An interpretation of Julian Barnes novel "England, England"

Term Paper, 2004

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The (De-)Construction of Englishness and the Invention of National History in Julian Barnes’ England, England

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Numerous contemporary British novels display an almost obsessive concern with the notion of Englishness. Hence, they focus on the myths, traditions and attitudes that are regarded as typically English. This is a subject which is also of central interest to recent literary criticism and cultural history at large. Among the many novels that deal with a literary exploration of England’s past, its cultural memory, and its national identity are such well-known works as John Fowles’ Daniel Martin (1977), Jonathan Raban’s travelogue Coasting (1986), Andrew Sinclair’s “Albion triptych”, including his novels Gog (1967), Magog (1972) and King Ludd (1988), Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton (1992), Peter Ackroyd’s English Music (1992) and Antonia S. Byatt’s and Graham Swift’s novels. These works can be regarded as a kind of echo-chamber of England’s cultural history, for they display “deliberate Englishness”.[1]

With its interest in Englishness, the nature of historical truth, and the blurring of boundaries between the authentic and the imitation, Julian Barnes’ novel England , England (1998), which was short-listed for the Booker prize in 1998, shares important concerns with many contemporary British novels. Like a host of other novels published after the 1960s, England , England focuses on the question of how much we can ever know about the past. Hence, this novel shows all the features characteristic of postmodernist historiographic metafiction. That is to say, like other historiographic metafictions, England , England is “both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay[s] claim to historical events and personages”.[2] What is more, Barnes’ novel also reflects the feature which has been the major focus of attention in most of the critical work on postmodernism, i.e. a self-conscious assessment of the status and function of narrative in literature, history, and theory: “its theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs (historio graphic meta fiction) is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past”.[3]

In addition, by using history as both a reference to the ‘real’ past world and as a discursive construct, England, England“differs substantially from the use of history in the traditional historical novel where history, as a group of facts which exists extra-textually and which can be represented as it ‘really was,’ is never in question”.[4] However, it would be seriously misleading at best, missing the points of Barnes’ novel completely, to categorize it as merely another example of historiographic metafiction. England, England rather questions and revises conventional notions of Englishness, and it also expresses revisionist ideas of historical authenticity. Thus, the novel also provides ample support for the view put forward by the critic Nicole Fugmann that “postmodern genres expand rather than just problematize our historical understanding”.[5]

One might be justified in saying that Barnes’ novel explores, constructs, parodies, and deconstructs the ‘invented traditions’ known as ‘Englishness’. The novel incorporates a great number of different traces of the English cultural past, including many myths and legends, juxtaposes competing versions of and discourses about Englishness. Additionally, it also explores the complexity of any account of a nation’s organically grown cultural memory and identity. Therefore, Barnes’ novel does not only express a wide range of versions of Englishness, but also offers self-conscious reflections upon both the invention of cultural traditions and the questionable notion of historical authenticity.

Hence, in the following analysis, it will be examined how England , England thematizes and explores the invention of cultural traditions, by constructing and deconstructing ‘Englishness’. Thus, it will be primarily focussed on Barnes’ fictional exploration of those invented traditions known as ‘Englishness’ and shown how the content and the form of this novel self-consciously examine and deconstruct the notion of authenticity.

2. The (De-) Construction of Englishness and the Invention of National History in Julian Barnes’ England , England (1998)

In order to analyze how England , England deals with the invention of cultural traditions, it will be first focussed on the depiction of Englishness, its construction and eventual deconstruction. Hence, it is necessary to take a close look at the structure of the novel.

The structure of the novel draws the reader’s attention to the state of England, whose fictionalized development is represented in three different stages. The female protagonist Martha Cochrane’s earliest childhood memories consist of her repeatedly assembling her favourite jigsaw-puzzle ‘Countries of England’. In this section, two central themes are already introduced, namely the analogy between the memory of an individual and that of a country, and patriotism. Thus, Martha herself realizes that her problems in trying to recover a true memory of her childhood are similar to those of “a country remembering its history”.[6]

The second theme the novel deals with is the glorification of national history. The patriotic view of history satirized in England , England is exemplified by the peculiar way history is taught at Martha’s school: the teacher, who manages to present history in a manner which inspires more reverence and awe than religion, tells the children “tales of chivalry and glory, plague and famine, tyranny and democracy” (p. 12) that grip their imagination. Therefore, one can say that Martha’s childhood corresponds to the ‘infant’ state of rural England at the beginning of the novel.

However, a completely different stage of Englishness is presented in Part II. Having taken an opinion poll to find out which things potential visitors primarily associate with England, Sir Jack Pitman and his steering committee, including Dr. Max, a famous historian hired for the project, set about exploiting the only thing England has still thought to be valuable: “You – we – England – my client – is – are – a nation of great age, great history, great accumulated wisdom” (p. 41). Hence, the Pitman company rebuilds all that England was renowned for, celebrating English culture of yesteryear on the Isle of Wight, which is renamed ‘England, England’. Thus, ‘England, England’ becomes a replica of Old England. Being a miniature version of England tailored to tourists’ tastes, the island prospers economically, while Old England (i.e. the ‘real’ British Isles) gradually decays, slowly reversing the process of industrialization.


[1] Malcom Bradbury, The Modern British Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994) 361.

[2] Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988) 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alison Lee, Realism and Power: Postmodern British Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1990) 35.

[5] Nicole Fugmann, “Situating Postmodern Aesthetics: Salman Rushdie’s Spatial Historiography“, REAL. Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 13: Literature and Philosophy, ed. Herbert Grabes (Tübingen: Narr, 1997) 333-343, 334.

[6] Julian Barnes, England , England (New York: Knopf, 1999) 6; see also 85. In the following, it will be quoted from this edition.

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An interpretation of Julian Barnes novel "England, England"
University of Hamburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Die englische Literatur der neunziger Jahre
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Julian, Barnes, England, Literatur, Jahre
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Sirinya Pakditawan (Author), 2004, An interpretation of Julian Barnes novel "England, England", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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