The Significance of Narrative Strategies in Historiographic Metafiction in Julian Barne's "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters"

Seminar Paper, 2018

9 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


1. Historiographic Metafiction and Narration

2. Narrative Strategies in Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters
2.1. The Stowaway
2.2. The Survivor


Works Cited


In Postmodernism, historiography went through some considerable changes; not only because of new approaches to contemporary literary criticism, such as the New Historicism, but also because of new approaches to writing fiction about, or else on the basis on historical events (cf. Kotte 38). In the postmodernist era the status of reliability of historical knowledge, and thus, truth and subjectiveness, came under close scrutiny as did the fiction that was concerned with (re-)writing history, i.e. historiography (cf. ibid.). Furthermore, in Poetics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon states that “[the postmodern] reinstalls historical contexts as significant and even determining, but in so doing, it problematizes the entire notion of historical knowledge” (89). This specific mode of postmodernist historiography I will examine in this term paper is “Historiographic Metafiction” and its perception of truth. Hutcheon was the first scholar to label this specific mode of postmodernist writing: the concept is composed of the terms “historio- graphic”, i.e. the discourse of writing history; and of “metafiction”, i.e. fiction written about fiction. Central questions the writers and scholars of historiographic metafiction ask themselves are “how do we know the past? What do (what can) we know of it now?” (Hutcheon Poetics 115). Within this theoretical model, Hutcheon claims that “its theoretical self-awareness of his- tory and fiction as human constructs (historiographic metafiction) is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past” (ibid. 5). The most noticeable features of Historiographic Metafiction are its intertextuality, often used parody and most im- portantly its self-reflexivity and its self-consciousness (cf. ibid. 114; see also Kotte and Nün- ning). In other words, “historiographic metafiction is a self-conscious work of fiction concerned with the writing of history” (Nicol 99). Thereby the emphasis lies on portraying the past as a subjective construct and “present[ing] its readers with history as a concept” (ibid. 104) that we can only know “through its textualized remains” (Hutcheon Poetics 119). It thus raises the question of a universal truth and subjectivity of historical accounts. Additionally, historio- graphic metafiction is preoccupied with (re-) writing history from the point of view of its vic- tims, i.e. minorities and “ex-centrics”, whose voices have been disregarded in history to date (cf. Kotte 40).

In this term paper I will discuss how historiographic metafiction “reflects upon its own strategies of writing and constructing histories by drawing attention to the constructedness [and] subjectivity” (ibid. 39). For this purpose, I will firstly elaborate the relationship of historio- graphic metafiction and narration in order to examine to which intention the narrative strategies are used by taking the example of the postmodernist novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes.

1. Historiographic Metafiction and Narration

Many literary scholars argue that the centrality to convey this mode of subjectivity and con- structedness in historiographic discourse lies in the narrative techniques the authors use (see e.g. Nünning, White, etc.). Likewise, Hutcheon maintains that “narrative [is] the one concern that envelops all of these [subjectivity, intertextuality, constructedness], for the process of nar- rativization has come to be seen as a central form of human comprehension…” (Poetics 121). Kotte accordingly argues that the historical events depicted in historiographic metafiction do not have any meaning in themselves, but rather that historiographers must assign meaning to them by establishing patterns and connections in the narrative in order to create coherence (cf. 21). Furthermore, owing to the self-consciousness of their own narrative process aforemen- tioned, “the narrator is visibly in control of what is presented and usually comments upon, ex- plains and rationalizes contradictions or narrative disorder” (ibid. 55). In other words, “histori- ographic metafiction openly acknowledges the narrator’s presence and power of manipulation” (ibid. 41). In addition to that, the distinct selection of the point of views, i.e. the perspectives of the victims and marginalized, generate an exceedingly subjective view on history, for their per- spectives are highly limited by relying largely on internal focalization (cf. Nünning 362). Those narrative strategies serve to highlight the “decentered” (ibid.) view of history. What is more to the narrative techniques is the paradoxical double relationship historiographic metafiction es- tablishes with its readers: while on the one hand the fictionality of the story is made explicit and the reader is forced to acknowledge it as fictional, the reader is similarly compelled to question, interpret and even to engage in the co-creation of the story (cf. Hutcheon Narcissistic Narrative 7). And by drawing attention to its status as a fictional artefact, the narrative ulti- mately destabilises its own function as a historical representation (cf. Kotte 52). Consequently, Nicol adds that “history is not ‘the past’, but a narrative based on documents … created in the past” (99) and that historiographic metafiction “presents a moment in history both as a vivid, believable representation and as a discursive, narrativized construct” (103).

