Protagonist: Louise Banks, a linguist attempting to decipher an alien language to facilitate interspecies communication. There's no real antagonist in this novella, except perhaps the limitations of the human mind that Louise eventually transcends.
Louise must decipher the heptapods' language in order to enable communication between humans and aliens. In doing so, she accidentally begins to alter the way her own mind functions.
At the end of the story, it becomes clear that Louise can actually see into the future, cognizant of the past, present, and future in the same way. The aliens suddenly depart with a sense of anticlimax, but the lack of climax in the story is just another way Chiang emphasizes the circular nature of the heptapods' perspective: there is no beginning or end, and all of time is the same.
Louise begins the story by speaking directly to her daughter, saying, "Your father is about to ask me the question" (91). The reader thinks this is just stylistic prose describing a memory, but it's actually foreshadowing the discovery that Louise actually knows the future.
'And then your dad says, “Do you want to make a baby?”' (91).
This story is remarkably self-contained; there are very few allusions to any outside references, but Louise includes lots of principles of linguistics, and Gary explains Fermat's Principle of Lost Time to Louise, a principle of physics that proves essential to Louise's deciphering of the heptapod language.
The heptapods are most certainly alien, and everything about them reflects this fact. The story describes their bodies as being like a cylindrical barrel with seven legs and seven eyes, wrapped in rough gray skin with whirls and loops embedded in the texture. Their language is similarly inhuman; the sounds they make don't resemble traditional language at all; Louise even thinks it sounds like a dog shaking to get rid of water. Throughout the story, Chiang emphasizes the alienness of the heptapods through this imagery.
Louise can see the future, which would seem to be paradoxical: why would she not be able to deviate from the path she sees for herself, even by changing a single word in a conversation? Chiang solves this paradox, however, by arguing that once someone knows the future, she will feel a duty and an active desire to "enact chronology" by acting in accordance with the future, thus ensuring its infallibility.
Louise both begins and ends the story by talking to her daughter about the time when Gary Donnelly asks her "Do you want to make a baby?" It becomes clear that this is the only moment in the story that occurs in the present, and by placing it at both the beginning and the end, Chiang has made the story into a sort of palindrome, where the beginning is the end, which is really the middle of the story.
Metonymy and Synecdoche
Story of Your Life Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Story of Your Life is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.