Does our Life have a Meaning if History doesn't? An Examination of Parenthesis in Julian Barnes Novel "A History of the World in 10,5 Chapters"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1999

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1.2. FOCUS


3.1. VOICE





A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes is neither easy to understand nor to classify. Both problems, comprehensibility and classification, emerge from the same root: The book’s complex structure. The 10 1/2 chapters seem to be autonomous episodes rather than parts of the same novel. Therefore, some critics have argued that it was rather ‘a gathering of prose pieces, some fiction, others rather like essays’ (Oates, 1) and no homogeneous piece of prose. On the other hand, they have also discovered elements which do connect the chapters. Therefore, one could conclude that if A History [...] does not fit into established patterns of the genre novel, it must be a post-modern novel, as the linking elements make it more than just a collection ‘of prose pieces’.

The other main problem, comprehensibility, is tightly connected with the issues structure and categorisation. Given that the reader has discovered the connecting elements and found that they add common meaning to the single chapters, he or she might still have open questions left. Does such a complicated structure imply a certain meaning that is beyond the content of the single stories and their common motifs?

Many post-modern books do not provide explanations, but A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters does.

1.2. FOCUS

The ‘half chapter’, called ‘Parenthesis’ (Barnes, 223-246), is the key to the novel. It contains clear, undoubtful statements about three major issues: history, love and truth. Although it does not explain the novel, it philosophies about its main topics and thus implies the significance of the book’s literary patterns.

I have chosen to examine the ‘Parenthesis’ because it contains essential thoughts which make the book more accessible and are, above all, interesting in their own right. Consequently, I will consider the contents of the chapters as well as their linking elements only in regard to the ‘Parenthesis’. This also holds true for literary aspects such as genre-transgression and the established concept of ‘historical novel’, which will be part of the argument, but are not the object of this paper. Nevertheless, it is indispensable to introduce the whole novel, that is every chapter, in order to get an impression of the diversity as well as of common underlying issues, which are then reflected in the ‘Parenthesis’.



Each of the ten chapters which are announced in the title contains a new story and introduces new protagonists. There are tales, myths and actual events, Biblical characters, stories which relate to real events, but deal with fictitious personae, sober reports of historical events and emotional diary entries. The reader is confronted with different literary genres, points of view, geographical and historical settings. In some stories, one can not figure out at all if they are fictitious or documentary. The most applied stylistic device is the allusion. There are allusions to texts, historical and contemporary events and characters. Elements of well-known stories and tales are synthesised to new narratives.

1.) ‘The Stowaway’ tells the story of the deluge and Noah’s Ark from a new perspective. This version is different from the one we know. Noah, a decent person in the Bible, is presented as a violent-tempered man who neither treats his sons nor the animals properly. In fact, one gets to know him as a drunkard here. Only at the very end of the chapter, it is revealed who has been speaking: a woodworm living in the Ark.
2.) ‘The Visitors’ deals with the hijacking of a cruise ship by Arab terrorists. It is told from a third person’s point of view. There are parallels to actual events: the hijacking of the Achile Lauro in the 1980s.
3.) ‘The Wars of Religion’ focuses on woodworms again, this time in the shape of a protocol of legal proceedings: woodworms are on trial in a French town in 1520 - for eating parts of the church. It is not clear if it is an original archive-document or a piece of fiction. No matter if the story is fictitious or not, there is historical evidence for prosecution and excommunication of animals in the Middle Ages.
4.) ‘The Survivor’ deals with a supposedly disturbed young woman who flees in a boat from a nuclear catastrophe. The story relates to a fairly contemporary event: the Chernobyl-accident in 1986. Perspective shifts from her point of view to that of a doctor, from first to third person point of view. Some parts seem to be diary-entries.
5.) The first part of ‘Shipwreck’ deals with the Senegal-expedition of the ‘Medusa’ and its shipwreck in 1816.

The second part of the chapter is a ‘metafictional analysis of Theodore Géricaults painting ‘The Raft of the Medusa’’ (see Nünning (1995), 361).

6.) ‘The Mountain’ is about a Victorian woman, Miss Fergusson, who wants to find Noah’s Ark at Mount Ararat in Turkey and dies on her expedition.

7.) ‘Three Simple Stories’ all are about people who are on a voyage.
a) One of the survivors of the ‘Titanic’ is supposed to having survived by wearing women’s clothes.
b) The second story is related to the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. In 1891, a sailor fell off his boat, was swallowed by a whale and survived in its belly.
c) The third story deals with the passengers of the St. Louis who went across the Atlantic Ocean in 1939. German Jews had been set free by the Nazis and sent to America. As no country wanted to take them in, the ship had to return to Germany, and the Jews were exposed to their fate in Nazi-governed Middle Europe.

8.) ‘Upstream’ is composed of an actor’s letters and telegrams to his girlfriend in London. He is producing a film in the South American jungle and experiences the death of his friend in which Indian natives are involved. His experiences and thoughts in the jungle are conveyed in his letters. The story which is filmed is similar to the story of the movie ‘The Mission’ (starring Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro, both popular contemporary actors). A Jesuit missionary of the 18th century died in a raft-accident. Again, there are allusions two both fictitious and real persons as well as to other media.

The ‘Parenthesis’, which is intended to be the central focus of this paper, is embedded between chapter eight and nine. It has the form of an essay and contains digressions on history, love and truth.