This chapter is intended to serve as a rough overview on the concept of historiographic metafiction and its relationship with narration, although this specific relationship will be further examined in the following chapter where I will discuss the novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes. Although every chapter of this novel is worth investigating, I will mainly focus on the chapters ‘The Stowaway’ and ‘The Survivor’, which I find most distinct for this narratological examination of historiographic metafiction.

2. Narrative Strategies in Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters

A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters was published in 1989. It is Julian Barnes fifth novel. As the title suggests, the reader encounters “a” history of the world, not “the” history. Concern- ing as much the form as the content, this novel is highly hybrid and non-linear. At first sight, there is no cohesive storyline nor a cohesive style: for instance, does the reader encounter a transcript from a medieval courtroom in chapter three “Wars of Religion”, while in chapter five “Shipwreck”, the reader is presented with an art-historical analysis of Gericault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819). Nevertheless, there are certain leitmotifs throughout the novel, such as shipwreck, voyages and woodworms.

2.1. The Stowaway

In the very first chapter of the novel the reader is presented with a most unlike revisionist ac- count of the Deluge. In “The Stowaway” the reader quickly detects that this account is going to be considerably different from the biblical version, i.e. the ‘official’ version of what has hap- pened on Noah’s Ark. Already on the second page the narrator tells the reader that he was not chosen to be on the Ark but was a stowaway; and only a few lines later he reassures, that there- fore, his account is valid: “When I recall the Voyage, I feel no sense of obligation; gratitude puts no smear of Vaseline on the lens. My account you can trust.” (Barnes 4). Throughout the chapter the reader can only speculate about the identity of the narrator and that he presumably is some kind of animal. Not until the very end of the chapter does the narrator disclose his identity as “woodworm” (ibid. 30). Fulfilling the criteria of narration in historiographic meta- fiction, the woodworm is considered an ex-centric creature (cf. Kotte 83); even marginalised as it tells the reader that it was specifically not chosen to be on the Ark because it is regarded as unclean (Barnes 11). What is more to Barnes choosing the narratorial perspective of a wood- worm is that woodworms generally symbolise decay and that the Ark is made entirely out of wood does not seem like an accidental coincidence. Kotte even argues that the woodworm has a subversive effect on the Ark, indeed, in a very literal sense, for it has been eating away at the wooden vessel during the Voyage (cf. 85).

Now, the woodworm’s first act of narration is to uncover a few ‘false’ facts from the bib- lical version of the Deluge: for example, it enlightens the reader that the Ark was not just one vessel but a whole flotilla of ships (cf. Barnes 4); Noah “was not a nice man … a puffed-up patriarch” (ibid. 12) and it did not rain for forty days because “that would have been no more than a routine English summer” but “for a about a year and a half, by [its] reckoning” (ibid. 4). Thus, the reader encounters a highly sarcastic first-person narrator, who seems very eager to appear trustworthy. It assures the reader of its reliability on several occasions, for instance: “I can vouch for that. I spoke personally to the carrier-hawk…” (ibid. 16) and by the fact that he himself “realize[s] that accounts differ” (ibid. 4). Hence, already at the beginning of the chapter the woodworm clarifies that it does not contend to tell the only true story, rather does it contend to “restore what has been either lost owing to lapses of memory or intentionally suppressed in the Scriptures” (Kotte 84) by humankind. It points out that the official account, written by hu- mans for humans, has not documented everything. Here, the woodworm sounds quite didactic towards humankind, even condescending:

you aren’t too good with the truth … your species. You keep forgetting things, or you pretend to: ignoring the bad things makes it easier for you to carry on. But ignoring the bad things makes you end up believing that bad things never happen. … Such naïvety can be charming; alas, it can also be perilous. (Barnes 29)

