The Pursuit of Meaning in Julian Barnes's 'A History of the World in 10 1-2 Chapters'

Seminararbeit, 2012

14 Seiten, Note: 1,0



To the new generation of postmodern writers, particularly from the western hemisphere, the idea of „meaning‟ and „essential truth‟ is a relict from the past, an old-fashioned and embarrassing concept that has no validity in a heterogeneous world. In postmodern times, the notion of „meaning‟ has become questionable, even contestable. There reigns a deep-rooted distrust of any „big idea‟ which presumes to account for an overall representation of life disregarding its heterogeneity. Postmodern writers therefore deny the existence of any absolute concept, whether in terms of truth or in relation to the possibility of objectivity. According to them, the human mind is not entirely free, but “constructed out of, as constructed with, language” (Waugh 1984: 24) and therefore restricted to specific contexts. Every narrative framework is context-dependent and only partially representative, if not indebted to ethical, ideological or political influences. Hence, the metaphysical systems of the “grand narratives” (Wakefield 1990: 22) of the pre-postmodernist era can no longer be accepted as final authorities for the sovereignty of interpretation.

In my term paper, however, I a m going to demonstrate that the idea of meaning and its pursuit is not dead in Julian Barnes‟s fifth novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (HW). Although it is often - and in my view unjustly- referred to as a perfect example of postmodern fiction, the novel rather plays with postmodern philosophies and frequently questions them without ever constructing certainties. This is especially true in relation to Barnes concept of history, the main theme of the novel. In fact, it is a rather depressing concept since history is portrayed as an arbitrary collection of stories which “are put together in the same ways that novelists use to put together figments of their imaginations to display an ordered world, a cosmos, where only disorder or chaos might appear” (White 1978: 125). In this manner, the author subtly unsettles our common imaginations of history and historiography and demonstrates that, in the end, everything is largely fictional.

Confronted, however, with the postmodern scepticism of knowledge and values, Barnes does not deny the human longing for patterns of order and stable contexts of reference (such as art and religion). This undeniably schizophrenic or at least inconsistent attitude of the notions of meaning and its consequences will be further analyzed throughout my term paper. First of all, I am going to have a closer look on Barnes‟s relationship towards the postmodern crisis of meaning and, with regard to that, his concept of history epitomized in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (henceforth referred to as A History). Subsequently, I will then examine its implications on the pursuit of meaning and its metamorphoses - the search for religion, art and love - and investigate how they are used as means against the cruelty of history.


In the following part of my paper I will examine important notions of postmodern fiction and the work of Julian Barnes. As one of those British writers who are eager to challenge the limits of literary genres and conventions, Barnes is often considered “a thoroughgoing postmodernist” (Moseley 1997: 15). But what exactly is “postmodernism” and how does it influence contemporary writers like Julian Barnes?

Even though the term „postmodern‟ has become part of everyday speech most of the people (ab)using it can not say what it really means (cf. Sim 2005: vii). The lack of a clear definition ironically proves the fact that in terms of postmodernism solid meanings and fixed patterns of reference have been dispersed. Postmodern writers seem to possess a distinctive sense of chaos perceiving that “virtually everything and everyone exists in […] a radical state of distortion and aberration” (Lewis 2005: 111). Denying universal cultural values and all kinds of artistic, social, political or aesthetical certainties, they adhere to a deep-rooted disbelief in the existence of an ultimate truth. With this comes a great scepticism towards „the‟ reality and its representation through art, especially in terms of the so called “grand narrative” (Wakefield 1990: 22), a literary concept that served to legitimize grand humanistic projects within broader epistemological contexts and meta-discourses (ibid.). Functioning as filters for what was handed down through the centuries, grand narratives or metanarratives defined historic realities and dominated the intellectual history of the modern era dating from the Enlightenment. By rejecting this modernist tradition, the postmodernists give evidence to the belief that there is no absolute truth in need of legitimization and “that what we accept as reality is already simulated, a massive fabrication of effects that stand in for reality‟s absence” (ibid.: 33). While most modernists aim at the transgression of disorder and chaos striving for “all of which was thought of as leading to a truly emancipated society” (ibid.: 23), postmodernists mainly adhere to the notion of meaninglessness. The crisis of representation and legitimization consequently presents itself as a crisis of meaning.