9.) ‘Project Ararat’ deals with an American astronaut who hears God’s voice and is driven to find the remnants of Noah’s Ark. He also goes on an expedition to Turkey - and discovers a skeleton; at first, he is enthusiastic about having found Noah, but the laboratory finds out that the bones are approximately only 150 years old. The implication is clear: he has found Miss Fergusson, the woman of chapter six who had died in the mountains.

10.) ‘The Dream’ is an I-narrator’s fantasy on life after death, told in the past tense, from a first person narrator. Heaven is a place where every material wish is fulfilled. The sins which one might have committed in one’s life do not play a role anymore.

The variety of narrating voices and non-linearity are no exception among contemporary novels. Nünning hints to some more elements which he has found typical for today’s British historical fiction, which are: ‘der Wechsel von Fiktionsebenen, die anachronistische, montagehafte und oft zirkuläre Struktur, die Selbstthematisierung literarischer Konventionen, [...] der hohe Grad an intertextuellen Bezügen’ (Nünning, 127).

Claudia Kotte describes the first impression many readers might have when reading A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. The arrangement of stories do not reveal a storyline or common plot at the first sight:

Barnes’ History as a whole appears random and chaotic since the sequence of chapters and stories resist any chronological order, let alone a plausible sequence of cause and effect. [...]. Apart from this constant moving back and forth in time, neither time nor place are continuous, for we are introduced to events in the Mediterranean, France, Australia, England, Germany, South America and the United States in consecutive chapters.

Most conspicuously, A History of the World lacks causality and logical links, for none of the events can be explained in terms of a preceding chapter nor does it in any way account for subsequent stories. Events do not evolve or develop in time, but are simply accumulated and juxtaposed. The simple logic of cause-and-effect, before-and-after appears to be out of order. Given that the various episodes seem to have been selected and ordered at random, one might well wonder how these dispersed, fragmented pieces of narrative can add up to an integrated whole, A History of the World. (Kotte, 108-9).

But Kotte as well as Joyce Carol Oates also discover structural patterns which add a connecting sense to the episodes. While Oates discovers a few ‘leitmotifs through a variety of metamorphoses’ (Oates, 1), Kotte examines the book’s underlying structure even more closely and reveals an enormous amount of linking elements, common motifs and connecting ideas:

First of all, certain plots are linked, for example, the Victorian Miss Fergusson (of chapter six), who has visited a Géricault canvas of the wreck of the Medusa (discussed in chapter five), sets out in search of Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat (introduced in chapter one) - an expedition which is echoed in ”Project Ararat” (chapter nine) in which an American astronaut goes on a similar pilgrimage only to find the bones of Amanda Fergusson. Seemingly discrete events are thus connected by strange loops. [...]

Last, but not least, all ten chapters are linked thematically to the first, the tale of Noah’s ark and the deluge, in various, sometimes obscure ways.

(Kotte, 110-11).

Kotte thus makes clear that the arrangements of the stories does make sense, and that there is a plan behind. The stories are not supposed to be linked chronologically, but thematically.

They are supposed to have a symbolic connection by presenting a few major issues in different shapes. All characters are on a voyage or quest, they all need an ark, but it does not save them. Furthermore, there is the leitmotif of the separation of the clean from the unclean which took place before Noah’s voyage (1), with the passengers of the boats on which the Jews were the first ones to be executed (2), with the woodworms which were excommunicated from the church (3), the animals which could not be eaten anymore because they were irradiated (4), the Jews who were sentenced to death by the Germans (7c), and so on.

Yet there are not only serious, heavy issues, but also a lot of running gags and jokes woven through the chapters, for instance the woodworms which return unexpectedly when they eat themselves not only through the ark (1), but also through the bishop’s chair (3) mad through the frame of 'The Raft of the Medusa' (5).


Many unconventional views are implied by the book’s structure: on what one usually considers ‘history’ (meaning: ‘what really happened’) and historiography. This issue is one of the main points of the ‘Parenthesis’.

The title is an ironic allusion to encyclopaedias which claim to tell the whole story of the world in one or more volumes. Barnes regards this as impossible and parodies the venture. He does not try to tell the history, but a history of the world and advocates the idea that there is not one version, but many versions, that the focus of historiography depends on who records history and on whose perspective is adopted.

Contemporary critics of historiography have argued that writers of history have too often adopted only a single perspective (mostly the victors’). This approach limited the exactness and truth value of their writings (see Kotte, 109). Barnes agrees: ‘History isn’t what happened. History is just what historians tell us’ (Barnes, 242).

The novel parodies universal histories and schoolbooks which offer one version of the facts that pupils have to ‘swallow’. The reader is driven to wonder what he or she had expected from a book with such a title. Although one might not have hoped for a lesson in history, one might nevertheless have expected a kind of funny, ironical survey. Oates must have taken the title as such, but then concludes that it is not ‘the breezy pop-history of the world its title suggests’ (Oates, 1). The book offers many examples of how subjective established records can be.


Excerpt out of 23 pages


Does our Life have a Meaning if History doesn't? An Examination of Parenthesis in Julian Barnes Novel "A History of the World in 10,5 Chapters"
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
Contemporary British Fiction: Footnotes to History
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
524 KB
postmodern historical novel, historiography, historical hierarchy, power, history, love, Julian Barnes
Quote paper
Cornelia Neumann (Author), 1999, Does our Life have a Meaning if History doesn't? An Examination of Parenthesis in Julian Barnes Novel "A History of the World in 10,5 Chapters", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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