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A Dictionary of Critical Theory

Ian Buchanan


A logical category in the narrative grammar devised by the Paris-based, Lithuanian linguist Algirdas Julien Greimas. The actant is in Greimas's language an isotope of the action. This means narrative analysis occurs at a level below that of character and indeed of character type. Thus to take one very restricted example, if detective fiction can be understood as a battle between doing good and doing evil then good and evil actants are required by the narrative structure. The obvious implication of this insight is that the detective can be a man, woman, child, alien, good or bad, all without altering the formal structure of the narrative. Moreover, multiple characters may fulfil the various actants each narrative type requires. For Greimas, the actual detective is an actor, not an actant: the actant operates at a level below character, and tends to coincide more with what is usually known as ideology. The redemption of the good is the actual narrative enacted through the detective bringing a killer to justice. This deep structural approach enables the inner tensions in narratives, which make them interesting to us, to be articulated. Along the same lines, Greimas proposed a semiotic square as a means of mapping out these tensions and showing how they interact with one another.

Further Reading:

A. J. Greimas On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory (1987).Find this resource: