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When we want to get a look at what people were thinking about and how they acted one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, fiction can give us the insight we need. All we need to do is read a book from the era we're interested in.
When we want to know how people sounded and what kinds of words people used, again, fiction can give us the insight we are looking for.
Just look at Tolstoy's work. There we have a prime example of a writer whose work offers a glimpse into a culture that no longer exists, from Anna Karenina to War and Peace.
We don't have to go back that far, of course, and we can look at writers like Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and even Toni Morrison to gain access to a view of life as it was, and gain a perspective that gives us insight into the past.
That is history, isn't it - gaining access to the past?
It is certainly possible to learn something of history by reading fiction, but it is important to remember that the author of fiction is creating a fictional world that is serving as a context for the story being told. By reading A Tale of Two Cities you can glean something of the essentials of the French Revolution, but it is not a completely true historical account of the time period. By reading To Kill a Mockingbird you can peer into a small town's racism, but the historical reality is much darker than Lee's fictional novel.
We can see fiction as history by understanding the feasibility of the events taking place in a particular story, and by exploring the possibility of those events to happen again at some given point in time and history.
I adore detective and forensic novels because they offer possible outcomes to realistic situations and they also educate the public in terms of legal jargon and things of that nature. That is why people enjoy that kind of stuff, because it is plausible and realistic.
Quite clearly, fiction is a product of the context in which it was written. Thus it is that so many novels can be seen as reflections or commentaries on aspects of their context. I am thinking of one novel in particular, which is Vernon God Little which one the Man Booker Prize a few years ago. What is interesting about this book is the way that it maks comments on the current popularity of reality shows and takes them to a logical yet satirical conclusion as the protagonist is due to be executed in front of a live audience having been voted as the criminal most people want to see die. We can see elements of this criticism of the media in other more recent works such as The Hunger Games. In years to come, we will be looking at these novels as one source of information about such phenomena.
Both history and literature involve selectivity, and because if this, I agree with literaturenerd that the writing of history is fictional to some degree. What details does the writer choose to select? Even the selection process is a form of interpretation because each of us views the world through a different lens. If you look at the political books being written today, sometimes you would swear that liberal and conservative authors, writing about the same people and events, are writing about alternate realities.
Fiction does not pretend to present facts, but it acts as a window for us to view a glimpse of the past that is in some ways more honest because it does not purport to report facts. One of my favorite novels, Ragtime, draws its strength from its use of historical figures as a backdrop to a story that shows us more about the times than any history of the era could ever do.
Another advantage to learning history through novels is that the reader is going to learn more about times and people of an era through engagement with the characters, who have thoughts and feelings the reader can identify with. We all, I would guess, find the Russian Revolution far more fascinating in Dr. Zhivago than any of us would find it reading a history. I would rather begin to teach about the civil rights movement by assigning The Secret Life of Bees than to use any textbook. When I have taught social studies, I have frequently resorted to assigning literature, and my students have learned about history quite well, I would say.
I think that if one were to look at history, one could regard it as fiction. Consider this, history books from America and history books from Germany or Japan are very different. The writers and editors of these books take the information they find, interpret it, and write it down. So, yes...fiction most certainly pertains to history. Therefore, any book that depicts the story of the time period could be considered historical.
Fiction can also shape our view of history. If a book comes to be successful, we take it as a true representation of the way things were at the time that the book was written. A good example of this is Uncle Tom's Cabin. That book has come to be seen as the truth about what slavery was like and what Northern attitudes about slavery were. When this happens, our vision of history can be distorted because we equate one author's view with the ideas of the majority of his/her contemporaries.
Fiction is part of history, because it tells us a lot about the time period in which it was written. Realistic fiction provides a wealth of information about daily life, as well as people's attitudes and values. All fiction tells us a bit about the society, because it's a product of the society.
Fiction is written by people who were surrounded by the culture and happenings of the periods in which they lived. Their writings use contemporary references and reflect their opinions about those historical periods. The Scarlet Letter is an excellent example.
In the opening chapter, The Custom House, Hawthorne paints an extremely detailed picture of life as it was in the time of the narrator's telling of the story. It creates a "frame" within which he - the narrator is widely considered to be an autobiographical construct - tells the story of Hester Pryne and the attitudes of those superstitious and critical people who branded her as an adultress. Hawthorne draws on many historical realities of the period he's writing about (which was some 200 years earlier than that in which he lived) to give us an objective view of the early settlers of Massachusetts and their religious and cultural beliefs.
History is storytelling. A work of fiction can tell the story of a particular time in the past just as well as an "official" history. In fact, since history is "written by the victors," as the well-known phrase goes, we know that there are often fictional elements injected into what many would call history. It is only through continual research, best done with Primary Sources, that opinions can be overcome to determine what truly may have happened many years ago.
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