According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the meaning of "narrative" is defined as:

  1. A description of events, especially in a novel.
  2. The act, process or skill of telling a story.

However, the meanings of "narrative" used in the following three examples of sentences I recently came across don't appear to necessarily match either of the above definitions.

Here are three examples of sentences using the word "narrative". Can somebody rephrase the specific meaning of each in an easy-to-understand way for non native English learners like me?

(In Charlie Sheen’s show held in Detroit,) Audience growing restless. This show is all pump-up, no narrative. – The Guardian.

I realize that with hostile Republicans controlling the House, there’s not much Mr. Obama can get done in the way of concrete policy. Arguably, all he has left is the bully pulpit. But he isn’t even using that — or, rather, he’s using it to reinforce his enemies' narrative. – New York Times

The story of Capitol Hill's week on the brink — which brought Washington within an hour of a government shutdown — is a narrative of three men, each with a confining sense of his own limitations. – Washington Post

  • I took the liberty of editing more than typical. Please let me know if I went too far or accidentally changed something important.
    – MrHen
    Apr 11, 2011 at 18:57
  • @MrHen. No you didn’t. I really appreciate your correction. Only by seeing the corrected text, I can realize what was improper. As a foreign learner of English language, I’m always thankful for someone who helps me in putting the words in right order and in better English. Apr 11, 2011 at 22:44
  • 1
    Cool. For what it is worth, I completely appreciate the full quotes and references. It made the question easy to understand and answer.
    – MrHen
    Apr 11, 2011 at 22:47

2 Answers 2


They are all variations on the "description of events" meaning:

  • all pump-up, no story being told
  • he's using it to tell (or perhaps "live according to") the story his enemies want to hear.
  • is a story about three men, ...
  • With regards to #2, I would want to check if the apostrophe is in the original. If it isn't, then the meaning of enemies narrative is rather something like "a story about his enemies", rather than "his enemies' story". Apr 11, 2011 at 12:15
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    If the apostrophe were not there, I would assume it. I can't parse the phrase without it.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 11, 2011 at 12:16
  • @JSBangs/Colin Fine: This is a quote from an essay written by Paul Krugman under the title of ‘The president is missing’ in New York Times (April 10, 2011). Clearly ‘enemies’ is used in possessive form (_’). I repeat the original text: ‘Arguably, all he has left is the bully pulpit. But he isn’t even using that — or, rather, he’s using it to reinforce his enemies’ narrative.’ Apr 11, 2011 at 18:39

What holds for me in all three examples is not narration itself but the idea of it. Each example points to an analyst who wants to deconstruct the subject in order to examine a key part, either to call out a specific defect or unusual form.

In the line on Charlie Sheen's show, it's easy to discern: "there's no story" would have been clearer and sufficient, in my opinion. I'd expect the rest of the article to elaborate in a way that justifies using "narrative."

Pundits often resort to the tools of metacognition to interpret what's "really" happening in a complex political story. In the second example, "position" would have done similar work. Perhaps the writer wants to imply something more dynamic, such as a sequence of related points that explains the hostility of those Republicans. Are they merely stubborn, or (gasp!) actually quite shrewd? This writer, like the Guardian writer, suggests he is seeing through the veil of action to discern motive; that's the point of metacognitive critique.

"Narrative of three men." "Story" does the same work. Unless the remainder of the article elaborates on this word choice, I'd say the writer just wanted to sound like he understands more than he lets on.

  • In your first paragraph, are you using "dissemble" to mean "analyse" or "dismantle"? To me it means "pretend" or "play a (false) role". I don't usually make a point of words used in ways I don't recognise, but I am actually unclear what you mean here.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 12, 2011 at 9:20
  • I meant it in the former sense, which appears to be altogether wrong. I was thinking of "deconstruct" at the same time; for a reason I don't recall, I wanted to avoid that term. Thanks; I'll fix that.
    – mfe
    Apr 12, 2011 at 20:07

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