Hutcheon describes this “literary parody” (“Historiographic Metafiction” 6) as characteristic for historiographic metafiction: by depicting the biblical version critically and sarcastically, its authority thus gets weakened (cf. ibid.). Maintaining that didactic tone, the woodworm repeat- edly uses imperatives, when speaking towards the reader: “Picture that…” (Barnes 3); “Re- member: this was …” (ibid.); “Remember too that …” (ibid. 4) (cf. Kotte 85). This suggests that the woodworm feels “morally superior” (Finney 52) to humankind since the central insight it gained on the Voyage is that “man is a very unevolved species compared to the animals” (Barnes 28). Moreover, it asks questions directed towards the reader and lets the reader choose between two different versions of one story, and by that the reader gets to actively participate in the story: “So I am merely reporting, in a dispassionate way, the news the birds brought. There were two main stories, and I leave you to choose between them.” (ibid. 23). Interestingly, the woodworm itself has some lapses of memory as it consistently fails to remember the name of Noah’s son Japheth by continually referring to him as “the one whose name began with J” (ibid. 14) or simply “the other one” (ibid. 15).

Although the woodworm claims to recount “the facts” (ibid. 23), the reader now is made aware of the woodworm’s biased and limited perspective as well, thus realises him- or herself “that accounts differ” (ibid. 4) and that no historical account can assert full objectiveness and completeness (cf. Kotte 86).

2.2. The Survivor

Kotte argues that “[t]he questioning of objective truth and the resultant conflict between subjective truths is perhaps most forcefully staged in the fourth chapter” (87) of the novel titled “The Survivor”. It begins with Kath’s growing fear of an imminent nuclear war and thus the end of the world. However, her boyfriend Greg, “an ordinary bloke” (Barnes 87), does not believe her and simply blames PMT, “pre-menstrual tension” (ibid. 88). Kath, on the other hand is convinced, that she, as a woman, can “feel these things” (ibid. 89):

… maybe women are more in touch with the world … everything’s connected, isn’t it, and women are more closely connected to all the cycles of nature and birth and rebirth on the planet than men, who are only impregnators after all … then maybe if terrible things are going on up in the north, things which threaten the whole existence of the planet, then maybe women get to feel these things, … and perhaps that’s what sets off PMT. (ibid.)

Kath is certain, that the ‘male’ ways of dealing with the past, i.e. relying on “[n]ames, dates, achievements” (ibid. 99) are out-dated. Kotte adds that dates are “totalizing forces in the writing of history” (88): “Dates are bullies, dates are know-alls” (Barnes 99). As Kath’s fear becomes more and more unbearable, she feels that her only chance of surviving is to escape. Conse- quently, she takes a boat and flees, taking with her very little provisions and one female and one male cat. During her ‘voyage’, Kath starts to suffer from “bad dreams” (ibid. 94), in which an alternate narrative enfolds: men asking her questions about Greg, insisting that no nuclear war happened, and that Kath has been “exteriorizing things, transferring [her] confusion and anxiety on to the world” (ibid. 109). Although the reader only gets implied indications on who these ‘men’ are, it can very well be suggested that they are psychiatrists as they make the diag- nosis that she suffers from “fabulation”, i.e. a psychotic disorder where “[y]ou make up a story to cover the facts you don’t know or can’t accept. You keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them” (ibid.) (cf. Kotte 90). As these dreams begin to occur more frequently and the dialogues between Kath and these ‘men’ get longer and more substantial, the reader begins to doubt whether Kath really is a ‘survivor’ escaping the impending nuclear war, or if her ‘dreams’ are actual insights into ‘reality’: that she really suffers from a delusional, psychotic disorder as the psychiatrists maintain (cf. Salyer 225).


Excerpt out of 9 pages


The Significance of Narrative Strategies in Historiographic Metafiction in Julian Barne's "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
History in Contemporary Novels
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ISBN (Book)
significance, narrative, strategies, historiographic, metafiction, julian, barne, history, world, chapters
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Annika Klement (Author), 2018, The Significance of Narrative Strategies in Historiographic Metafiction in Julian Barne's "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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