Struggling With the Postmodern Crisis of History in Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot (1984)

Bachelor Thesis, 2011

30 Pages, Grade: 1,0




2.1) Postmodern Theories of History - (De)Constructing Representation, Knowledge and Truth
2.2) Postmodern Concepts of History under Criticism: Postmodernists vs. Traditionalist Historians

3.1) Postmodern Theories of History in Flaubert ’ s Parrot(1984)
3.1.1) “ How do we seize the past? ” - The Indeterminacy of (Historical) Knowledge
3.1.2) “ What happened to the truth is not recorded ” - Unattainable Truth(s) and Multiple Perspectives
3.1.3) “ The right words don ’ t exist ” - The Inadequacy of (Linguistic) Represen- tation
3.2) Flaubert ’ s Parrot - Beyond the Postmodern Crisis of History?
3.2.1) Pre-Postmodern Notions of History and Narrative
3.2.2) Braithwaite ’ s Post-Postmodern Pursuit(s) of History




Flaubert ’ s Parrot (henceforth referred to as FP), Julian Barnes’s most acclaimed novel worldwide, poses and playfully elaborates on questions about traditional(ist) understandings of history and conventional concepts of truth, which are also frequently asked by postmodern theorists and philosophers. How can we know the past? Can we ever do so on objective grounds? Are we not bound to (socio-culturally determined) modes of representation that prevent us from thinking or writing about anything but representation? Does the past even exist outside of our systems of signification or is it merely the product of these systems? Is it possible to really understand history in any way? And if it was, would it not always be subjective, partial, even relative, and constantly shifting? In postmodern thought these kinds of questions are raised in the context of an increasing scepticism towards realist or modernist ontology and epistemology as coined by the Enlightenment, among them the “denial of the Cartesian autonomous […] subject, of the transparency of language, of the accessibility of the real, [and] of the possibility of universal foundation” (Bertens & Natoli 2002: xii). While proclaiming “a pervasive loss of faith in the progressivist and speculative discourses of modernity” (Waugh 1992: 3) philosophers and writers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, François Lyotard and later Hayden White and Keith Jenkins testify to the assumption that “history [as well as any concept that aims at ‘totalizing’ human existence] now appears to be just one more foundationless, positioned expression in a world of foundationless, positioned expressions” (Jenkins 1997: 6), stressing that there is an inescapable relativity in every representation (or rather re- interpretation) of historical entities (cf. White 1997: 392).

However, in this paper I will hope to show that, despite it being “a very hard [and indeterminate] act to follow” (Barth 1980: 66), history is not dead in Barnes’s novel and neither is the pursuit of (its) meaning. In fact, both remain subjects of a longing for truth and authenticity that is repeatedly re-invented, played with, undermined and reinstalled, rather than deconstructed, in the course of FP ’s narrative. As Barnes puts it himself, “[i]t’s no good just lying back and saying ‘Well, we’ll never work it out’ and it’s no good saying ‘Of course, we understand history, all we have to do is apply the following theories or the following scientific principles or Marxist ideology, whatever’” (Barnes quoted in Guignery 2009: 56). Words come as easily to Barnes as they did to Flaubert but to the former the words (and therefore the books) are not enough. FP ’s narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, truly admires Flaubert and genuinely desires to engage with his pre-postmodernist notions of an ‘objective’ style and his belief in the possibility of pure words and stories which are able to provide a stable framework for both history and ‘his-story’. Living in a postmodern age, however, Braithwaite frequently and self- consciously undercuts his own desires and presuppositions embracing postmodern literary tropes (such as parody and double-coding) and philosophical concepts. Even though he is well aware that objective truth (and with that objective historical research) is fanciful rather than factual, he still desires it and it is precisely this seemingly irreconcilable opposition that inspires and drives his narrative. Braithwaite is devoted to recovering Flaubert as a person and obsessed with ‘revitalizing’ his written oeuvre with as much accuracy to ‘the facts’ as possible. Yet, throughout the whole novel he remains an unreliable narrator who’s “agenda [...] is a paradoxical one in [its] simultaneous presentation and subversion of Realist conventions” (Lee 1990: 70). On one hand, he embraces a variety of historical facts and figures, but on the other, he repeatedly points to their indeterminacy and apparent incredibility.