Naturally, these philosophical principles find expression in structures and textures of postmodern writings. Many of these works reach beyond older literary conventions by “stressing discontinuity, allegory, the mechanical, the gap between signifier and signified, the lapse in meaning, the syncope in the experience of the subject” (ibid.: 30). As poststructuralist texts they share a certain degree of (self-) reflexivity pointing out to their own “facetiousness as textual constructs” (Stam 1985: 3) and parodic intertextuality. According to that, postmodern writings are characterized by textual strategies and structures which reflect their own artifice in terms of temporal disorder, contextualization, discontinuity, fragmentation, looseness and the alienation of authorship. Thereby, the idea of coherent patterns of meanings and stable references - such as religion or art - are revealed to be illusionary. “Thus, „not truth, but whose truth‟, becomes the central credo of postmodernist fiction” (Sesto 2001: 8).

Against the backdrop of these thoughts, it seems not far-fetched to place the works of Julian Barnes within a postmodern context - for diverse reasons. First of all, his publications lie in the time span between 1960 and 1990 which can “be regarded as postmodernist” (Lewis 2005: 112). Secondly, Barnes seems to stick to poststructuralist notions of experimentation in terms of formal exceptionality and ingenuity. His novel A History, published in 1989, for example, celebrates fragmentation and disorder and totally ignores old literary conventions of plot, set, action and character. “There is no main character, no unitary voice, no tight progression in the narrative, no single or even double plot” (Moseley 1997: 113). Some critics, especially those of the “‟but-does-he-write-proper-novels‟ school of criticism” (ibid.: 110) argue that A History is not even a novel but rather “a random series of apparently unrelated episodes” (Buxton 2000: 56) or “a gathering of prose pieces, some fiction, others rather like essays” (Oates 1989: 12). Barnes himself, however, frequently embraces the idea of the novel as “a very broad and generous enclosing form” (Barnes quoted in Moseley 1997: 10) pleading for “greater inclusivity rather than any exclusivity” (ibid.: 10). Thus, he claims his right to break or alienate conventions in order to reinvent new ways of literary representation and perception. The third reason why Barnes‟s novels are often seen as being thoroughly postmodernist is his adherence to epistemological ideas of the postmodern tradition. This becomes particularly evident in his treatment of truth and historiographic credibility:

Instead of the traditional chronological ordering favoured by historians, this book proceeds by juxtapositions, by parallels and contrasts, by connections that depend on irony or accident. Additionally Barnes uses a bewildering variety of narrative voices for the book's different episodes. It is as if Barnes was straining to differentiate his "historical" work from that of historians who aspire to a stance of objectivity. [Finney 1999]

In this context it is inevitable to mention Linda Hutcheon‟s general definition of postmodern novels as historiographic metafiction, a term implying that “the certainty of direct reference of the historical novel or even the nonfictional novel is gone” (Hutcheon 1989: 4). According to Hutcheon, historiographic metafiction “offers a sense of the presence of the past, but this is a past that can only be known from its texts, its traces - be they literary or historical” (ibid.). Thus, traditional concepts of historiography including the possibility of objectivity are deconstructed. Calling into question the reliability of historical knowledge and its textual representation, the term historiographic metafiction seems to perfectly match the structural and philosophical groundings of Julian Barnes‟s writings revealing them as works of „pure‟ postmodernism. But this observation does not take account of the ambiguity and complexity of Barnes‟s handling of the issue of truth. In fact, he does not simply take over common postmodern principles but rather plays with them on his own terms. In A History he never stops asking questions and searching for answers revealing the relativity of each and every theory or paradigm. Bearing this in mind I will examine in the following chapters how far Barnes‟s concept of history and his main answers to its depressing notions - religion, art and finally love - reveal a subtle but persistent pursuit of meaning.


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The Pursuit of Meaning in Julian Barnes's 'A History of the World in 10 1-2 Chapters'
Universität Passau
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historiography, Julian Barnes, postmodern, postmodernism, poststructuralism
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Tessa Tumbrägel (Autor:in), 2012, The Pursuit of Meaning in Julian Barnes's 'A History of the World in 10 1-2 Chapters', München, GRIN Verlag,


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