Schindler's List Essays and Criticism
by Thomas Keneally

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The Narrative Strategies Keneally Uses in his Novel

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When Schindler's List (under the title Schindler's Ark) won the Booker Prize in 1982, more than one critic objected to the fact that this work of nonfiction could win a major literary prize that had traditionally been awarded to the year's best book of fiction. Other critics complained that not only was the work not fiction, it was not good literature, mainly because of its documentary style. Schindler's List is an unusual novel, to be sure, because it moves back and forth between telling a story and reporting the facts of history—and people's very personal accounts of that history. It perhaps does not read like a literary novel because, in some sense, things are told too plainly. There are dozens of characters in the novel, but with the exception of Schindler and a few of his close associates, those characters are not "developed"; their complexities do not unfold in such a way that the reader begins to know them from their actions. Rather, the author explicitly tells their stories, narrates the events of their lives, reports what they are like, notes their characteristics, and offers a few key details about what they went through during the war and afterward. Also, because it is a true story, there is a certain lack of tension in the plot; from the beginning, the author makes clear exactly what will happen—that Schindler will rescue over a thousand Jews from the death camps through his own brand of ingenuity and charm. There are, then, few surprises in the sense that one usually expects from a novel; even in the thick of the main action of the story, Keneally offers information about who survives the war, how a particular character ultimately meets his or her end, and so on. However, while the narrative style of Schindler's List is different from traditional novels, it is far more than mere reportage and has characteristics not merely of a "good read" but of good literature. This is because of the techniques Keneally uses to suggest questions, present ambiguities, and offer layers of meaning even as he tells a straightforward, true story. Keneally uses devices found in more traditional works of fiction that make his documentary novel rise to the level of "literature," but at the same time his particular narrative technique has its own strengths for recounting the type of story he tells in Schindler's List.

In his author's note, Keneally says explicitly that his book is not fiction, because fiction would "debase the record" of the Holocaust. The stories he tells of the victims, survivors, and oppressors in Schindler's List are all based on eyewitness accounts, historical documents, and visits to the sites described in the novel. Thus, it can be assumed that Keneally does not embellish stories or infuse characters with his own authorial imagination, making them "stand for" or represent certain ideas he is trying to communicate to his reader. What Keneally does do is offer certain ideas and images throughout the novel that make the reader think about the significance of events or characters in a deeper way than might be suggested from only a strict reporting of the facts. Keneally offers surprisingly little in the way of commentary about the events that take place during the Holocaust but he invites readers in other ways to think deeply about the meaning of what occurs.

One of the techniques Keneally uses is to repeat certain ideas and images over and over again. The most obvious one, of course, is that of the list. Nowhere does the author point out explicitly that the German war machine seems to run according to systematic directives and official lists, reducing its Jewish victims to subhuman status by cataloguing them—and their belongings—in order to dominate them. But as he describes repeatedly the German obsession with lists of various kinds, Keneally suggests that it is this type of impersonal, petty bureaucracy that enables the German military, from NCOs to SS authorities, to visit their terror upon the Jews, all the while...

(The entire section is 7,586 words.)