But does this lead him to abandon any belief in our ability to attain some sort of truth or knowledge about the past? The answer is a cautious ‘no’. In fact, it appears that he never stops searching and longing for post-postmodern meaning(s) (in history) and answers to questions such as: “Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? […] What makes us randy for relics?” (FP: 3) Disagreeing with certain deconstructionist readings of FP I will argue that it is this (personal) pursuit of and struggle with history and truth that lies at the heart of the novel and represents a source of or refuge for meaning. Braithwaite is never unaware of the artifice involved and the probability of failure. Yet, his quest for the past is actually shown to be of value in itself since it keeps him moving, keeps him alive and helps him to make sense of his own life.

I intend to divide my paper into two sections, each of them further divided into several sub-parts. In section one I will at first provide a short compendium of postmodern philosophical-theoretical assumptions on history and historiography and their relation to the (de)construction of representation, truth and knowledge and thereafter show how these assumptions are critically acclaimed by traditional(ist) historians. With this theoretical background at hand, in section two I will proceed to the actual analysis of FP with regard to its appropriation of or divergence from postmodern thoughts and (literary) presuppositions. In so doing I will hope to show that, although inspired by postmodern theories, Barnes does not dwell in eternal indeterminacy or ‘historic nihilism’ but attempts to actively engage with history and the difficulties involved in the process of its pursuit.


As a matter of fact, postmodernism has caused “a massive shake-up in the subject of History” (Brown 2005: 3) and the activity of the historian, that is (professional) historiography, by asking questions not only about the craft of traditional(ist) historical research that seeks to reconstruct the past in an objective manner but also about the very nature of knowledge and the attainability of objective truth. In the following section of this paper I will aim at depicting this shake-up’s reasons and backgrounds and later substantiate (and perhaps complicate) the matter in relating it to contemporary criticism as performed by traditional(ist) historians who argue against (radical) postmodern ‘deconstructions’ of their profession.

2.1) Postmodern Theories of History - (De)Constructing Representation, Knowledge and Truth

Historians are by definition preoccupied with the (linguistic) representation of past times through the analysis of past relics and evidences. This alone offers a wide surface of attack for postmodern theories claiming “that language constitutes rather than represents reality; […] that meaning is a social construct; that knowledge only counts as such within a given discursive formation and is therefore if not merely an effect of power than in any case bound up with it; that knowledge therefore is inevitably institutional; that in the absence of representation representation must necessarily be political and so forth and so on.” [Bertens 1997: 1]

So again, what is at stake with postmodernism is a severe scepticism of the attainability of truth (as a ‘metaphysical totality’) and with that “the idea and ideal of ‘objectivity’” which lies at the very centre of “professional historical venture” (Novick quoted in Jenkins 1997: 11). In this context, one cannot avoid referring to the French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault who, in a lecture given at the University of California at Berkeley in 1983, confronted his audience with the following questions:

Who is able to tell the truth? What are the moral, the ethical, and the spiritual conditions which entitle someone to present himself as, and to be considered as, a truth-teller?” About what topics is it important to tell the truth? (About the world? About nature? About the city? About behavior? About man? ) What are the consequences of telling the truth? […]And finally: what is the relation between the activity of truth-telling and the exercise of power, or should these activities be completely independent and kept separate? [Discourse and Truth: 6]

What Foucault does here is to problematize not truth itself but the process of its installation by and through our conceptualization of it. To him, truth and knowledge are ‘home-made’ since conceptualized in relation to the historical, social and political circumstances that prevail in the moment of their articulation. Whenever someone claims to be a truth-teller, he or she does so while being part of fixed socio-cultural and political entities which ‘institutionalize’ his or her ways of perceiving and attaining knowledge, “for we always act and use language in the context of politico-discursive conditions” (Hutcheon 1991: 105).

