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Hayden White and Narrative Theory

The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality, in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987: 1-25. In this essay, White draws a sharp contrast between medieval annals, chronicles, and histories. In his opinion, Annals are compilations of events that do not make any attempt to find patterns in the past or to represent the reality of the past. Chronicles are marked by a desire for a kind of order and fullness in an account of reality that remains theoretically unjustified, a desire that is . . . purely gratuitous. (17) Chroniclers aspire to write history, but they dont: they compile longer, more elaborate lists of events. Chronicles differ from annals in intent and literary form, but not in substance. They make no effort to fill in the gaps between events, to draw connections among events, or to find patterns in events. Histories offer a kind of order and fullness in an account of reality turning the past into a story. These stories or narratives have five important qualities: 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) They have plots They have social centers They moralize They are allegories They have aesthetics

Plots: To the give the past continuity, coherency, and meaning, histories turn the past into stories with well-defined plots. White believes that Western historians, like Western writers of fiction, use five basic plots (or combinations thereof). Historians write romances, tragedies, comedies, satires, or epics. Social Center: histories have social centers. They tell the stories of particular human communities from a particular point of view. Morality: "Narrativity . . . is intimately related to . . . the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine." (14)

Allegories: Histories, however accurate they might be, however faithful they are to the evidence and to the experiences of people in the past, are always allegories. They are stories not only about the past, but about the present. They are stories not only about the particular experiences of particular people at a particular time and place in the past, but about the human experience in all times and all places. Symbolic characters, actions, and settings connect stories about the past to the present, as do the mythic plots through which those stories unfold. Aesthetic: Every history has an aesthetic. It has a theory of what is beautiful or sublime in societies, characters, and actions. White in not neutral on the question of aesthetics. He laments "the disciplinization of historical sensibility" and "the progressive demotion of the sublime in favor of the beautiful as a solution to the problems of taste and imagination," which he believes has "had the effect of restricting speculation on any ideal social order to some variant in which freedom was apprehended less as an exercise of individual will than as a release of beautiful 'feelings.'" In short, historians turn the past into histories by writing stories that impose order, structure, and coherence onto the past.