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“To Make a History From This Kind of Material is Not Easy”: The Narrative Construction of Cultural History in Contemporary Fiction

Miriam Wallraven


In a postmodern understanding of textuality, fact and fiction can no longer be regarded as opposites; in this context, Hayden White’s studies of fictional techniques in historical texts have initiated an interdisciplinary discussion about the significance of fictional narration as a meaningful cultural technique. The narrative reconstruction of the history of lost civilisations and earlier cultures also plays a central role in contemporary literature in English. The historiographical search for the reality of the lives of earlier oral cultures and the attempt to provide academic interpretations of such cultures in order to explain the past structure novels such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark, and Doris Lessing’s The Cleft. By analysing the different textual layers and narrative forms of these novels, the difficulties of a historiographical reconstruction of lost cultures in the medium of fiction are highlighted and the ambivalent truth claims of academic discourse become apparent. These novels illustrate how the integration and negotiation of historiography in fictional literature creates a tension-fraught discursive network of different competing voices that sheds light on the complex processes of cultural meaning-making.

Corresponding author: PD Dr. Miriam Wallraven, Englisches Seminar, Universität Tübingen, Wilhelmstr. 50, 72074 Tübingen, Germany, e-mail:

  1. 1

    Concerning this phenomenon, Stierle, among others, states that “Telling stories in innumerably different modes, genres, and pragmatic functions is common to all cultures and is used from the smallest circles of families to the totality of a society as an indispensable medium of constructing coherence” (Stierle 2006, 73).

  2. 2

    Compare Müller-Funk’s concept of “Erzählgemeinschaften” (Müller-Funk 2008, 14).

  3. 3

    Compare for example Ankersmit et al. (2009), Doran (2013), Korhonen (2006a), Paul (2011), Rüth (2005). Nünning for example argues that what White describes as emplotment is not the same as fictionality, and he provides a detailed analysis of the similarities but also of the differences of historiography and fiction. In this context, he modifies White’s thesis of history as a mere construct or invention. Instead of equating fictional literature and historiography, Nünning shows that it is particularly metafiction which is the prerogative of literary genres (Nünning 1999, 372) and this indeed constitutes a central characteristic of the novels discussed here.

  4. 4

    The most basic characteristic of utopian/dystopian writing, regardless of whether it is approached as a genre or as a mode of thought, is the criticism of an existing world and political system as well as the projection of an alternative political world-order. In this context, Northrop Frye states that “The utopian writer looks at his own society first and tries to see what, for his purposes, its significant elements are. The utopia itself shows what society would be like if those elements were fully developed” (Frye 1992, 205). Hence, compared to Sister Light, Sister Dark and The Cleft, The Handmaid’s Tale is the text which is closest to any known reality mainly by its dystopian characteristics, which, however, are complicated by the epilogue set in the future.

  5. 5

    Only in the “Historical Notes” is the time in which the dystopian main part is set hinted at: The keynote speaker at the academic conference is presented as “Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, Director Twentieth and Twenty-First century Archives, Cambridge University, England” (Atwood 1996, 311).

  6. 6

    White states that according to the traditional historical point of view, “The messages lying dormant in the ruins of the past do not have to be reconstructed but only decoded for reception by their present and future receivers. Historians are the passive receivers and forwarders of these messages, not co-composers thereof” (White 2013, 40–1). This view is foregrounded in the Epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale in order to be debunked.

  7. 7

    Like the fantastic, fantasy also focuses on supernatural, magical, and fairy tale elements and characters. However, these elements are not explained or questioned but are taken as given in contrast to the classical definition of the fantastic which pivots on the hesitation of both readers and characters concerning questions of reality (cf. Todorov 1975).

  8. 8

    On different textual levels, this text actualises what Bakhtin explains as multivocality which is a characteristic of the novel as such: “Thus heteroglossia either enters the novel in person (so to speak) and assumes material form within it in the images of speaking persons, or it determines, as a dialogising background, the special resonance of novelistic discourse” (Bakhtin 1991, 332).

  9. 9

    For the construction and architecture of natural and cultural networks see Böhme (2004). Also compare Broch et al. (2007, 8) who draw attention to the central role of the observer for the construction of such a network.

  10. 10

    This selection is repeatedly justified by personal emotions and considerateness towards the readers: “As I have said, the history I am relating is based on ancient documents, which are based on even earlier oral records. Some of the reported events are abrasive and may upset certain people. I tried out selected bits of the chronicle on my sister Marcella and she was shocked […] People wishing to avoid offence to their sensibilities may start the story on p. 29. The following is not the earliest bit of history we have, but it is informative and so I am putting it first” (Lessing 2007, 6–7).

  11. 11

    Compare the possible-worlds-theory in analytical philosophy according to which reality is regarded as a modal system consisting of a multitude of worlds: an actual world in which we live and possible, virtual worlds which revolve around our actual world as possible alternatives (cf. Surkamp 2002, 154). The possible worlds very much depend on the narrative situation, the narrator, and the authenticity evoked by certain narrative conventions (Surkamp 2002, 160). In Possible Worlds in Literary Theory, Ronen argues that “Literary worlds are possible not in the sense that they can be viewed as possible alternatives to the actual state of affairs, but in the sense that they actualize a world which is analogous with, derivative of, or contradictory to the world we live in” (Ronen 1994, 50).

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Published Online: 2014-6-5
Published in Print: 2014-6-1

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