Observations / Other Media / Questions / Thoughts

History As Narrative

“History itself is made comprehensible to us through the use of a widely  recognizable narrative genre, the Bildungsroman, in which history unfolds as a kind of coming-of-age story that has a people or a nation as its central character.”

In this idea dwells the beauty and value of history. Like the very nature of history suggests, one cannot fully analyze a nation until the nation ceases to exist, although even at this point in time comprehensive study is impossible. How can one identify the moment at which a character, for example, comes of age until that moment has passed? Until one can fully discover the effects and repercussions of that moment, which ripple far into time and the narratives (i.e. histories) of other characters (i.e. nations)?

When I hear “coming-of-age,” particularly in relation to literature, I think of Scout and To Kill A Mockingbird.  Sure, Scout’s story has passed and countless American students can study her tale of innocence, morality, and equality, but we cannot yet, nor may we ever be able to, fully identify the “history” of Scout’s tale. Perhaps we understand this history from the “victor’s” perspective, but no individual or collection can ever fully gather all perspectives of an event. Therefore, the interpretation of Scout’s tale, pluralistic as it may be, is like an infinite limit in calculus. No matter how incredibly, incrementally close the line draws to the axis, that line will never actually touch or cross the axis. Like all topics (or so it seems) that we have discussed in class, full understanding, full meaning is impossible.

“Historical meaning, like literary meaning, is actively produced rather than dispassionately uncovered or rendered visible…Our only way to make sense of the past, to learn from the past, is through an engagement with multiple, often conflicting, historical narratives.”

Perhaps this idea sheds some light on why we often do not learn from our mistakes, our past, or at least not fully. If only certain or dominant narratives construct our History, the required multiple and conflicting perspectives that prevent repeated failures are disregarded and forgotten.

As the authors go on to explain, an “event itself doesn’t tell us what it means or how it functions in an ongoing narrative of history. Events in history, like words in a narrative, don’t contain meaning.”

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One thought on “History As Narrative

  1. Hi Becca, Thanks for your good reflections on History, which were both interesting and valid. History always comes afterwards, and it always ascribes, or imposes, meaning on a sequence of events. More often than not that sequence is related as a coming-of-age story, which I think can relate Scout to a nation state. Rather than uncovering meaning, History creates meaning. Good thoughts to consider. dw

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