Dead Certainties

by Simon Schama

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How does Schama structure the "Death of a Harvard Man" novella in Dead Certainties, and how does this tie together the book's events?

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In writing Dead Certainties, Schama argues that nothing can be entirely certain in world history. Embedded within the book is a historical fiction murder mystery novella that serves to support Schama’s argument.

Schama deliberately structures his novella with a fractured timeline, jumping forwards and backwards in time as he explores each individual character’s role in determining the ultimate outcome of a historically accurate murder trial. Schama begins the story with the end of the trial, laying out historical facts that led to its conclusion. He then flashes back in time in order to explore the three men who shaped the trial, utilizing unique points of view for each individual. Schama stays true to known events, but allows the reader a fictional glimpse into the minds of the main suspect as well as the janitor who discovers the victim’s body. Schama is not changing history, but merely offering interpretations about how characters could have inwardly processed these events. In order to honor historical consistencies, Schama employs a distant third-person point of view as he describes the murder victim’s known whereabouts and actions leading up to his demise. This narrative choice highlights Schama’s understanding that he cannot assume the thoughts of a man who did not live long enough to tell his side of the story. This allows the reader to understand the power of silence the dead leave behind as we explore their history. Perhaps the most stunning result of Schama’s unorthodox structure is that when the reader is finally brought back to the conclusion of the trial, the factual truths presented at the start of the story begin to spring leaks and plant seeds of uncertainty and doubt in the reader’s mind. By scrambling the historical timeline, Schama somehow clarifies events to such an extent that cracks in the presumed facts begin to show.

Schama’s ability to highlight the inherent uncertainty in facts once believed to be set in historical stone helps justify his claim that all history is uncertain after it undergoes deeper analysis and investigation.

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