Consequently, postmodern theories of knowledge do not only deal with how we “order, configurate, assemble and display knowledge (in verbal written or image form)” (Brown 2005: 9). They also call attention to how we subjectively experience knowledge and in how far our perceptions are governed by those societal entities (people and institutions) with power, which exclude and include, forbid and allow what is to be known and what is not. Applied to the concept of history, this means that there can never be only one history or one truth. On the contrary, there must be a huge variety of histories of ‘the other’, of the outcasts, of those marginalized by the prevailing societal power structures since historians, too, are subjective interpreters rather than objectifying researchers. With this in mind, Foucault demands that historians should not pursue an absolute (scientific) truth shining through the evidence of primary sources but rather aim at analysing how and why these sources come into being in the first place. They “should examine the linguistic basis (i.e. narrative statements) that constitute s history, rather than correspond to, or unproblematically represent, the real world of things, that is, to abandon the search for original meaning” (Munslow 1997: 131).

In making a case against all kinds of totalizing concepts of knowledge and meaning Foucault argues in line with other postmodern thinkers such as Jean-François Lyotard who, in the context of his thesis of the “postmodern condition” (Lyotard in Jenkins 1997: 36) of knowledge, defines “postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarrative” (ibid.) - metanarrative understood “in terms of the production and transmission of meaning, that is [in terms of] a conceptual instrument of representation” (Readings 1991: 48). To Lyotard, metanarratives are “a form of ideology which function violently to suppress and control the individual subject by imposing a false sense of ‘totality’ and ‘universality’ [of meaning] on a set of disparate things, actions and events” (Nicol 2009: 11), among them of course history. In other words, metanarratives aspire to unite the disparate and subjective discourses of a culture into totalizing concepts which claim to account for absolutes of (past) human life and experience. In the tradition of the Enlightenment narrative, “in which the hero of knowledge works toward a good ethico- political end - universal peace” (Lyotard in Jenkins 1997: 36), metanarratives thereby aim at legitimating (social) knowledge and the governing institutions behind it, while creating objectifying prerequisites for a societal consensus which foreshadows “the end of freedom and of thought” (Bertens 1995: 127). According to Lyotard, postmodernism rejects these metanarratives and claims “that the stakes have changed once we recognize that politics, art, history and knowledge don’t fit together anymore within the patterns of […] rational discourse established by the Enlightenment” (Readings 1991: 48/49). Like Foucault, he calls for a greater awareness of the instability and relativity of all kinds of representation and demands to engage with ‘the other’ excluded by metanarratives, namely the ‘little narratives’ which do not intend to unlock absolute (cultural) meanings but rather work to install a dissensus, one allowing “us to experience freedom and to think, that is, to extent our possibilities” (Bertens 1995: 127).

However, history ‘as we know it’ and as it is taught at schools and universities rather works into the direction of consensus and can easily be presented as an if not the prime example of western metanarrative since it still incorporates the “dream of a ‘total history’” born from the “mastery of a documentary repertoire [aimed at] furnishing the reader with a vicarious sense of […] control in a world out of joint” (LaCapra 1985: 25). Yet, even traditional(ist) historians such as Arthur Marwick (1995) have to admit that “history can no more form one unified body of knowledge than can the natural sciences” (12) or any science at all. History theory has actually undergone a number of changes and transformations since the time of the Enlightenment and if one investigates in the archives, numerous attempts can be found which entertain the thought that “no enterprise as laborious and long-drawn-out as historical research can be pursued without deeply held convictions as to its purpose and significance” (Tosh 2000: 1) and that “our response to a particular work of history will inevitably be influenced by its writer’s stance” (ibid.). Postmodernism here asks: But if historiography is such a subjective and self-reflective craft, is it not practically fiction? And if so, “if one treated the historian’s text as what it manifestly was, namely a rhetorical composition” (White 1995: 240), would this not mean “that historians effectively constructed the subject of their discourse in and by writing?” (ibid.)

