cold
water - the company of mother and mother's warm chocolate. For the
penguin, 'something' may mean the first or the second one or something
1 The purpose of the Storyride project is
- to build up a network for children in Finland and other Nordic
- to make children and children's story culture visible and give
the floor to children's own storytelling culture,
- to give adults possibility to listen to children's ideas and
initiatives and provide a new listening method, to develop quality in
play and teaching in pre school and early education.
The research around Storyride project focuses on the storytelling
culture of children and its impact on the relationships between
children and adults in child-care institutions (see Karlsson 1996).
2 In most of the narratives, children vary the use of character
types. Over 50 different protagonists are used in those 87 narratives;
most of them appear only once. The most common animals are a dog (featured
in only 7 of the 87 narratives), a mouse (5/87), a bear (4/97) and a
3 Another dichotomy is singular (penguin) and plural (other
4 (I base my reading of the plot on narratological theories and for
example Roland Barthes' and Seymour Chatman's notion about main and
secondary actions, satellites and kernels.)
5 (on the syntagmatic level)
6 In it's simplest form, description is a nominal phrase for
example 'a beautiful flower'. But the perhaps more frequent use of the
term description is as longer descriptive passages, as for example
Seymour Chatman use. Description can have two functions 1) to
interrupt action or 2) to lift up important elements for
interpretation (Hamon 1988). Even the name can be taken as descriptive.
7 Which also can be done in children's own narratives. For example
in a comment to the implied audience: "Guess what one Miia and
Melik have done?" in the story 9703ku2y.jh.
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