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Reading a Narrative

 

 

I. Historical Narratives

            Not all historical writing is in the form of arguments.  Many historical works are in the form of narratives, or stories.   Historical narratives are like historical arguments in that are based on evidence and reflect the author's understanding or interpretation of the event.  But rather than express that interpretation in an argument, a historical narrative presents it in the form of a story.  But unlike other forms of narrative, such as a novel, historical narratives are about events that actually happened.  However, like novels, they have plots and subplots, characters and settings. 

II. Interpreting a Historical Narrative

            Like a historical argument, a historical narrative presents the author's understanding or interpretation of the events under discussion.  Unlike an argumentative essay, a narrative does not have a thesis statement.  The author does not always explicitly state the interpretation.  Often it is very difficult to give a one sentence summary of an interpretation of an event presented in the form of a narrative.  The trick, then, is to uncover the author's interpretation even though the author does not necessarily explicitly state it.

            One way of getting at the interpretation is to think about the narrative as one would think about a novel and interpret it in a similar way.  To understand a novel, one wants to know who the main characters are and what they are like.  In fact, the author's interpretation might simply be a character sketch.  One also wants to know about the setting.  Sometimes, the setting is very important to a story; other times the setting is not so important.  The author's interpretation might be the way the characters or the plot of the story are related to the setting.  One also needs to know the plot.  The author's interpretation might be found in the plot.  The author might present the story in a way that makes a particular event or series of events more important than others, 

III. Evaluating a Historical Narrative as a Work of History.

On one level, a historical narrative should be judged as one would judge other types of historical writing:

1.      Does the author support the story with reference to specific historical sources?

2.      Are the sources credible?

IV. Evaluating a Historical Narrative as a Narrative

On another level, a historical narrative should be judged as one would judge other forms of narrative:

1.      Does the author present credible characters?  That is, does the author present believable characters, explaining their personalities and the changes those personalities might undergo?

2.      Does the author indicate the setting for the story?  Does the author situate the characters in this setting?  Do the events of the narrative make sense in this setting?

3.      Does the plot of the narrative make sense?  Are there significant gaps in the story?  If so, are they accounted for?

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