Understanding the Relationship Between Narrative and History

Category: Fiction
Last Updated: 03 May 2023
Essay type: Narrative
Pages: 6 Views: 127

Story in the above definition immediately brings to mind children's books, literature, tales and novels but can equally be applied to recorded history. Both are stories and both are influenced by who is doing the writing, and, more specifically, the social context from which they are writing. New Historisicm provides a theoretical or rather, (as several leading proponents would say) a practical method to situate a text within it's historical context and to examine the relationship between narrative and history and, consequently, the way that that stories and history constantly inform each other as parts of a whole.

'All stories are fictions', Hayden White, historian and theorist has said. This includes the 'story' of a historical event or happening, major or minor. While certain 'hard facts' may be accepted, any ordering of those facts, on the part of the historian or writer will necessarily involve creating a narrative. 'X happened, then X happened' accompanied by dates without an additional commentary or identification of causes and effects by the writer may be said to be pure history. However, what then to make of the adverb 'then' in the above sentence? It's very presence, being synonymous with 'next', 'after that' and 'subsequently', would lead a reader to believe that X was in some way directly related to the next X happening. Likewise, we would encounter the same difficulty with 'afterwards' or 'and'. All additional words added to a historical recording render it into a story.

Perhaps X is a direct consequence of X, but what if those events were in fact, completely non-related? In any case, historical writing like this without any additional words or commentary would be very dry. We also do not write like this and history is not commonly presented to us without additions. As human we have an inherent ability to make and create stories (Yule) which flows into our written histories. As soon as a writer an historian or other, adds extra words or considers the consequences of X happening, they are effectively creating a narrative.

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Further complicating this, is the unavoidably subjective act of recording history. Though certain events may be unanimously accepted, the cause and relationships between those events may not be. To this, each writer will unavoidably bring their own unique viewpoint, born out of their own 'interperative community' (Fish). The very act of asking 'why did X happen? invites multiple view points. As does the selection of events or happenings to be included. Each writer will have ideas about what is important to include and what in the context of their history/narrative can be disregarded. New Historicist practice does recognise this and proponents attempt to take into account their own subjective position when analysing a text, literary or otherwise. Adding to the complications of subjectivity, is the paradox of just how possible it is to subjectively asses one's own subjectivity. Considering the above, what 'really happened' is always arguable and as White said, all stories are fiction.

In the introduction to 'The New Historicism'. Vesser writes 'New Historicism] has given scholars new opportunities to cross the boundaries separating history, anthropology, art, politics, literature and economics' (Vesser) He also outlines five key assumptions, one of which is that 'literary and non-literary texts circulate inseparably'. (Vesser) For a New Historicist, all texts are equally valid as stories and as such, an equally valid means to attempt to re-create the contemporary cultural position they came from. In doing so also, to gain a deeper understanding of that cultural position. This is not to say that New Historicism presents texts merely as mimetic of a given society, but rather as an integral part in the very shaping and creation of that culture. Just another piece of discourse that shapes the whole and in turn shapes and feeds other discourses. In this, New Historicism is indebted to Foucault's 'power-knowledge-discourse' theories.

But do we really need to attempt to understand a context to enjoy a work (literary or otherwise) which has been made into a narrative? Particularly if we are aware of the subjectivity paradox and the near impossibility of generating an account of what 'really happened'. To investigate this I have chosen two texts by the same author, Johnathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal' and 'Gullivers Travels'. Of these, both are canonical, however (without opening the 'impossible to completely ascertain' can of worms that is authorial intention) as Swift published one as a political/social commentary pamphlet in the tradition of the times, and the other as a story (albeit with the same intentions); we can safely assume that he had differing intentions for each. As New Historicism is concerned with the 'historicity or texts and the textuality of history' (Montrose) looking at Swift's two texts, one of which was possibly not meant to be considered literary (A Modest Proposal) against one that was, could offer some answers.

Presented with 'A Modest Proposal with absolutely no prior knowledge of the text, the author and his life or historical background, the reader would most likely be simply confounded. However, given some background on Swift, his life, political alliances and the Anglo-Irish situation in Dublin in 1750 - 1760 a lot more would start to make sense. Couple this with a greater understanding of serfdom in both England and Ireland at the time of writing along with the economic situation between the two countries and the text becomes meaningful. Swift's satiric essay makes sense as a work completely implicated the contemporary power structures it parodies. Ever further understanding can be be garnered when a reader is aware that Swift was in the 'Scriblerus Club' with Alexander Pope. Adding knowledge of Juvenalian satire conventions, gives even further comprehension. In the case of this text, the more background we have and the more we know of what surrounds the text, the more we can appreciate it. Those moments where Swift's voice breaks from him narrator's register, that of the 'Proposer', and issues snide, condemning comments; become humorous in light of prior contextual knowledge.

Is the same true for 'Gulliver's Travels'? Yes and no. Widely celebrated as a story for both adults and children alike, Swifts 1776 tale, one of the precursors to the modern novel as we know it today, has never been out of print since it's first publication. (The Guardian). It's popularity as an exciting travel tale makes it a book that many readers will encounter outside of institutional learning, in particular the section among the Lilliputians which is often printed without the other parts of the story. Though it is highly unlikely that Swift intended it to become an adventure story for younger readers, this is what it has, in part, become. Contextual knowledge of the events surrounding the story, will however, transform the text for a reader. It becomes no longer a romping adventure but instead, a highly organised satiric polemic aimed, among other things, at humankind in general and Robert Walpole's regime. It is also a parody of sorts of the travel story which was popular at the time of writing. It is however, the imaginative strength which is surplus to satiric requirements which keeps Gulliver's Travels so well loved. (Baines)

Of the above texts, only one requires contextual knowledge for understanding, the other is illuminated by prior understanding of the society it came from but this is not necessary to enjoy the tale. However, both texts are examples of the ways society produces discourse. Both are also, aside from being considered canonical texts, pieces of history; part of a larger story. Though that history may or may not have been exactly described, and, as said earlier, possibly cannot ever be; the texts and other texts, throughout our history of writing stories, are our history. In the same way that our histories are our stories. The relationship between narrative and history is so intertwined that even the addition of a joining word or article can vastly alter the perception or meaning for a reader. Both are stories. Reading both together can garner deeper understanding and for New Historicism, this kind of extrinsic analysis is important as a way to attempt to completely describe the cultural context. Though we may begin with a wish to 'speak with the dead' (Greenblatt) it is potentially impossible considering the unreliability of written history. We may however, come close enough to hear their stories, for 'vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others' Jonathan Swift.

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Understanding the Relationship Between Narrative and History. (2023, May 01). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/understanding-the-relationship-between-narrative-and-history/

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