The Stories We Tell: Some Thoughts on Narratives

Loads can and has been said about narratives, with books and academic journals devoted exclusively to the topic. I’ve been thinking about the utilitarian side of narratives. In Gaia Vince’s Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time, the power of stories is seen as the creator of languages and communities. This is familiar territory in anthropology and linguistics (I’m thinking Labov (1969), Prince (1988), Hardy (2005) and the writings of Margaret Mead and Mary Douglas). What I found more illuminating was this anecdote:

“In a 1944 study in the United States, 34 college students were shown a short animation in which two triangles and a circle moved across the screen and a rectangle remained stationary at the side. When asked what they saw, 33 of the 34 students anthropomorphized the shapes and created a narrative: The circle was ‘worried’, the ‘little triangle’ was an ‘innocent young thing’, the big triangle was ‘blinded by rage and frustration’. Only one student recorded that all he saw were geometric shapes on a screen.”

Vince explains this as the brain devising narratives with actors and story patterns where none exist in order to make sense of things. I do wonder to what extent this is cognitive and innate or behavioural and learned given that so much of our learning in early childhood involves anthropomorphizing animals and objects.

On the flipside of this, researchers across a range of disciplines have used storytelling to encourage subjects to talk about their experiences. One of my former students researched the attitudes of Saudi women in higher education by asking them to fill in a narrative for which my student researcher provided the frame. This proved far more fruitful than interviews, where these women gave brief answers and appeared reluctant to speak about their workplace and culture.

Arguably, some of the appeal of Twitter (excluding the years when it was hijacked by a US president) and other social media is the way that they provide a stage for people to tell the stories of their lives. Sociolinguist Ruth Page covers this in her book Stories in Social Media: Identity and Interaction. Having studied these online communications as a linguist myself, I find interesting the use of common knowledge and public discourse in these often highly elliptical narratives, especially those limited by the number of characters allowed. That is, what isn’t said is as important as what is. Since understanding and communicating with stories appears to be human, perhaps too is the need use ellipsis, creating gaps in stories that we know our audience can fill.

Given the ubiquity and usefulness of storytelling, it’s a shame the word ‘narrative’ has recently taken on a negative connotation as an arm of propaganda. This politician or that group creating its own narratives which the media – mainstream and social – start to follow and build upon. Do I need to give examples? Nope, I’ll let you fill in the gaps.

Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight

Having read The English Patient many years ago, I approached Ondaatje’s Warlight with an expectation of escapism, but not in the sense of escaping to mysterious places or futuristic backdrops. Quite the opposite. Warlight is set during the second world war and in the decade or so following it, periods of time much exploited by writers. Living in England, I’ve seen so many war films, series and documentaries on British television, it seems to be one of my remembered past lives. With this familiarity, I was gripped in the world of home front secret services and their accomplices drawn from some of the seedier elements of society.

This comfortable escapism also came about as it is set mostly in Suffolk, a county which shares part of its border with Cambridgeshire, where I live, and extends on to the North Sea coast. The villages and the coastline even today hold a feeling of remoteness embedded in the past. During the war, this coastal area was under constant fear of attack by the Germans, and while they were being secretly patrol by residents, the road signs had been removed in order to confuse any invading forces. I cannot imagine the sense of solidarity it must have brought to the local population, a shared purpose which the UK, even in the time of Covid-19 is lacking. While neighbours and friends are helping each other, the constant controversy over the easing and re-establishing of lockdown and the inconsistent messaging have stripped away any national unity. Perhaps Britain in the time of Warlight has filled a void for this reader.

The narrator in this story, Nathaniel, was 14-years old at the time his parents left him and his sister so that they could continue their work for the British government in Singapore. It is through his perspective that we experience these years and the emotions of being left in the care of their domestic servant and his group of criminal associates. Their activities appear to be in one line of work, but Nathaniel discovers later they were something else altogether, involving the defence of the home front. When his mother reappears, he is on the verge of becoming a young man and she is unwilling to reveal what she was doing for the government or the circumstances surrounding her now estranged husband. With some difficulty and amateur detective work, Nathaniel puts together some of the pieces of his mother’s life with what he has learned about the other characters.

Ondaatje gives his narrator the means to reflect on his ability to create these stories. He explains to the reader, ‘I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth. In retrospect the grains of sand had always been there.’

A great deal has been written in linguistics about how we create and present stories, both fictional and real. Reading this book, I was reminded of these constructs and the power of stories in our personal lives. They are not just about communicating ideas or entertaining a listener or reader. As Nathaniel explains, ‘We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken.’ For a casual summer read, this was escapism, but for this linguist, Warlight proved to be much more.