September 16, 2017

Human Agency in Historical Fiction and Non-fiction Narratives

I've blogged about this amazing chapter by Hamish Dalley once before, but I was reading it again tonight and felt a strong desire to quote extensively from its introduction. If you enjoy this, you can read much more at or go find the book: Kate Mitchell, and Nicola Parsons, Reading Historical Fiction: The Revenant and Remembered Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). You're looking for chapter three: "Temporal Systems in Representations of the Past".

By the way, Dalley's a Lit professor who apparently thinks like a philosopher of history.

In other words, get ready for greatness.
A common response to the historical novel's blurring of the boundary between history and fiction is to search for something that distinguishes the two. A concept sometimes invoked is the idea of 'distance' - a spatial metaphor that names the conceptual separation between past and present assumed to be a precondition of historical understanding. Disciplinary history, the argument goes, depends on respecting the distance between the current-day researcher and his or her objects of inquiry. Fiction, by contrast, breaks that distance down, creating a seductive but disabling illusion of immersion in a past world. ...temporal distance affirms the superiority of professional history and dismisses the historical novel as entertaining, but epistemologically misguided. Yet the idea that history and fiction can be distinguished like this occludes the ways that temporality is constructed textually... This essay examines the construction of temporal distance in historical novels. I argue that historical novels generate complex temporal structures through an array of narrative strategies and that, far from offering an easy way to draw a boundary between history and fiction, temporal distance complicates the relation between the two.
...while the notion that historical novels always collapse distance might seem to be a reasonable assumption, close analysis reveals them to be segmented texts characterized by internally varied relations of distance... I propose that historical novels possess 'temporal systems' - multiple overlapping constructions of time organised into a more or less coherent order - that are a major part of the text's symbolic structure. ...we need to understand temporality as a kind of topography in which historical novels are structured by uneven relations of distance. ... by analysing the construction of distance in [two historical novels], I demonstrate that temporal systems cannot be categorized straightforwardly as 'historical' or 'fictional'. Recognising this complexity ensures that the diversity of the historical novel is not flattened by simple generic distinctions, while pointing to the significance of time as a narrative effect whose ideological implications are often obscured when it is treated as a fact of nature. 
Predicated on the idea that past and present are distinct temporal zones separated by a 'clean break' (Attwood 2008, 76), affirmations of the epistemological value of distance assume to be natural what is really a textual effect, produced by historians as they construct the past as a discrete object of inquiry (Phillips 2003, 437-8). 
...novels almost always derive their narrative focus from characters' decisions... action takes place in an imagined present, for which the future is undecided and can still be affected by characters' decisions... This presents a paradox for the historical novel in particular... how can the protagonist of an historical novel be depicted as possessing agency? How can the open-ended 'presentness' of novelistic time coexist with the objectified 'pastness' of the historical setting? 
History's need to objectify the past, therefore, clashes with the novel's reliance on temporal contingency, resulting in an apparent contradiction... this problem forces historical novels to produce hybrid temporal systems... The contradiction between distance and narrative contingency is resolved by relocating distance inside the text... an internal divide between.. 'public' events of social existence, and.. 'life sequences' of the characters... The relationship between these constituent parts is fundamental to how novels negotiate historical representation, individual agency and narrative uncertainty.

Clear as mud? Well, then read it again. Maybe read more slowly-er, also, too.

Now, in my last post about this chapter, I piggybacked on Dalley's thinking a bit to talk about Foregrounding and Backgrounding, specifically looking at this way in which fiction and non-fiction narratives are often similar, rather than different. Micro-histories, for example, may feature a protagonist whose efforts to change her own situation are likely to be more effective than her efforts to change the wider world around her. Also, most oral histories which cite historical circumstances would fit very well into one of Dalley's two categories for historical fiction. Alternatively, the more formal types of historiographical narratives routinely ascribe agency to major historical figures, at least frequently during the micro-narrative sized statements which pepper their non-narrative analyses.

Once again, I find myself thrilled by the narrative theorizing of a fiction lover, but I also find myself trying to apply that narrative theory towards a more robust non-fiction narratology.

As I've been saying for years... I will find a way or make one.


1 comment:

Ronald jeffery said...
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