This postmodern problematization of the fictive character of history writing and of language as a tool of representation has to be put in the context of the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ at the beginning of the 20th century which, on the basis of Saussurian linguistics, came to be one of the most influential paradigm shifts in the history of science (cf. Schäfer 2009: 29). Saussure, whose oeuvre can be seen as the origin of structuralist linguistics, basically argues that language is a closed system independent of outer substances, which is based upon a functional sign-structure. This structure is composed of signifiers (words, visual images, etc.) and signifieds (the ‘things’ or concepts called to mind by the signifier) that are arbitrarily put together and, therefore, make sense only in the context of their linguistic ‘code-system’. So when someone talks about a certain ‘real world’- referent, say a book, he or she can only be understood by means of the linguistic code determining the relation between the word ‘book’ (the signifier) and the (culturally generated) concept (the signified) it evokes in us - even without the actual referent at hand (cf. Nicol 2009: 7). In any discourse - be it ideological, literary or artistic -any word’s meaning, then, does not derive from the word itself but from its structural context since it “only exists within its meaning system as a product of the interaction of semantic elements” (Russel 1993: 295/296). Consequently, meaning becomes the “Ergebnis von Differenzen innerhalb eines Spiels [der Wörter], das sich nach Außen abgrenzt […], um in sich ein geschlossenes System von Sinn bilden zu können“ (Schäfer 2009: 31).

Post-structuralists go even further in complicating the matter by criticizing and re - inscribing Saussure’s theories. Within his assumption of the sign’s separation into concept and sound image, for example, they claim to have detected a kind of metaphysical ‘logocentrism’ (cf. Newton 1988: 147) that, according to Jacques Derrida, is typical of the Western thinking tradition which promulgates “that meaning is conceived as existing independently of the language in which it is communicated and is thus not subject to the [free]play of language” (ibid.). Following Derrida’s criticism of Saussure, this distinction implies (within the existence of the signified) the existence of an original or transcendental concept that stands for itself and, therefore, operates outside of discourse. Derrida is highly sceptical of the possibility of such a “point of presence, [such] a fixed origin” (Derrida 1988: 149) because it supports the metaphysical presupposition of “a truth shining through from behind the signs” (Voss and Schütze 1989: 137) and the possibility of an “extralingual, intelligible logos” (ibid.) which, in post-structuralist thinking, simply does not exist. Derrida states that there are no certainties, no fixed meanings; there are only discourses and/or ‘texts’ which are all “implicated in an endless intertextuality” (Waugh 1992: 6), drawing from “innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes 1977:146). Every signified is built upon and constructed through a signifier and there is “not a signified that escapes, even if recaptured, the play of signifying references that constitute language" (Derrida 1976: 7). Judging from this, the freeplay of signs and ‘texts’ is potentially limitless: “The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.” (Derrida 1988: 151) Thus, the possibility of transcendental meanings and the desire to “pass beyond man and humanism” (ibid.: 153) are shown to be based on false presuppositions about the nature of representation which, in post-structuralist terms, becomes multi-dimensional and discursive, “a network of agonistic language games where the criterion for success is performance not truth” (Waugh 1992: 6).

Of course, all these considerations did not simply pass 20th century history science without being exposed to criticism from professional historians themselves. As a matter of fact, many of the latter were soon beset by “pomophobia” (Southgate 2003: 3), the fear of postmodern ideas leading to “cynism and even despair, rather than wisdom or spiritual growth” (John Clarke quoted in ibid.: 4), and the suspicion that “the uncertainties, ambiguities and doubts that postmodernism reveals and provokes” (ibid.) might result in stasis and scientific regression. However, this does not mean that there are no examples of a ‘sophisticated’ discussion of the clash between postmodern theories and (the writing of) history, which actually took the shape of a proper ‘battle of words’ in the pages of some contemporary history journals. Two of these examples - Arthur Marwick (1995) vs. Hayden White (1995) and Perez Zagorin (1999) vs. Keith Jenkins (2000) - will be presented in the following.


Excerpt out of 30 pages


Struggling With the Postmodern Crisis of History in Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot (1984)
University of Passau
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
713 KB
Julian Barnes, postmodernism, postmodern, poststructuralist, poststructuralism, historiography, history, Flaubert, past, representation, knowledge, truth, language theories, theory of history, inadequacy
Quote paper
Tessa Tumbrägel (Author), 2011, Struggling With the Postmodern Crisis of History in Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot (1984), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Struggling With the Postmodern Crisis of History in Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot (1984)

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free